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Throwback Thursday - Psych - An Evening With Mr. Yang

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Everything I am today is thanks to “Psych.”

Well, a lot of me, anyway. Most certainly the part that loves TV to near obsession (and would never hesistate to write for hours about that love). “Psych” was the inception of that obsession; my gateway drug into the world of television fandom at-large.

For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of getting to know Psych already, it is a police procedural comedy that aired on USA Network from 2007-2014. It follows mentalist and perpetual slacker Shawn Spencer (A Million Little Things’ James Roday Rodriguez*), who drags his reluctant, button-up best friend Gus (The West Wing’s DulĂ© Hill) from crime scene to crime scene after he using his photographic memory to trick the Santa Barbara police department into hiring him as a psychic detective.

The crowning glory of “Psych’s” 8-year run is the Yin/Yang episode trilogy - An Evening With Mr. Yang, Mr. Yin Presents, and Yang 3 in 2D - which served as the season finales of the third, fourth and fifth seasons, respectively. Each episode features Shawn going up against a killer who has chosen him to be a piece in their games, taunting him by laying out complex puzzles and riddles for him to decipher.

This article is for the first of the three Yin/Yang outings, An Evening With Mr. Yang, which aired as the 16th episode of “Psych” season 3 in 2009. Directed by Mel Damski and written by Andy Berman and series star Roday Rodriguez, this episode represents the absolute best “Psych” has to offer, with the series’ signature ridiculous slapstick swirled perfectly into an enticing, unsettling mystery.

The episode opens with Shawn and Gus out for lunch at the pier - and Shawn shamelessly flirting with their waitress, ordering breakfast food with a side of fish for lunch in an attempt to be "spontaneous." When Gus points out that Shawn’s flirting routine is a bit played out, Shawn decides to take a real risk and calls Abigail, his old high school flame, setting up a date with her that night.

Meanwhile, at the police station, a package arrives with a mysterious Yin/Yang symbol on the back. The notorious serial killer Mr. Yang has resurfaced for the first time in years, something he only does when “he feels he has a worthy challenger.” Yang’s MO involves kidnapping his victim and then sending the police on a wild goose chase of sorts to try to save them, with clues and traps designed specifically for his opponent. And this time around, he’s chosen Shawn, as shown by the note left with his first clue; “P.S. Bring your psychic along.”

When Henry finds out that his son is Yang’s new target, he comes down to the police station to try and convince him not to play the game. He admitted that when he was on the force, he watched the kind of internal chaos Yang caused for the officers he faced, and that he doesn’t want the same to happen to Shawn. However, Shawn barely heeds his father’s warning, telling Henry that Yang may be good, but they’ve never gone up against him before.

Shawn quickly cracks Yang’s first riddle, labeled a “gimme” by the SBPD’s neurotic consulting Yang expert, Mary Lightly (played by Jimmi Simpson, famous for his role in, among other things, David Fincher's "Zodiac," from which this episodes takes inspiration). The solve leads Shawn, Gus, Lassiter (Timothy Omundson) and Juliet (Maggie Lawson) to the same cafe where Shawn and Gus had just had lunch, where they find that the waitress Shawn had been flirting with had gone on break and not come back. Rushing back to the staff area of the restaurant, they find that the waitress’s locker has a Yin/Yang symbol painted on it, and a ticking stopwatch hangs from the inside - another one of Yang’s signature moves, according to Mary (who, on the topic of his name, nonchalantly claimed that “his father was named Mary, and his father before him was named Mary, and his father before him was named Craig”).

After bombing on the delivery of a few breakfast-for-lunch quips (it doesn’t help when your audience is in the middle of a kidnapping situation), Shawn pulls Gus aside, admitting that he knows that it’s not a great time for jokes, but relieving the tension with humor is the only way he can work. Gus then hesitantly agrees to play joker for a while, so that Shawn can focus on the case. (Best friend goals, anyone?)

From the restaurant, Juliet finds a clue hearkening them back to the police station, where Shawn is caught off guard to see that his mother is there waiting for him. Madeline explains that she was in town for a conference when Henry called her to tell her about Shawn and Yang, and that she’s there to try to talk Shawn down as well. However Madeline sees that Shawn truly believes that he can catch Yang, and so she eventually steps aside, saying; “Go get him, Goose.”

