character study

How James Roday Rodriguez Became Psych’s Real Fake Detective

Photo-Illustration: Vulture and USA

The character: Shawn Spencer, a psychic detective-for-hire stuck in arrested development yet two steps ahead of everyone while solving crimes on USA’s Psych and in its two sequel films, the second of which premiered on Peacock on July 15.

The actor: James Roday Rodriguez, 44, who has a very perusable IMDb page and is currently starring in ABC’s version of This Is Us, a.k.a. A Million Little Things. Roday Rodriguez also wrote and directed numerous Psych episodes, which we’ve ranked.

Essential traits: Complete and utter devotion to his childhood BFF, Gus; obscure ’80s and ’90s pop-culture one-upmanship; diet of quatro queso dos fritos; “Gus, don’t be a…; ability to make friends at an alarmingly quick rate; eidetic; hearing it both ways; hyperobservant.

The Tao of Shawn

When creator and showrunner Steve Franks first envisioned Shawn, he thought there was a “wisdom” to the character that transcended what viewers first saw in the pilot: a sharp guy seemingly drifting his way through life, who by his late 20s had already rotated through dozens of odd jobs in dozens of other cities. “He seemed like he’s got life figured out more than most people. He wasn’t ultimately going to make a lot of money, or have a lot of possessions, or do any of the things people who surrounded him wanted him to do, especially his dad,” Franks explains. “He was more of a student of life, and he appreciated the world around him and chuckled at the world around him. He was a guy who was lovable at the core, because he never made the choice he was supposed to make at some point.”

It was important to Franks that Shawn never came off as too mean, especially during his first few encounters with the Santa Barbara Police Department as a “psychic” — an ethos that was maintained for the remainder of the series, with few exceptions. “There’s an innocence about the character,” Franks says, “but he’s also worldly at the same time.” During the audition process, Franks was looking for an actor who could be “fast and funny” and never aggressive. Where most who auditioned overplayed the snark, Roday Rodriguez brought a “warm and wonderful quality” to the character, and by the second time they met during callbacks, Franks knew that he was the only one who could do justice to Shawn.

“I came into the process with Chris Knight from Real Genius [in mind],” Roday Rodriguez explains.I was just going to unapologetically steal from the energy and the spirit of that performance … Steve said Ferris Bueller, and we were able to break down just how short of a distance was between Chris Knight and Ferris Bueller. We were pretty sure this was going to work.”

Adds Franks about Roday Rodriguez’s vocal inflections, “Strangely enough, he had the accent of Pelé, which changed things a lot.” For his part, Roday Rodriguez insists that “it’s better to have a bad Pelé than no Pelé at all.”

Roday Rodriguez admits that it took him a few seasons to figure out how to balance Shawn’s annoying side with Shawn’s fun-loving side. “If it was just Shawn all the time, you’d want to slap him 30 percent of the time,” he explains. “It required the whole recipe for the one ingredient to get away with being a character.” He credits Psych’s supporting cast as being the “parachute” that gave Shawn the space to grow, especially his closest pal, Burton “Gus” Guster, portrayed by Dulé Hill.

The Bromance

Shawn and Gus’s relationship was based on a friend who Franks met in preschool — someone who’s still a “big part” of his life. “With him, I was always Shawn, and he was always Gus,” Franks says. “But in my life now, I’m way more Gus than Shawn.” It was always important for the roots of the characters’ friendship to go back to childhood, as Franks believes there would be too much imbalance and improbability if they crossed paths, say, after high school. “If you meet someone as an adult and behave as Shawn does to Gus, people will question, Why is Gus keeping this dude around?” he explains, noting that Psych’s flashbacks showed just how deep their relationship was in their preteen and teenage years. “In the spelling-bee episode, you realize the reason why Gus lost the bee. He went on this divergent course in his life that he claims ruined everything, and it was not only Shawn’s fault, but he did it on purpose to save Gus from himself. It’s a choice that a child or a young adult can make for their friend, but it’s less forgivable as an adult.”

Both Franks and Roday Rodriguez define the characters’ relationship as codependent. “Nobody wants to admit it because of the negative stigma that’s attached to that idea,” Roday Rodriguez explains. “But I think the sweet spot for these two guys was when they just stopped fighting it.” He points to season two as a major turning point for the characters, when Gus transitioned away from being a “traditional straight man” to becoming “every bit as absurd and ridiculous” as Shawn. Why have Gus serve as another “fundamental conflict” when the police department — especially Lassiter — could provide that instead?

“They realized that I’m a yin and you’re a yang, and we’re better off with each other, no matter how you spin it,” Roday Rodriguez says. “They’re not always going to agree, and they’re always going to bicker. They land on opposite sides on fiscal responsibility, and maybe even social issues. But they’re not their best self without each other, and they should stop pretending there’s a world where they’re better off without one another.” Roday Rodriguez recalls how that revelation was perhaps Psych’s biggest breakthrough, and it opened the door to much more silliness and fun. “Once we landed in that spot,” he notes, “you can feel how the rest of the show changes after that moment.”

Shawn Spenstar and Gus T.T. Showbiz, basking in the glory of solving a case in “American Duos.” Photo: USA Network/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Catchphrases, phase 1: “Early on, I wanted Shawn and Gus in every scene. As I became a smarter writer, I realized there’s only so many hours in the day, and we can’t be shooting them 100 percent of the time,” Franks explains. “These guys were working so hard. When you see the ‘suck it’s’ and the lip-smacks, they were finding ways to entertain themselves. They all didn’t land, but most of them were pretty great.”

