Why ‘Psych’s Love Letter to ‘Twin Peaks’ Needs to Be Watched Now More Than Ever
‘Structurally Sound’ is a recurring feature where each week a different structurally unusual, rule-breaking anomaly of an episode from a comedy series is examined.
“How about a cup of the best piping hot apple cider on this side of the Mississippi and a slice of cinnamon pie that may just bring tears.”
At a first glance, Psych might not appear to be that special of a television show. But it’s that very same level of deception that the characters within the series use to fuel so many of their brilliant, farcical adventures. Psych follows the pursuits of crime consultant Shawn Spencer (James Roday), who exhibits “heightened observational skills.” When these are paired with his top-notch sleuthing abilities, Shawn’s able to convince many members of Santa Barbara’s unsuspecting population that he’s actually a psychic detective. Along for the ride is his partner, Gus (Dulé Hill), who acts as the perfect grounded foil to Shawn’s more exaggerated attitude. This all makes for a very simple premise and the sort of approach that would fuel much of the “Characters Welcome” mandate of the burgeoning comedy slate on the USA Network.
Thanks to its simple formula, Psych is able to throw everything into genre send-ups and has inevitably become a series that’s much more about style and form than the larger, overarching story itself (not that that’s not also given respect and consideration). Other than Community, I can’t think of another show that features more elaborate and accomplished “theme episodes.” The typical homage machine that Psych so often functions as has seen the show doing send-ups of things like slasher films, the filmography of Alfred Hitchcock and John Hughes, musicals, and they even indulge in a “remake” of one of their first season’s episodes all the way in the 8th season. Something particularly special was created when the series tried their hand at crafting a Lynch-y, unusual murder mystery in 2010. The experiment would result in “Dual Spires” being one of the most popular episodes that Psych would ever produce. With Lynch’s Twin Peaks back on television and weirder than ever, it’s never been more appropriate to revisit Psych’s glowing tribute to the series.
The impetus behind “Dual Spires” interestingly came from series star James Roday. Roday is a colossal Twin Peaks fan, and doing an episode that referenced Lynch’s pivotal ‘90s series was something that he had been wanting the show to attempt ever since its first season. During the show’s fifth year Roday finally got his wish. Roday scripted the installment along with Bill Callahan, with Roday handling all of the references and Peaks territory and Callahan figuring out the actual plot and mystery to tie it all together. Dual Spires’ local Cinnamon Festival is what brings Gus and Shawn into the tiny, quirky town where nothing is as it seems…except the cinnamon. The cinnamon’s completely on the level. But it’s not too long until the town’s homecoming queen, Paula Merral (yeah, that’s an anagram for Laura Palmer), washes up on shore, dead, and wrapped in a material that should be all too familiar to any fan of Lynch’s series.
With Psych lending itself to such a revolving door of genres that are attempted throughout its run, the idea of Gus and Shawn stumbling into a self-contained town full of Lynchian caricatures not only seems right up the show’s alley, but also something that’s too good to be true. They even provide a totally organic reason for why a Lynchian neighborhood might be acting so peculiar in the first place. No one was ever asking for an explanation to ground the mysterious town of Twin Peaks, but “Dual Spires” does a pretty damn good job at the task just because Psych doesn’t take place in some quasi-mystical universe. Dual Spires is full of plenty quirky touches that poke fun at Lynch’s iconic town. It’s a simple town where things like the internet, too much money, or just an invasion of modern progress are seen as “too much trouble” (the only piece of pop culture that the town celebrates is that they all get together once a week to watch Everwood).
Once Shawn and Gus get over to Dual Spires and the mystery is set in motion, the episode has fun with its many references, and not a single opportunity is wasted or not mined for maximum comedic potential. “Dual Spires” makes countless allusions to Twin Peaks (there are apparently a whopping 724 references in this), going all the way from the episode having a healthy obsession with ceiling fans, to silent window shades that are “invented by some women in Washington in the early ‘90s” being featured, to the town’s newspaper being called The Great Northern. Shawn and Gus originally receive their murder tip from an e-mail coming from email@example.com, then later on Gus even mimics Andy’s bizarre style of crying from the series. Hell, Catherine E. Coulson plays an eccentric lady known as the Wood Woman!
