In the beginning, just a short decade and a half ago, was a void. Then came the first signs of intelligent life: odd animated children, a phobia-laden crime investigator, an angry cop. But for a stretch, it was unclear whether these pioneers were the start of a trend or mere aberrations in the emptiness. It took a second wave of shows to prove that basic cable television was a force to be reckoned with.
Let’s pause to tip our hats to one of them, “Psych,” whose final episode is on Wednesday night.
Today, some of the best and most popular series are on basic cable: “The Walking Dead,” “Mad Men” and the recently concluded “Breaking Bad,” on AMC; “The Americans,” on FX; “Suits,” on USA. It’s easy to forget just how recently it was that basic cable was a wasteland of reruns, bad talk shows and professional wrestling, a technological capability looking for a reason to exist.
Comedy Central’s “South Park,” appearing in 1997, demonstrated that basic cable could be a home for series that were too off-the-wall for network television, though it took some time for shows with actual humans in them to follow suit. Then, in the last decade, a few began to garner critical praise and register with a mainstream audience.
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Michael Chiklis won a 2002 Emmy Award for his work on the fearless FX cop series “The Shield,” and the next year Tony Shalhoub won his first of three for USA’s “Monk.”
Basic cable had shown that it could offer something more than junk, but it took a subsequent generation of series to prove that it could do so regularly and that an audience would be there to watch. “Psych,” which made its debut in July 2006 on USA, was one of these.
It gave the quirky crime fighter conceit a bromance twist, pairing Dulé Hill and James Roday as Gus and Shawn, lifelong friends who help the police, Shawn pretending to be a psychic. Hill had a bit of recognition from a long run on “The West Wing,” but Roday was something less than a household name.
“I wasn’t even an outhouse name,” he said last week as he and Hill sat for a lunchtime interview. “People weren’t even talking about me in bathrooms.”
The network slotted the show on Friday nights after “Monk,” and the trick worked: The premiere drew more than 6 million viewers. Many turned into Psych-os, as hard-core fans are known, though Roday and Hill at first didn’t realize just how rabid their followers were, since this was before social media took off.
“We film in Vancouver,” Hill said, “and the show didn’t air in Canada early on, so we really were removed from the reception it was receiving in the U.S.”
It took a trip to Comic-Con in San Diego in 2009 to drive home that they had a cult following.
“We were all worried, because they told us they had put us in the second-biggest ballroom for a panel, which held like 5,000 people,” Roday said. “And we were like, ‘This is going to be a nightmare; we’re going to walk out, and there’s going to be 400 people scattered about a 5,000-seat ballroom, and it’s going to be humiliating.’”
Instead, the place was packed. A loyal fan base is what you get if you make a show that is consistently good and consistently surprising, and “Psych,” created by Steve Franks, always had that balance down pretty well. The series tried all sorts of things: a “Twin Peaks” homage in 2010, a “Shining”-themed episode in 2012, a musical episode this season.
“A lot of people told us at the beginning, ‘If you want to stay on the air, the way you do it is, you remake the pilot 16 times a year,’” Roday recalled. “That didn’t sound very interesting to me.”
“Psych” was a bridge show that helped get us to the basic cable of today, though, paradoxically, today’s landscape might be less forgiving. Because the cable schedule was still relatively empty in 2006, “Psych” had the luxury of time, much more rare now, as anyone at A&E’s “Those Who Kill” (just put on hiatus after two episodes) might attest.
“They had no choice but to give us time to find our legs, because they didn’t have any other programming,” Roday said. “That’s huge, and that’s almost impossible to find anymore.”