In the center of the room, like a small island amid a sea of crime solving, stands a group of people deep in conversation. One of the men, a civilian dressed in a polo shirt and khakis, is gesticulating wildly, his voice a high-pitched whine of excitement. His audience—two detectives and another civilian—stand around him, staring in disbelief.
The man, who is claiming to be a psychic with super-sleuth abilities, says he’s just solved the department’s most mysterious case.
It looks like someone is about to be escorted to the nearest psych ward when, suddenly, a disembodied voice booms:
No, it’s not a detained gang member screaming about slicing someone with his switchblade.
It’s Mel Damski, executive producer of the TV show Psych and director of the episode currently filming.
The bustling building—complete with mission-style architecture and blooming bougainvillea bushes—isn’t a police station. In fact it’s not even a real building. It’s a set, and it isn’t located on one of Santa Barbara’s palm-treed streets, but rather a sound stage in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Created by Steve Franks in 2006, the crime comedy Psych is now in its fourth season on USA Network. The show centers on Santa Barbara native Shawn Spencer (James Roday), an aspiring sleuth who was raised by his policeman father to notice every detail of the world around him.
Shawn can’t hold a job and instead spends his time anonymously tipping off the police with clues he gathers while watching the local news. But rather than thanking him, the department’s top detectives eventually bring him in for questioning. To avoid arrest, Shawn uses his abilities to con the officials into believing he’s psychic. Shawn’s tips and impromptu performance, however, are so good the skeptical police chief ends up hiring him as “head psychic.”
Thrilled with the prospect of solving crimes for a living, Shawn talks his best friend, Gus (Dulé Hill), into opening a psychic detective agency with him. Together, the friends banter and fake their way through solving Santa Barbara’s toughest cases.
Psych is one of primetime’s only shows set permanently on the Central Coast.
“[Creator] Steve Franks and his wife, April, went to Santa Barbara on their honeymoon,” Damski said. “At the time, he was developing the idea for Psych. He knew he didn’t want a big city atmosphere. He wanted a place that was beautiful.”
Santa Barbara had beauty going for it, but it didn’t really have the brains, so to speak.
“We wanted to set and film it in Santa Barbara, but the area doesn’t really have enough crewmembers,” Damski said. “They would have had to live in hotel rooms half the year.”
Explained Damski: “Vancouver has a built-in filming community.”
So with Vancouver came the equipment and crew, but so did the snow and pine-tree-peppered mountains—some very un-Santa Barbara-like features.
This, of course, called for some creative problem solving from the show’s several artistic departments.
One solution: Use props people would actually find in the Santa Barbara area.
“You usually find when re-creating anything, but especially a place, it adds another layer that people, maybe not consciously but definitely subconsciously, notice if you use something real,” prop master Pat O’Brien said. “It gives the place more authenticity.”
Adds O’Brien: “And you don’t have to worry about it being a made-up name or item.”
With this in mind, crewmembers started researching the Santa Barbara area. And, eventually, they made their way to the Sun.
“We were looking for a local newspaper to give the show that ‘Santa Barbara in the summer’ feel. We wanted something with lots of color,” Damski explained. “Plus, the Sun sounds good—it has name appeal. You hear ‘sun’ and you think of warmth and fun.”
For the last three and a half years, the show’s characters have perused the Sun’s pages on the small screen, using articles as evidence or even as a way to hide from unwanted pests.
Having that touch of authenticity is important to all of the show’s employees, especially Damski.
An Arroyo Grande resident since 2001, Damski owns a local winery, Lyrica Wine Company, and has taught film classes at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo.
“I’m constantly ragging on the writers,” he said. “Writers typically like to use the names of places from their childhoods or the names of their friends in their scripts. But I’m pretty sensitive about it because I live there.”
But staying true to Santa Barbara can sometimes prove difficult.
Located off the I5, White Rock boasts the closest thing to a Santa Barbara coastline in the Vancouver area. Still, it’s no Central Coast.
“We’ll give all the extras beach towels and surfboards. Of course, no one surfs in Vancouver, but it’s all part of the show,” prop master O’Brien said. “The extras often complain because they’re in shorts and swimsuits ... and it’s 50 degrees outside. We try to make it look warm.”
And there are plenty of other differences.
“We have to drive to Bellingham (Wash.) to buy food and other products because all of the Canadian stuff has the wrong measurements on it,” he said.
Food is a big focal point in the show because main characters Shawn and Gus are huge junk food aficionados.
Getting any kind of Mexican food, he said, can prove difficult. And then there are the pineapples. As part of an online contest, the crew hides a pineapple somewhere on set during every episode.
“It’s always in the background,” O’Brien said. “Like one time we had a guy making balloon animals on the boardwalk in White Rock. So we had him make a pineapple.
“It can be challenging to come up with new ways to hide a pineapple,” he added.
But, according to art director Jenny Donaldson, “There are some things we just can’t hide, like all the giant fir trees we have around here.”
Overall, Donaldson said, “It’s more important to make it look cool and to Santa Barbara-ify it. We do that by adding a lot of greenery and warm colors.”
Other departments try to incorporate that distinct California style into their designs and projects.
The most obvious example of this is the police station set. With its Spanish tile arches and large, airy walkways, the police station is so Santa Barbara one might expect to smell a sweet ocean breeze wafting through the window.
“We wanted something that was professional yet homey,” explained set decorator Penny Chalmers. “We wanted it to be more of a local police department instead of a high-end CSI-esque crime set.”
The result is a set—and a show—that exudes the warm, friendly personality of Santa Barbara, and a quirky sense of humor all its own.
Contact News Editor Amy Asman at [email protected].