How Psych Evolved Through the Character of Carlton Lassiter
We explore how Lassie’s character arc is tied up in Psych’s premise, and how the series expanded both for Psych 2: Lassie Come Home.
Early on in the Psych pilot, Shawn Spencer’s (James Roday Rodriguez) ludicrous plot to impersonate a psychic in order to solve crime suddenly takes on grave stakes: Chief Vick (Kirsten Nelson) informs him that if he’s lying, he’ll be prosecuted for hindering a police investigation. Just like that, he’s locked into his lie, and has no choice but to let it snowball—into a private eye business with his best friend Burton Guster (Dulé Hill), but also into a lucrative consultancy gig for the Santa Barbara Police Department that, psychic antics be damned, legitimately saves lives.
But while it’s the Chief who put the fear of God into Shawn, the true threat to his secret was always one Carlton Jebediah Lassiter (Timothy Omundson). In the early seasons, Lassiter was the perfect foil: a by-the-book detective obsessed with proper procedure and with hypermasculinity, who had patience for neither Gus’ high-pitched squeals nor Shawn’s supernatural “hunches.” The fake psychic’s obnoxious theatrics were nothing without an exasperated reaction from Carlton… especially as those hunches kept paying off and making this old dog all the more self-conscious about his own inability to learn new tricks.
Even moreso than their eventual tango duet in Psych: The Musical, Shawn and Lassie’s song has always been the Psych theme:
I know, you know, that I’m not telling the truth
I know, you know, they just don’t have any proof
Embrace the deception, learn how to bend
Your worst inhibitions tend to psych you out in the end
Yet even as Lassiter delighted in watching Shawn get shown up by other fake psychics and even threatened to be the one to someday catch him in the act, over the course of the series this seeming antagonist shifted into a comic relief role and eventually a truly sympathetic figure. As Carlton became Lassie, so too did Psych grow beyond its cheeky premise, from a potentially one-note episodic show to a serialized dramedy about a found family solving crimes in all manner of unconventional ways—a connection that was cemented in Psych: The Movie and now in Psych 2: Lassie Come Home.
It started with Shawn noticing that Lassie needed help, even if he would never say so outright—when he encountered the detective, drunk and loose-lipped and off his game, in “From the Earth to Starbucks.” Not only was he confounded by Shawn’s skills, Lassiter confessed, but it made him feel worse about the fact that he couldn’t solve what he believed was the murder of a local astronomer who seemingly died of natural causes. Shawn, Gus, and Juliet (Maggie Lawson) spent the rest of that episode surreptitiously helping Lassiter solve what was indeed a murder, all while throwing him clues without him realizing. There was a noticeable absence of Shawn’s psychic shtick in that season 1 episode, since the point was to give Lassiter all the credit, which meant making it look like Lassiter’s way of working. Shawn didn’t have to perform, aside from moments of conspiring with Jules, because it was very much a case of What Would Lassie Do?
By the time “Lassie Did a Bad, Bad Thing” in season 3 and was the prime suspect in a criminal’s death, he knew he had no choice but to bring Psych in where the SBPD wouldn’t investigate. And in the case of “Last Night Gus” in season 6—well, it was in everyone’s best interests to solve the mystery of that Hangover-esque night. Over the years, viewers discovered along with Shawn, Gus, and Jules various Lassie quirks: He works out his daddy issues by dressing up as his Civil War ancestor and an archetypal cowboy. He enjoys tap dancing with Gus because it helps him sort through his thoughts. He falls in love with Marlowe (Kristy Swanson) despite her criminal record. He shares more and more of himself with these colleagues who become friends and then family. In turn, he comes to, if not actually believe in, then at least accept the idiosyncrasies of Psych—because like it or not, it makes his professional and personal lives better. At the same time, Shawn’s lie quietly explodes his relationship with Juliet, as it makes her doubt that he was telling her the truth about anything. Even after they reconcile, the ramifications of almost losing her cause Shawn to pull back from automatically playing the psychic card.
And then Lassiter winds up shot and recovering in a hospital bed, helpless in the most Hitchcockian fashion at the start of Psych 2, and there’s no question about who he’ll call.
Clearly creator Steve Franks and the other writers made the decision that if they were to have Lassiter as a presence in Psych’s present, they had no choice but to draw from Omundson’s personal experience recovering from a debilitating stroke. Yet it’s eerie how well this dramatic arc fits Lassiter’s character—Lassie, who may have become a big teddy bear by the end of the series, but who is still obsessed with (heterosexual, able-bodied) notions of supposed manliness. Carlton “Danger” Lassiter, who once said he would go out “in a hailstorm of bullets” if it meant catching a criminal. Now he has to face the knowledge that he may never walk again.