The next clue comes in the form of a package found in the SBPD conference room, opened to reveal a small cage with a rat inside it. “Meet my little buddy Ben. Pitter-patter is your hint. If you can’t remember when, just read the fine print.”

While Gus distracts everyone by doing a hilariously awkward Michael Jackson impression, Shawn deduces that the “fine print” must be indicating toward the newspaper inside the cage that the rat is walking on (“pitter-patter”). Scattered throughout the fine print on that paper are clues calling back to some of Shawn’s past cases; references to Mira Gaffney (from There’s Something About Mira), and Adam Hornstock (from Cloudy...Chance of Murder), and one that mentions a “Snarky Psychic in search of a ferroequinologist.”

As pointed out by Gus, each of those ads mentions something having to do with train terminology (“A ferroequinologist is a train enthusiast.” “How do you know that?” “Because I am a ferroequinologist!”). After the subsequent segment of train-chasing from Shawn and Gus, in addition to a poorly-timed phone call from Abigail (worried that Shawn will stand her up as he pushes back the time of their date to work the case), Shawn and Gus find a clue indicating that the next step is to find a phone hidden somewhere on the pier. 8 rings, the riddle says, and the girl dies.

The detectives race to the pier - and as they reach it, a phone begins to ring. Shawn finds it just before the 6th ring, but he recognizes that the phone didn’t start ringing until exactly when they arrived. This, he deduces, means that Yang is watching them from somewhere, and must be close. Taking a calculated risk, Shawn waits until the eighth ring - and then holds up the phone, throwing it into the water for Yang to see. Cue goosebumps.

Just then, Shawn notices suspicious movement coming from the Psych office. By the time they reach it, Yang is gone, but in his wake he has left Shawn another clue, admonishing him for not playing the game but giving him another chance to save the waitress. Lassiter and Juliet make to regroup and continue with the chase, but Shawn is ready to throw in the towel. He tells Lassie and Juliet that he quits the case and to go on without him - or, at least that’s what he wants them to think.

Instead of continuing to follow the clues and follow the path Yang set, Shawn decides that the better move would be to investigate in secret and try to determine where the girl was being held through good old-fashioned detective work. After returning once again to the pier, Shawn realizes that the waitress’s car - a black Jeep, as she had mentioned to him earlier that day - wasn’t in the restaurant parking lot, meaning that Yang had taken her car.

At the same time, Lassie, Juliet and Mary return to the police station, where they soon receive an acknowledgement from Yang that Shawn had quit the game, along with another riddle, this time directed at Lassiter. The clue leads them to a hotel, where they find the one and only black Jeep outside, and decide to call Shawn and Gus back in. When the police enter the hotel room indicated by the clue, they find the waitress - tied and gagged but alive and well. However, as Shawn soon finds out, Yang’s game isn’t over yet.

In the waitress’s mouth, Lassiter finds another note from Yang: “Shawn no longer wants to play, stakes too low to make you stay?” At the same time, while investigating the hotel room, Shawn finds a purse that seems oddly familiar; it’s the same purse his mom was carrying when she visited him earlier in the day. A twisted confirmation of his fears comes as he turns and sees the hotel bathroom door, covered in things from Madeline’s purse (including a picture of a young Shawn) shaped into a Yin/Yang symbol. The stakes most certainly just got raised.

A clue written in lipstick on the bathroom mirror leads to a drive-in movie theater. In one of “Psych’s” most cinematic moments, Shawn recalls that Yang took the waitress’s own car, and while Lassie and Juliet go to check the projectionist’s box, everyone else spreads out to find Madeline’s rental car, with Shawn even hopping on top of cars to get a better vantage point. Shawn eventually finds his mother in one of the cars, and clocks that the red laser pointing at her seeming to indicate that a sniper was on her is actually a decoy. However, he also notes that the explosives nestled in the popcorn Madeline is carrying are very real.

Shawn asks his mother to show him where Yang is, and her eyes dart over to a woman smiling from a few cars over - and carrying a detonation switch. The woman (played by The Breakfast Club’s Ally Sheedy) indicates for Shawn to come join her, and he cautiously obeys.

“Be honest...I’m prettier than you thought I’d be. It’s the bone structure.” Yang says.

