As a TV series, Psych is like one of those frozen yogurt chains where the wall is ringed with different flavors and you can keep pulling levers for whatever combination you want. There are the Shawn/Gus episodes, the “Shawn’s psychic lie is threatened” episodes, the increasingly genius and lovingly rendered (often ‘80s-tastic) tributes, and the ensemble classics where the whole cast is just a well-oiled machine after years of riffing off one another. You can have whatever flavor you want. And don’t even get me started on toppings (there’s gotta be pineapple, at the very least).
Over its eight-year run, Psych interrogated its own premise, built out its supporting cast, let its characters play their favorite movie characters, and adapted its own internal mythology into trilogies that would make any movie-buff weep with appreciation. Here is a baker’s dozen of the most giggle-worthy, self-referential, surprisingly dramatic episodes of Psych. (And with so many to choose from, your favorite flavor combinations might be different from mine—share your own best episodes in the comments!)
Season 2 Episode 1: “American Duos”
Once the show had had a season under its belt of the fake-psychic shtick, the writers and actors got to really start playing in the sandbox they’d created. The second-season premiere has it all: a pop culture riff on a certain popular reality show competition; Tim Curry and Gina Gershon going above and beyond in their parodies of Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul; and Shawn and Gus giving a truly spectacular mashup performance as Curt Smith and Michael Jackson.
Season 2 Episode 3: “Psy vs. Psy”
I’m a sucker for the episodes where Shawn might have to come clean about his big fat lie. Season 2 poked at that possibility early on, with a counterfeit case that brings in government agent Lars Ewing (Lou Diamond Phillips) and female psychic Lindsay Leiken (Bianca Kajlich). Not only does Lars ruffle Lassiter’s feathers and get Jules hot and bothered, but Lindsay seems to be a lot more intuitive than Shawn—to the point where the SBPD may be looking to replace their consultant. Shawn has a knack for making things harder for himself, but the situations in which he has to actually fight his way out are always rewarding.
Season 2 Episode 13: “Lights, Camera… Homicidio”
The second season really cemented the series’ delight in its own ridiculousness—not just in the bizarre cases, but in how Shawn and Gus (and the rest of the SBPD) react to them. This week, it was an accidental murder via botched prop knife on the set of Explosión Gigantesca de Romance, Gus’ (and Henry’s) favorite telenovela, that really highlighted Psych’s embrace of the absurd. While doing his psychic thing, Shawn gets “discovered” enough to play the sexy delivery guy, who becomes a beloved character in his own right… only to learn for himself how badly the show’s fans blur the lines between characters and actors. Though not as outright meta as the tribute episodes, it still was wonderfully self-aware about the pitfalls of emotionally investing in fictional characters.
Season 4 Episode 5: “Shawn Gets the Yips”
This episode is a bit of a bait-and-switch in that Shawn having the yips (about baseball, not being a psychic) doesn’t really impact the plot, which starts with a shooting at a known cop bar and culminates in a commentary on the police force not properly punishing drug lords who sell opioids. The subplot about the drug lord supposedly targeting SBPD members is a bit of a red herring for the more nuanced twist about the cost of the opioid epidemic, but it contains one of my favorite moments, in which Shawn unintentionally gets a great workout because he believes that the message on his water bottle (your heart rate drops below 150, you die) is a threat. Just a solid mid-series episode.
Season 4 Episode 16: “Mr. Yin Presents…”
Just like with Bones, Psych really came into its own when it mixed the laughs with actual life-or-death stakes—and in both cases, that was thanks to a serial killer obsessed with our protagonist. Season 3 ended on “An Evening with Mr. Yang,” which introduced Ally Sheedy (one of many, many famous cameos) as the eponymous serial killer who kidnapped Shawn’s mother to get closer to him. But with her locked away and more artfully arranged kills discovered, the SBPD have to confront that Yang might have a Yin—which of course spawns a trilogy.
The Empire Strikes Back of the Yin/Yang saga is my personal favorite, though I highly recommend watching all three. The team’s introduction to Yang’s twisted mentor is through his love of Alfred Hitchcock movies: He casts each of them in an iconic role while leading them on a wild goose chase through Santa Barbara, ending at a movie set mashup and presenting Shawn with an impossible choice between saving girlfriend Abigail or Juliet. The latter has one of her most powerful moments, stoically accepting her death while suspended from a clock and later breaking down in Lassiter’s arms. Her PTSD remains through the Yin/Yang saga, another sign of the series’ maturity as it explores the ripple effect of its more dramatic plots.
Season 6 Episode 2: “Last Night Gus”
While Shawn and Gus are the series OTP, part of the show’s beauty has been in building up its other bromances. This spoof of The Hangover has Shawn, Gus, Lassiter, and Woody waking up in the Psych offices with no memory of their antics the night before, but plenty of incriminating clues tying them to a dead body. Their attempt to solve the mystery of how they got so memory-obliteratingly drunk has them encountering a sweet gay bartender couple, a murdered donut mascot, and a hot girl who’s very into Last Night Gus… if only he knew what he did. In addition to riffing superbly on the movie, the episode is a fun commentary on our present selves solving the mysteries of our past personas.