Interestingly, Juliet is not the one whose help Lassiter specifically requests, despite their history as partners. In fact, it’s likely their shared experience that makes him reluctant to put her in that position; if there’s someone that Carlton would be afraid to be exposed in front of, it’s his former mentee. How can he reconcile asking the one-time junior detective whom he showed the ropes to adapt to a situation where he’s still getting his bearings? To wit, he puts her off with a to-do list of errands—a throwback to their early days together, when he frequently invited her to “shut it” or otherwise stay in her lane.
Thankfully, one of the many lessons Juliet took from their time together in the field was to not obey orders when she knows she’s on to something. And so she returns to the scene of the crime where Lassiter was shot, follows up on ballistics, and locates the missing puzzle piece of the second bullet. Shawn and Gus get the ghosts, but Jules gets the shooter. Between being confined to his hospital room, and in the face of Jules’ own stubborn tenacity, Lassiter couldn’t have stopped her if he tried. In many ways, accepting help not asked for demands even more vulnerability from him.
What’s most fascinating about Shawn and Gus’ investigation in Lassie Come Home is that not for a moment do they bullshit Lassiter. This isn’t a case for Psych, it’s an act of love from two close friends—absolutely no psychic spectacle necessary. Now, one could argue that Shawn wouldn’t have even thought to make up a vision because, as far as he knows, Lassiter watched his goodbye video (in the series finale) all the way to the end, where he confessed the truth behind how he manages to solve so many crimes.
Instead, right before Shawn could give Lassiter the answer he’d dreamed of hearing for eight seasons, the detective popped out the DVD and broke it in half. At the time, this moment in the Psych canon, arguably more than his relationship with Marlowe or his identity as a father, was when Lassiter experienced his greatest character growth: He would rather pause time, to focus on all the good that Shawn had accomplished through his lie, than be right.
But time can’t stay paused forever; and if Lassiter is being clear-eyed about how Shawn solves his baffling hospital sightings in Lassie Come Home, then he also has no illusions about his inability to solve his own mystery alone. He can contribute his observations—credible and not—and draw his own conclusions, but he has to trust Shawn, Gus, and Juliet to be his eyes, ears, and legs outside of the prison of his room. He also has to accept that he’s not always present in the crime-solving; there’s a recurring theme in which Lassiter, drifting on his meds, opens his eyes to Shawn and Gus, or Juliet, waiting expectantly for him to wake up and catch up. In one scene where Shawn goes to ask his advice about fatherhood, Lassie is completely asleep, an incredible display of vulnerability from both Lassiter and Omundson.
Yet as we learn in his final showdown with the murderous nurse Dolores (Sarah Chalke), just because Lassiter closes his eyes doesn’t mean he’s out for the count. The way he outwits her is Lassiter to a tee: Even while slipping away from the fatal morphine drip, he has enough wherewithal to grab one of three (three!) guns he had stashed in his hospital room—just like in “Lassie Did a Bad, Bad Thing.”
But this time, instead of being all cool and flipping the bullet into his hand, this Lassiter is babbling to the morphine-induced hallucination of his dead father (Joel McHale) about how much it hurt to lose him, about how he’s afraid he’ll leave his daughter to grow up without a father just like he did.
The moment is played for laughs, with Dolores’ face screwing up into incredulity—this guy has a gun pulled on her, and he’s still mumbling closure to his ghost dad? But for fans, it’s tantamount to the DVD moment: Lassiter has finally found the way to be unguarded, to embrace the ridiculousness of the present moment without self-consciousness, without losing sight of the perp. Even though he has the upper hand, he’s still scared about what he’s going to do when he gets out of this room. He can put away a killer, but he can’t predict his own future beyond the hospital.
Which makes his reunion with Marlowe—witnessed only by Jules and Henry (Corbin Bernsen)—all the more moving. Another character in another narrative wouldn’t have cared if he returned to his wife in a wheelchair, wouldn’t have agonized over mustering enough strength to stand face-to-face with her. But it’s Lassiter, with specific ideas about what it means to be a man, and for him that means looking Marlowe in the eye so they can press their hands together—this time not glass between them, nor either of their pasts, but this new challenge—in solidarity.
Lassiter’s not perfect: He has a lot of toxic masculinity left to unlearn, and he owns an appalling number of guns. He’s still more conservative than not. Because he’s a cop who becomes more sympathetic, his narrative contributes to the larger cultural trend of “copaganda” on television. It’s the same problematic issue that faces the characters on Brooklyn Nine-Nine: Even if he’s lovable, and especially because of this fact, his identity as a police officer complicates the conversation around his character growth.
But within the world of Psych, he’s a character with a worthwhile arc. Like Lassiter, the series started out following a strict formula, and only after it had relaxed into something stronger than its premise—its talented ensemble, ‘80s riffs, and library of delightful in-jokes and callbacks—could it grow beyond its initial form.
Speaking of in-jokes… For the 100-plus teases, hints, and outright cameos the series gave us of its signature symbol, we all failed to spot Psych’s most important pineapple appearance.
Lassiter is the pineapple! Prickly on the outside, sweet (but still tart) on the inside. Often difficult to spot, but so rewarding to find. Case closed.