Before it seems like I’m tearing it apart too much in any way, I’ve always applauded Psych for attempting to push the boundaries of a what a standard dramedy procedural can do and not just when a ratings bump is necessary. Both James Roday and the creative team behind the show are so passionate about old movies, television, and entertainment that it would be wrong for any episode inspired by something else to not be hotly anticipated by even the most casual fans. However, even with all of the trust I place in all involved behind the scenes, last night’s jam-packed musical episode/parody fell short of the execution that I know Psych can pull off when it really sets its mind to something.
Smartly, the team behind this episode didn’t try to make the songs perfect or saddle the actors who may have less than accomplished singing ability with arrangements out of their range, and in the case of Corbin Bernson and Kristen Nelson didn’t have them sing at all (making it a wink-wink joke with regards to the former). Maggie Lawson probably should have been added to that list, but the chances one of the leads would have been blocked from singing at all is slim to none, and I give her props for tap dancing in heels for even the briefest of moments. Almost every song was a blatant ripoff of some preexisting Broadway or movie musical piece, and the ones that weren’t still had undertones of established musicals like Phantom of the Opera or Sweeney Todd. In the second half of the musical, it seemed almost as if the creative team lost confidence in their planned music and scrapped two or three songs in favor of standard exposition and police chases.
The most glaring issue I had with the episode, or rather, musical as a whole, was the complete lack of connection established with the audience. I understand what they were trying to do with the styling of the episode, making it feel as if it were actually a stand alone musical instead of having any sort of tie to the rest of the show, down to the act break and reprise of opening number entering Act 2. But by going in that direction, it took almost a quarter of the show before I had any emotional connection to either the victim, killer, or any motivation the SBPD had besides doing their duty as police officers. Mention is made of Juliet not knowing about Shawn’s secret, so does that mean the episode is completely outside of canon or just that the events presented happened in the past and are being told now. The tag makes me want to believe the second option but I can’t imagine why that choice was made when they simply could have tossed the line about Shawn’s secret and carried on as if this episode had any bearing on all the others.
It would be unfair to compare this episode to one of the best musical episodes ever done on television, but so many of the mistakes made here could have been avoided if only they had paid attention to Scrubs’ “My Musical” and made a few tweaks here and there. The best thing “My Musical” did was to give the characters a reason to break out in song besides “the show needs them to”. Obviously Psych isn’t likely to write everything off as a medical ailment, because that would make no sense in this case, but only having them sing when they were inside the theater or in the presence of the central playwright would have been a start. Including songs just for the heck of it was a bad move that would have derailed the entire endeavor if not for the skill on display and the show’s usual comedic exploits.
Even the comedy wasn’t completely on point, unfortunately. Because Shawn is already a cartoon version of a person on some levels, attempting to translate that comedy into a theatrical scale was too much to handle. With most of the other characters this transition worked because they could adapt without taking it too far, simply making their characters slightly more over the top was enough to sell the songs and dancing. With Woody the coroner, the character was already such a crazy caricature that he couldn’t have possibly cranked it up any higher so it worked. This is probably the reason so much of the comedy was lost on me. Not to say I didn’t get what jokes should have landed, just that I barely laughed when they dropped. Much of the humor was lost in the shuffle of the cast trying too hard to sell something that was fine to stand on its own from the start. I’m not sure whether it was because it was the first song of the episode and I hadn’t fully come around to what the show was aiming for or if it really didn’t work, but I think the opening performance of “Under Santa Barbara Skies” was the chief offender in this area. Nothing I was supposed to laugh at even caused a chuckle, when I know for a fact some of those lines would have elicited laughs if they were featured in a normal episode.
This isn’t to say the episode didn’t do some things well, and even very well. Multiple songs were catchy, even if I wouldn’t consider them outright ear worms. Out of the main cast, Timothy Omundson and his baritone perfection did the best (not to mention how unexpectedly funny his dance with James Roday outside the insane asylum was), followed by Dule Hill. I’m grading Hill on a scale, as I know he can sing much better than the show allowed, when instead they scrapped any chances to sing well he might have had in the service of a long-running joke about Gus’ aspirations to be in the show. In an already frustrating episode, this probably took the cake. Why waste an established singing talent like Hill on a joke that isn’t that funny when you should be using a two hour block filled with musical theater catering to his talent? And no, the tag doesn’t make me any less annoyed. It was great to see him show off his talents in the post-episode Psych-Out but at that point it was too little too late. I would have much rather watched him show off his pipes than play the straight man with iffy vocal chords that didn’t make me laugh. I did enjoy the inside jokes they sprinkled throughout the episode, such as Shawn dropping a “we shall go…Into the Woods!” as the next step into the investigation. Or, even better, Gus agreeing that cabaret style performances weren’t his cup of tea (Dule Hill is currently starring in After Midnight on Broadway, which while not an out-and-out cabaret performance shares many sensibilities with the format). That’s the kind of humor I would have preferred, in this case instead of attempting to adapt the show’s normal jokes into a musical theater format the writers should have been attempting to write campy musical theater jokes with the show’s sensibility leaking through every now and then.
The guest stars were also a bright spot, although few were used as effectively as they could have. Although I’m a fan of Anthony Rapp and was happy to see him featured in what amounted to a meaty role here, he wasn’t given the chance to really show off what he can do in any of the numbers he was given. Again, why not? Rapp is (or was) one of the premiere Broadway performers of the last 20 years and instead of catering to his skill you decide to saddle him with middling song choices? Not the way to make musical fans any more interested in continuing to watch, Psych. Wasted opportunities abounded throughout the running, and none more so than NOT LETTING BARRY BOSTWICK SING. Granted, I’m not aware of any health issues currently ailing Barry (and couldn’t find any references after a quick Google) but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any and the lack of singing could have been his prerogative. Which would be fine, his mere presence was very welcome. But dear God, show, if this was a team decision there are people in charge of production who should really get their heads examined. What. A. Waste. Thank God for Ally Sheedy, whose presence actually made me shout ALLY SHEEDY BACK when she first appeared. I had been avoiding spoilers about the episode so managed to completely miss her serial killer character Yang’s promised return. Even that little bit of call back helped in the long run, and making her such a fan of musicals allowed the episode to parody clichés like her being dead/not dead/dead again and being received(-ish) at the gates of heaven by a musically inclined fallen friend.
Even with all of the issues throughout, I never truly felt that my time was being wasted by watching the episode. Heaven knows lesser shows have done worse things with out of season specials, and by the end more fell on the positive side of the scale than negative. Plus, I would much rather have more shows attempt pop culture send-ups like Psych does, even if they end up falling short, than not push the limits at all. I liked it enough to think this attempt was worth it and the good news is that if you didn’t enjoy it regular episodes of Psych return January 8th and you can forget this ever happened when they premiere.