Imagine having Corbin Bernsen as your dad. Worse, Corbin Bernsen as a cop as your dad. This is the traumatizing set-up for a kid named Shawn in Psych, USA’s new Monk-ish series (that is, designed to appeal to that show’s viewers, and maybe skew a little younger too). Shawn is introduced in the first episode in “August 1986,” seated at a Santa Barbara diner where his father, Henry, schools him. The boy has to remember every detail dad asks to hear — the waitress’s name, what customers are eating or wearing. When the boy answers correctly, dad has the waitress bring him cake. Thus trained in the way things work, Shawn (James Roday) appears all grown up in the next scene (despite his vow to “never grow up”). Twenty years later, that is, now, Shawn enjoys a different sort of reward: sex with a waitress, in a manner that reveals right off that he’s a cocky, self-absorbed boy. Mid-deed, he’s distracted by a man on the tv news. To Shawn, he looks guilty of the crime he’s supposed to be describing, so guilty that he calls the police to report his conclusion. He’s right, of course, and so the cops call Shawn down to the station, deducing that he must be somehow involved with the crime, not just a better reader of nervous tics and agitated behaviors than they are.

So begins Shawn’s uneasy relationship with the PD… and the rest of us. He’s not so delightful as he thinks, but Psych admits this upfront, with a kind of sarcasm passing for charm. Even as the cops doubt Shawn, the camera offers repeated close-ups of every detail Shawn sees, typically with added light, in slow motion, accompanied by a little ding on the soundtrack. The technique makes his conclusions obvious to you (he’s like the Deanna Troi of cop shows) and makes the cops look especially dim, because they miss the clues. When detectives begin to interrogate him regarding his seemingly intimate knowledge of the theft, he reverts to form, wowing them — as he tried to impress his father — with a few select interpretations of activities he’s seen them perform while he was in the waiting room. When this only makes them more suspicious, he comes up with an explanation rather than be arrested for being a criminal mastermind: he tells them he’s a psychic.

Detective Lassiter (Tim Omundson, in the Ted Levine role)) remains unconvinced, but the uniforms — especially one who visits fortune tellers — think Shawn’s for real. On some kind of whim, Chief Karen Vick (Kirsten Nelson) asks him to consult on an apparently baffling kidnapping case: “What I need,” she says, “is a miracle, or a facsimile of one.” Though she warns Shawn he’ll be prosecuted if he’s lying, he plunges ahead, agreeing to visit the victim’s home and family. In order that the series might include yet another generic cliché, he brings along a buddy, his best friend Gus (Dulé Hill), who’s bored with his office job and intrigued at the chance to do what they’ve wanted to do since they were eight years old: solve crimes.

The case follows the usual lighthearted-cop-show shenanigans, accented by bouncy guitar-riffy pop on the soundtrack. Shawn reads the clues, occasionally incorrectly but usually correctly, and he’s fast enough on his feet that he can turn around a wrong reading to make it seem like it’s only a step along the way to the right one. All the while, you see how he’s piecing together his explanation, so that scenes repeatedly resemble the last one in The Usual Suspects, laying out a trail of the visual particulars so Shawn’s version of events is plausible even as it tells to Gus, “You just have to pay attention” — this as he’s going through the trash outside the kidnap victim’s home. Unfortunately, in the pilot episode, Hill was mostly left to shake his head and say, “This is unbelievable!” partly fearing they’ll be busted and partly actually impressed by his friend’s fast mind.)

Shawn is nothing if not self-aware. “The only way they can absolutely prove I am not a psychic,” he explains, “is if I tell them. And that is one thing I will never do.” He’s scamming, yes, but it’s “fun” (a word he uses a lot, to convince Gus to keep on with the ruse and convince himself that his performance is harmless). He simultaneously acts out and articulates what’s annoying about the cliché embodies, at least as it’s represented on tv. Sarcastic but affable, he appears to get what you get, that his situation is silly.

This makes him unlike Melinda (Jennifer Love Hewitt on Ghost Whisperer) and Allison Dubois (Patricia Arquette on Medium), who are visited weekly by troubled ghosts, then suffer earnest anguish while trying to “put right” whatever awful wrong has been done. Shawn is not so bothered. He’s solving crimes. He’s impressing the cops and beautiful girls (“How do you luck into these women all the time?” asks an exasperated Gus, at which point Shawn insists that he’s a “professional, gathering information”). He’s even got his dad going along with his charade, happy to have his son the subject of favorable newspaper stories.

This absence of anguish, for Shawn anyway, makes Psych seem close to cunning. Regularly greeted with contempt at crime scenes (“They brought in a psychic?”), Shawn stays focused on what’s important: he knows he’s smarter than everyone (not to mention a better shot, demonstrated at the shooting range, in order to impress the one detective whose opinion seems to matter to Shawn, Juliet [Maggie Lawson]). And because he’s slightly offbeat, not conventionally handsome, not morally upright, he seems to stand in for other underdogs. When a skeptical cop sniffs, “You’re in over your head, mystic,” the show frames Shawn’s decision to show him up as less childish (though it is that), than a blow for the little guy.

“The best way to convince people you’re not lying to them is to tell them you are,” Shawn observes. Psych takes this notion to heart, preemptively exposing its own formulaic mechanisms. It seems an ideal show for its moment, as viewers who can only imagine what it’s like to have Corbin Bernsen for a father can disdain its predictability and identify with its cynicism about that predictability at the same time.

PsychPsychic Surprise Faces

RATING 5 / 10