Catchphrases, phase 2: “We always had an interactive relationship with our fans, and when they told us they loved something, we listened,” Roday Rodriguez says. “‘I’ve heard it both ways’ could’ve easily been a one-off joke, but when you get fans printing it on T-shirts, you realize that’s going to be part of Psych’s patchwork quilt. You go with what works, and you pay attention and listen.”

Catchphrases, phase 3: “Once we knew we were a show that had runners and catchphrases, it became more challenging later in the series, because we knew there wouldn’t be as much gestation time for them to take off,” Roday Rodriguez admits. “Could we start a new catchphrase in season seven? ‘C’mon, son’ was a later addition. We tried, with less success, with ‘It’s semantics; it’s not semantics.’ But it wasn’t a complete fail.”

The Breakthroughs

Franks and Roday Rodriguez knew that the main joy of Psych came from the moments when Shawn “put his hand on his head and did his crazy psychic episodes,” but it became increasingly important for the character to reach beyond the show’s comedic formula. This type of breakthrough began in season three with “An Evening With Mr. Yang,” when an unseen serial killer in Santa Barbara comes out of retirement to play a life-or-death game with Shawn. Until then, Shawn primarily operated in the same format while solving cases with the SBPD: He would reverse engineer everything in his head, figure out how to psychically come up with solutions, and present them in an idiotic manner. “Mr. Yang” thus became a big swing for several reasons. “It was the least funny or overtly silly comedic episode we’d done,” Roday Rodriguez says. “Shawn, as a detective, was forced for the first time to pivot, and change strategy, and recognize that the stakes were higher than usual, and swap roles with Gus a little bit in order to solve the case. I remember, for myself, how different that felt.”

Shawn had to confront death for the first time in his life, as his mother gets kidnapped, strapped with dynamite, and left at the mercy of Mr. Yang’s trigger finger. She escapes unharmed, because Shawn was able to recognize and accept that not every case is the same, and not every murder is created equal (in addition to, of course, successfully talking down a serial killer). “That was a defining moment for Oh, we can go other places with Shawn, as long as we do it thoughtfully and not too often,” Roday Rodriguez says. “We didn’t want to pull the rug out from under this guy. We knew how he needed to be for the most part, but it at least made us feel pretty confident that we could occasionally make a departure, and Shawn could be presented as a facsimile of a fully formed adult human.”

Three seasons later, Franks wanted Shawn to confront death in a more significant way with “Indiana Shawn and the Temple of the Kinda Crappy, Rusty Old Dagger,” when he witnesses his hero, Pierre Despereaux, die in front of his eyes. He still won’t accept that Despereaux — a dashing art thief who pulled off a prolific streak of crimes — is dead, and he laughs his way through the start of his eulogy. When he’s given a positive DNA match on the podium, however, he has to confront his own mortality in front of the group of mourners. “He ends up making Gus sad, and attacking his dad, and lashing out,” Franks says. “That’s what’s so fun about his character. We were able to make this very important leap under the guise of crazy silliness and an Indiana Jones episode.” Despereaux may have indeed turned up alive minutes later, but the progress was still achieved.

Another breakthrough, with 99 percent more laughs: “Shawn just joins the cast of a telenovela and blends right in, and pulls it off, and nobody questions it for a second,” Roday Rodriguez says about “Lights, Camera … Homicidio,” a season-two episode. “Our viewers didn’t bat an eyelash at the ludicrous nature of that particular story line. It was very liberating. Short of sending him into space, we knew we could do anything after that.”

Another breakthrough, with 99 percent fewer laughs: “Shawn had always been angry at Henry for pushing his mom away, and he blamed him for the divorce. Shawn becoming Shawn was born from this broken home and anger from his dad,” Franks explains. “There’s a silent moment at the end of an episode, season three’s ‘Ghosts,’ where he finds out that Henry was the one who was trying to save the marriage, and his mom left to save her own self. All this anger he put toward his dad, although very flawed, kind of dissipates. It’s such a great, powerful moment. It affected the way Shawn saw Henry for the rest of the series.”

The References

Shawn’s penchant for “slightly to completely obscure” pop-culture quips was birthed from a collaborative process between Franks and Roday Rodriguez — who consider themselves, just like Shawn, to be ’80s and ’90s entertainment junkies. “The rule was: If one of us knows it, then Shawn knows it,” Franks recalls. “We used to do a thing on set where we’d pick an album from the ’80s, and we’d go back and forth naming tracks on that album. If it’s a famous one, you could likely go five or six songs deep. But James and I would always get nine songs or more.” Roday Rodriguez, who grew up as a “VHS, mom-gave-me-her-membership-card kid,” is still amazed that watching so many awful movies in his teenage years didn’t end up becoming “my undoing long term” but, rather, turned into “the fabric” of Psych as we know it.

While writers were encouraged to take ownership of their own episodes, a few rules were enforced when it came to writing Shawn’s pop-culture riffs: If a reference showed up in another series, that was an indication to avoid it. And if something was in the Zeitgeist at the moment, the show “definitely” wasn’t interested in it. “I would do passes on all the scripts, and most of the time, the references were my favorite part of doing it,” Franks says. “And I’d often drop something in.”

Most significantly, though, these references were never framed as jokes. “It’s part of the sentence,” Franks explains. “If you don’t get the reference, it just feels like it’s part of what Shawn is saying, and if you do know the reference, you get a bonus. Or you can go back and think, Oh, that’s what he’s talking about. That’s what makes the show so rewatchable.” Adds Roday Rodriguez, with a laugh, “Dulé did have to ask about 80 percent of the jokes.”

How James Roday Rodriguez Became Psych’s Real Fake Detective