The new USA Network mystery-comedy series Psych, which runs Friday nights at 10 EDT, is still . . . pretty good. The premiere episode wasn’t nearly as good as the premiere of Monk a few years back—though that is a very high standard to reach. Psych is fairly amusing, and in fact LOL funny at times. The characters, however, are still not very interesting, and the mystery in the premiere episode was very weak, especially for a first shot at establishing a program’s credentials. The puzzle centered on a kidmapping, but there wasn’t much mystery to it, and the solution was a real cliche of the form—entirely predictable. Not a good way to begin a mystery series.

Psych shotOther than James Roday’s lead character, Shawn, the characters are all obvious refugees from other mystery programs: the skeptical/worried sidekick, the tediously suspicious cops, the gruff police captain (female in this case, but predictably hard-edged), the snotty suspects, etc. Shawn’s relationship with his ex-cop father (played well by Corbin Bernsen, though the actor is given very little to work with) is fairly interesting, but it doesn’t bring much more depth to the characters. Many things about the script seem rather undeveloped, alas.

In the premiere episode, the writers did take great pains to establish exactly how the protagonist came to have such great powers of observation, and they have made sure to remind us in the two subsequent forays. That, however, may actually be something of a mistake. Usually, we don’t really care why the detective is so insightful; it is enough that he or she is a genius and that we get to go along for the ride. With Monk, of course, a good deal of the fun is in watching him flounder through life while blasting through puzzling mysteries, and we appreciate the ironic truth that the very thing that makes him a great detective makes him a very unhappy person. This gives the program an inherent tension and drama, to go along with the comedy it creates.

Psych attempts to recreate this aspect of Monk, but there is a big difference: whereas one feels great sympathy for Adrian Monk because of his mental problems, Shawn’s continual optimism and snarkiness in Psych tend to defeat any sympathy we may wish to feel for him due to his strained relationship with his father. We know that Shawn must crave a better relationship with his father, which could make for some good drama, and comedy as well, but Roday is rather too successful at hiding it under his character’s Mr. Fun persona. Shawn’s blithe surface appears too often to be what he is really about—and such superficiality in a character defeats audience identification and sympathy. In addition, the father-son relationship is improving as the series progresses, which further dilutes any call for sympathy.

The series also lays on Shawn’s conflicts with the police too heavily. There is a continually antagonistic relationship with one of the cops assigned to the cases Shawn investigates (yawn), a burgeoning cooperation with the mean cop’s nice female partner, and the police captain’s continual pretence that she doesn’t like Shawn’s investigative work when in fact she really does. The latter relationship is perhaps most annoying of all because it is just so bloody cute.

When Psych concentrates on the mystery story in each episode, the program becomes more interesting, but the show really spends too much time trying to emulate Monk‘s quirkiness. In episodes two and three (out of three so far), more of the show is devoted to the mystery plot than in the premiere, which is a very welcome development indeed. However, the distractions still remain. That’s a pity because the concept—a detective who is so insightful that he has to pretend to be a psychic in order to keep police from thinking he has actually committed the crimes he is trying to solve—is perfectly brilliant and doesn’t need any additional quirkiness. The program’s creators should trust the concept and cut back the nonsense to the barest minimum.

Making things even more difficult for Psych is its seemingly advantageous position following Monk. The latter program has been nearly as good in recent weeks as we might have expected it to be. The concept for the season premiere—an actor playing Adrian Monk in a movie follows the obsessive detective as he attempts to solve a mystery—is the kind of thing that can be disastrously cute, and the producers managed to avoid that and present a solid mystery with the show’s usual level of engaging comedy and serious moments that we have come to expect from this impressively intelligent and consistent show. The two subsequent episodes have been good as well. What the producers of Psych should learn from all this is: The best thing about a mystery is . . . the mystery.