It’s almost overwhelming that practically every line is a reference or somehow linked to Lynch and Frost’s series. Something this intensive could understandably collapse under its own weight, but this is actually one of the most genuine love letters out there. Even if you’re wholly unfamiliar with Twin Peaks, there’s still a quirky, interesting murder mystery here to keep you interested, with the entry hopefully instilling the same feeling of unpredictable magic in its audience as Lynch’s original series. The content is also fairly reflexive, which just makes it fun to watch. It’s hard to not enjoy gags like how Dual Spires switches coffee and cherry pie to “damn hot cider” and cinnamon pie. Or how Coulson’s Wood Woman is talking to her piece of wood, which is deemed too ridiculous, before it’s suddenly revealed that the actual human child that she’s talking to is merely hiding out of frame. The fact that the episode itself was coordinated to air on the 20th anniversary of Twin Peaks’ 17th episode (the one where you find out who killed Laura Palmer) is just the garmonbozia on the cake.
The “Dual Spires’” script has a lot to get excited about, but the cast that Psych manages to assemble is also a damn triumph. Seven cast members from Twin Peaks are pulled together here: Dana Ashbrook, Sherilyn Fenn, Sheryl Lee, Robyn Lively, Lenny Von Dohlen, Catherine E. Coulson, and Ray Wise; with both Madchen Amick and Michael Ontkean also being asked, but ultimately being unable to appear. A lot of fun is had with all of these actors, like how Dana Ashbrook (Bobby Briggs) is again playing a character named Bob. What’s even better is that Sheryl Lee plays the town’s doctor who spends her time chastising the reckless Paula’s behavior and vices. This becomes all the more poignant considering Lee’s history as the equally out of control Laura Palmer. Each of her lines suddenly become injected with that much more purpose as she talks about how “troubled” and “full of secrets” Paula was. Not only that, but in the end the big twist is that Sheryl Lee gets to be the murderer this time instead of the victim. Ray Wise, who plays an existing character on Psych, also makes an appearance, with the show even having his hair turn white from out of nowhere because how can you not (“It was an ill-advised attempt to cover up some grey that went terribly wrong…”)? Lynch himself was originally the first choice to play the mayor of Dual Spires, Douglas Fir, but Roday never ended up asking Lynch over concern of what he might have thought of the episode. Fortunately, David Lynch’s daughter, Jennifer, has directed several episodes of the series after “Dual Spires” and reports that David Lynch has since seen it and is a fan.
There’s obviously a lot of respect for Twin Peaks present in this episode, but it also knows how to create tight, comedic scenes out of the absurd set pieces that Lynch inserts in his work. For instance, when Paula Merral’s body is discovered, the residents of Dual Spires break out into the same pained, melodramatic sobbing that became iconic in the Twin Peaks pilot. The scene tells the same sorrowful story here, until the camera pans over to Shawn and Gus, the outsiders. Their reaction to what’s going on is the perfect undercutting to Peaks’ weirdness that makes this material even stronger. It’s not just making blank references to the series, but it’s actively deconstructing it through Psych’s lens.
The aesthetics of the episode also try their hardest to emulate Lynch’s style. The series is impressively able to get Julee Cruise to reinterpret the Psych theme as well as lending “Kool Kat Walk” for the episode’s ending. The imagery that accompanies this is an almost shot-for-shot recreation of the Twin Peaks opening sequence. They even get a white horse in there, too! Additionally, the score and incidental music also try to do their best Badalamenti impression throughout the episode. It’s eerie how close the song that’s used as the proxy for “Laura Palmer’s Theme” is to the original. It’s like one note off. “Dual Spires” also does its best to recreate shots from out of Twin Peaks, resulting in an episode that looks very different than most of Psych’s library (it certainly has the most unsettling close-ups on the smiling faces of extras). The Lynchian angles and shots that linger for just too long end up making this one of Psych’s creepiest installments, but never going so far that it’s distracting or feels like the foundation of the series has been overpowered. In fact, the end of episode perfectly underscores this idea. The Psych cast ends up getting tacitly disgusted by simply too much Twin Peaks invading their environment. What was once cute is now just too weird for them, and they have to get out of what has become a nightmare.
This slick, aware ending is a great way for “Dual Spires” to go out, but even if it didn’t nail the conclusion, every single minute of this is a delight. It’s an episode that can turn Psych fans into Twin Peaks nuts and Twin Peaks obsessives into Psych lovers. And who knows, maybe Lodge Blackman will end up moseying into Washington during Lynch’s return to the series this year. Someone’s got to eat all of that cinnamon pie after all.