Season 7 Episode 5: “100 Clues”
I managed to watch this without realizing what the Psych crew was going for, so the moment that Shawn and Gus pulled up in the Blueberry to a mansion in a rainy homage to Clue, I was squealing harder than Gus at the notion of a secret chocolate room. For the series’ 100th episode, they lovingly parodied the perfect locked-mansion murder mystery, with killer cameos from Lesley Warren, Christopher Lloyd, and Martin Mull (plus little nods to the Clue alums who couldn’t be there, like Eileen Brennan). From the Singing Telegram Girl to the secret passageways, only true fans could achieve this level of detail—a perfect landmark celebration.
Season 7 Episode 7: “Deez Nups”
The sign of a great ensemble series is that they can make the standard, super-tropey wedding episode feel fresh again. It helps that it’s Lassiter’s nuptials, and everyone wants to see the guy happy, which is what leads to Shawn, Gus, and Woody kidnapping the detective for a bachelor party, while Juliet and the Chief get roped into being Marlowe’s bachelorette buddies. The threat of a mob boss taking revenge on Lassie takes a backseat to such wedding fare as Vick getting weepy-drunk on shots and McNab popping up as a police stripper (I cackled at the payoff of his Chekhov’s tearaway pants). Just like with a real-life wedding, when you know the people involved, it feels special and unique. (There is also a gross, transphobic joke about a stripper, one of the aspects of Psych that did not age well.)
Season 7 Episode 8: “Right Turn or Left for Dead”
Tribute episodes are Psych’s bread and butter, but rarely do they advance the plot as effectively and emotionally as this riff on Sliding Doors. After Juliet finds out that Shawn has been lying about being a psychic, which makes her believe that everything about their relationship has been a lie, Shawn indulges in a fantasy in which he’s 1990s Gwyneth Paltrow (naturally) pondering the diverging paths of whether Jules does or doesn’t discover the truth.
The story immediately splits into two takes on the same case, but in one she’s a Jane Doe and in the other Shawn actually has a chance to save her… only to discover that her life path was already set in stone after an abusive childhood. Even with subtle moments of humor that highlight the parallel universes’ differences in solving cases, overall the episode is a study in how one choice has ramifications far beyond the initial action—a lesson Shawn needed to learn, in the penultimate season.
Season 7 Episode 11: “Office Space”
If the boys trying to cover their tracks in “Last Night Gus” was worth a few giggles, Gus and Shawn tampering with a murder scene and then trying to clean their hands of it in this episode is the kind of laughter that hurts. When Gus publicly confronts his abusive boss, only for the man to wind up offed and poor Guster very incriminated. The sequence in which they hysterically stumble their way through the crime scene is worth watching alone; but as evidence mounts and it looks like they could actually be caught in the crosshairs, the levels of ingenuity to which they’re pushed shows why this is the show’s best partnership.
Season 8 Episode 1: “Lock, Stock, Some Smoking Barrels and Burton Guster’s Goblet of Fire”
This is the episode that got me back into the show after years of casual viewing: a mashup of Guy Ritchie and Harry Potter that manages to add a whole new layer to one of Psych’s best recurring characters, refined art thief Pierre Desperaux (Cary Elwes) while giving him a proper send-off.
Like the Yin/Yang trilogy, the entire Desperaux quartet is worth watching for the heists, the Indiana Jones lampooning, and especially for his continued double-crossing of his greatest fan Shawn. But this one takes the cake because it adds a new layer to the Desperaux mythology: He’s actually Royston Staley, an Interpol agent who went undercover as a gentleman thief. Or is he?? Plus, add in the runner about poor Gus in his Hogwarts robes just trying to make it to PotterCon, and you have a near-perfect episode.
Season 8 Episode 3: “Remake, A.K.A. Cloudy… WIth a Chance of Murder”
What better way to mark your final season than by remaking one of your season 1 episodes? What’s incredible about Psych is how many different ways it goes meta, but there was something especially entertaining about its remake of season 1, episode 12 “Cloudy… With a Chance of Murder.” With periodic reminders that this episode is set in 2006, it recasts almost all of the characters—a teacher accused of killing a local weatherman, the lawyer for the prosecution (Ralph Macchio)—and makes space for new jokes (about remakes and My Cousin Vinny) and new twists. All long-running series should get a chance to try and redo their early episodes after they’ve gelled their characters and dynamics.
Season 8 Episode 10: “The Break-Up”
After trying to make their long-distance relationship work, Shawn decides to move to San Francisco to be with Juliet, a far easier choice than actually breaking the news to Gus. Of course the Psych series finale would be about these two facing the end of their partnership. Specifically, Shawn’s inability to say goodbye, so instead he and Gus wind up investigating a case involving special guest star Billy Zane, careening around in their high-school drivers ed car, and competing with SBPD’s peppy new detective Betsy Brannigan (Mira Sorvino). When none of this helps Shawn come out with the truth, he does so through DVD—a whole batch of DVDs, tailored to each of his colleagues and dear friends. Because Shawn loves telling a story.
There’s no better end for Shawn and Gus than a bromantic one, complete with driving cross-state (albeit turning back 12 times), dramatic declaration of love (at a crime scene), and pledging their lives together before Shawn actually proposes to Juliet (as a formality). And it’s not just about them: The finale has sweet moments of closure for new junior detective McNab (aww) and especially Lassiter, who finally gets Shawn’s confession—then breaks the DVD. If the Psych movies had never happened, it would have been enough; but instead, it’s the sugary-sweet end of one chapter and the opening of another.