What Shawn fully expects to be a negotiation turns out to be much more of Yang’s elegy to her own work as she muses on the satisfaction that comes from a solid ending. She tells Shawn that she knew he was special, that it’s only the “end of the beginning” and that she wants them to work together again soon. “I’m gonna write a book! Our story. It’s gonna be epic, a best-seller. And guess what? I want you to write the foreword.” And then...she hands Shawn the remote detonator, telling him to “think about it...on your date tonight.”

With Madeline safe, Yang is taken away by the police, and the gang reflects on the insanity that has just unfolded. Mary confesses that he has no idea what to do with his life now that Yang has been captured, and Shawn, already back to his signature snark, suggests racquetball. Henry and Madeline share a tender moment, and Abigail shows up to the drive-in, where Shawn has cut a deal with the owner to have their date, despite it technically being an active crime scene.

However, one last twist is in store for Shawn - and it’s possibly the most conflicting one of all. As Shawn is in the theater lobby (with Abigail waiting outside), Juliet walks in, first telling Shawn how impressed she was by his intelligence and heroism, then stumbling into territory much more personal.

“Maybe...the best things - the richest things - aren’t supposed to come easily, and the moments that make the most sense happen when everything else doesn’t,” she says (in what is easily one of the most memorable quotes of the entire show), “And, well...I think you deserve more than popcorn tonight. So why don’t you let me take you to dinner?”

Cut to me screaming; internally, externally, eternally. There’s something about this scene - the way it’s so insanely in character for both Shawn and Juliet and yet it still catches you off-guard. It’s so tragically, wonderfully done; absolutely iconic. As a ride or die “Shules” fan, this scene tortures me in all its bittersweet glory.

In the roller-coaster ride of a will-they/won’t they that is Shules, Juliet has finally made her feelings known; but at the worst possible moment. Shawn politely rejects her, explaining that he’s already on a date with Abigail (“The one that got away,” Juliet concurs). She leaves and Shawn, more shell-shocked by Juliet's advances than by any serial killer, recovers himself just enough to finally go on his date - with Gus sitting in the backseat, of course. It’s a company car, after all.

The following episodes in the Yin/Yang trilogy expand both on Yang’s methodology, personal life, and connection to Shawn. Both are excellent episodes of TV, but none outshine this first installment. There are a lot of reasons why, but I think that chief among them is how well this episode balances laughs, plot twists, and everything in between.

“Psych,” in general, is a lot of things at once. A unique, hilarious comedy. A thrilling police procedural. At times, a heartwrenching drama. At its heart, though, it is a deeply character driven story, hauled on the backs of its cast, most especially Roday Rodriguez and Hill. It’s amazing the way that “Psych” knocks so brazenly at the fourth wall - playing with tropes and acting as both tribute and parody for many-a-classic film and TV show.

Because they shared a network, “Psych” is most often compared to critical darling “Monk,” but I feel like its blend of strong character with ridiculous, genre-bending humor makes it a much closer relative of “Community” (just... with murder!). So then, anyone who knows a bit about the struggles “Community” had with finding and keeping an audience, as well as maintaining its quality as the years went on, will understand then why it is so amazing that “Psych” ran a similar game, and kept it going strong for 8 years. For a show with so many moving parts, it truly takes a talented cast and crew to make “Psych” the light, fun, easy watch it is.

An Evening With Mr. Yang highlights the insane cocktail of tropes that make “Psych” everything that it is. A macabre murder mystery, met with just the right amount of inanity to keep it light, and on the side we get heavy doses of character growth, love triangles, and, of course, pineapple. Also notable is the top-notch acting work from leading men Roday Rodriguez and Hill, who we see temporararily swap their usual respective stooge and straightman roles, to much success.

“Psych” is a gem of a procedural, and one of the most underrated comedy greats of the 21st century, and An Evening With Mr. Yang is the perfect example of the show’s boundless potential. It is most certainly one of the most influential TV episodes in my own life, and I’d dare to say one of the most underrated TV episodes of the 21st century, to date. For too long, too many people have slept on this show or, worse; forgotten all about it. Well, consider this your long overdue reminder that “Psych” is criminally good; I know, you know...and everyone else should too.

*While he was credited as James Roday when this episode came out, Roday Rodriguez has since added his given last name onto his professional name.

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