Pop's psychology explains all

IN the days when Steve Franks was pitching his idea for "Psych," USA Network's new comedy about a fake psychic detective, he always began by talking about his dad.

His father was an LAPD cop who liked to call himself "a trained observer" and wanted to groom his only son to follow in his footsteps. Whenever they went to a restaurant, he would test young Steve by telling him to close his eyes and recall: How many people have hats on? Where is the exit? What's the name on the hostess' nametag?

Anyone who saw — and can recall — the July 7 pilot will recognize this childhood memory in the opening scene: a little boy being peppered by questions while having lunch with his demanding dad — a uniformed police officer. The show flashes back and forth between that past and the present, where Shawn (James Roday) is a footloose twentysomething living in Santa Barbara who clearly has not fulfilled his father's dream. But his powers of observation are so acute, he helps the police solve crimes by pretending to be psychic.

"I guess I was wired for this sort of show," said Franks.

USA will air 8 episodes on Fridays this summer and four more in January. According to Nielsen Media Research, "Psych" has drawn an average 3.3 million viewers in its first three weeks, a respectable showing for cable. In an effort to draw broadcast viewers to USA, sister network NBC will air the first episode of "Psych" on Monday, and the second a week later.

"Psych" could be seen as a meditation on the authoritarian father/unambitious son syndrome — the son knows whatever he does will never be good enough, so he avoids responsibility altogether. ("If you're going to play, Shawn, play right," the father (Corbin Bernsen) tells the young boy in one episode.)But mostly "Psych" is about "the search for fun, what place fun has in your life, and how much is too much fun," Franks said. "I'm trying to bring fun back to TV. You don't see it that much."

Some critics have complained there's too much silliness in the show. " 'Psych' is, for the most part, merely jokey," wrote Nancy Franklin in the New Yorker. Dulé Hill ("The West Wing") contributes to the comedy as Shawn's reluctant assistant and best friend; he played one scene with dollops of shaving cream on his head. USA President Bonnie Hammer said she prefers to characterize the humor as "irreverent." Along with "Monk," she called "Psych" a perfect fit with the network, which is aiming to send Friday night viewers off to sleep with a chuckle. Its current motto: "Characters Welcome."

Besides his own family, Franks said he was inspired by the lighter crime-solving shows he grew up with, such as "Magnum, P.I.," "The Rockford Files" and "Moonlighting," which featured charming wise guys coasting through life who could fast-talk their way out of any situation.

Besides just watching TV, Franks was something of a "television savant" who played industry games of his own making when he was in grammar school. Just for fun, he would create his own imaginary television shows and then draw up charts and grids, scheduling one against the other, guessing how the ratings went — and then extending or canceling them accordingly.

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Parental guidanceWHEN Franks was 16, his father took him along to the set of "Moonlighting," where he had an extra job working security. That experience made Franks realize that a television career might actually be a possibility in real life.

After graduating from UC Irvine, Franks sold a script for the Adam Sandler film "Big Daddy" (1999) to Columbia, and then pitched about half a dozen TV shows with little success. Long before psychic shows such as "Medium" became hot, Franks said, he came up with the idea of a psychic detective who wasn't really psychic. What it lacked, he said, was a way into the main character.

As it turned out, it was Franks' mother, not his father, who provided the key, he said. She was also an acute observer and could pick out the culprit on TV crime shows in minutes. Shawn displays that same skill in scene two of the pilot.

Franks said some well-known actors were interested in the lead but wouldn't read for the part — a prerequisite, Franks said, given the quirkiness needed to play it. Roday ("The Dukes of Hazzard") was the only candidate who grasped the type of comedy Franks was after, he said.

"We do a lot of word jokes about vocabulary and syntax," Franks said.

Later, Roday discovered that he grew up with a father similar to Franks'. Roday's dad was an Air Force training instructor, a disciplinarian prone to driving home object lessons. He also hoped in vain that his only child would follow suit in a military career.

Over time, though, Roday said his father came to accept his determination to become an actor. "He was fully on board by the time I finished college," he said.

In addition to acting, Roday writes and directs, and contributed to an upcoming episode directed by John Landis in which Shawn's father helps solve a case. In the show, the dad imparts a life lesson: "The truth is right in front of you. Don't overcomplicate things."

Roday said he plays his character as a young man still seeking approval from a father who's unable to give it. There's been talk about whether Dad might give his son a kiss in one of those flashbacks. "I don't know if that works or not," Roday said. "We shot it both ways. We might not be there yet in terms of knowing the answer."

But now that the thematic and comedic elements have been pinned down, he said the writers are starting to explore other areas, such as more complex mysteries and relationships.

The flashbacks of Shawn's childhood worked so well in the pilot that they are now a staple of each episode.

"It's become my favorite part of writing the show," Franks said. "Now I realize I can tie it thematically, or tonally, or take a specific incident and re-create something in the past and see how it plays out in the future. Something I was using as a pitch is now a frame," he said.

Besides, he added, "it's a chance to see Corbin Bernsen in a wig, which is always fun."

Franks said relationships in his own family are less strained than those among the Spencers. While Spencer's parents are divorced, Franks' are still together. "My dad is my hero," he said.

His father has also made peace with the fact that his son is not a cop. Said Franks: He loved the pilot and is now "calling me every other day with story pitches."

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