Creator Steve Franks, star and co-writer James Roday, star Maggie Lawson, and director John Landis chat about the seriously spooky Halloween episode
Airing in March 2007 and co-written by creator Steve Franks and star James Roday, the Psych season 1 finale “Scary Sherry: Bianca’s Toast” was a send-up of sorority slasher films that had fake psychic detectives Shawn (Roday) and Gus (Dulé Hill) investigating the connection between a supposedly haunted mental institution and the deaths of two college students in a sorority. Meanwhile, Detective Juliet O’Hara (Maggie Lawson) goes undercover in the sorority house and gets lost in her role, which became a major character trait going forward. Directed by John Landis (Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” An American Werewolf in London), this installment of the USA Network show marked the first time Roday and Franks ever wrote an episode together.
STEVE FRANKS: We wanted to do something big and something fun, and we were excited that [John Landis] was one of the people we were circling as a director for that point. We wanted to have something great to deliver to him. James is such a crazed horror buff that we were just talking about what we could write together.
JAMES RODAY: It was my first foray into television writing. The directive, if I recall correctly, was two-fold: One, we wanted to do something a little more immersive with Maggie’s character because, you know, [for a first season], the rule is mostly, “Okay, make a pilot and then make the pilot 12 more times.” Toward the end of that season is when we started feeling like, “Hey, we’ve got these other characters on the show that we really dig. We haven’t really done a [Detective Juliet O’Hara] episode and we’re almost done with the season. So, let’s a) come up with something that’s really fun for her, and b) let’s make it scary,” or let’s dip our toe. So, I immediately went to Black Christmas and House on Sorority Row.
MAGGIE LAWSON: I had so much fun with that. I think in season 1, I spent so much time as the new detective and I was the one that had to be by the book. I was the girl. So, I felt by that episode I got to be funny. When I read that, I said to both of them, “Thank you,” because it gave me a lot of insight into my character, too, and we sort of went on that run for awhile where anytime I go undercover, I just go a little crazy.
JOHN LANDIS: I just got called, “Would you come up and do this show?” And I thought, “Well, I don’t know.” Then, James called me and was very convincing on the phone, so I did it.
Roday, Franks, and Landis viewed this episode, which featured the series’ most gruesome death up to that point, as an opportunity to push the boundaries of the show.
RODAY: In my first draft, [sorority sister] Bianca [Chelan Simmons] was decapitated at the top of a staircase, and then her head bounced down the stairs one at a time and landed at the bottom. The killer was dressed in a suit of armor at the top of the staircase with an ax. Steve was like, “I just don’t think we can do that.” Then we went back to the drawing board and came up with the old toaster in the bathtub.
LANDIS: [Steve] allowed me to basically shoot it any way I wanted, which is unusual on television because TV series have house styles and directors are usually like traffic cops. My first thought was, “Well, how grisly are these killings? How scary can I make them?” Then it became clear very quickly that I really [couldn’t] make them too scary because that’s not the tone of the show. So that was a balance to strike.
RODAY: The stunt where the girl gets backed into the window and falls to her death was something we initially were not going to show. And John was like, “Do you want everyone to immediately stamp you as a basic-cable show that has no money?” We were like, “Well, no…” He’s like, “Then you do the stunt! Trust me, it’s worth it.”
The episode also builds to one of the show’s most intense fight scenes: Juliet versus an ax-wielding Shannon Woodward (Westworld), who played a student with revenge on the brain.
FRANKS: When [the network] saw the idea for the big ax fight at the end with Juliet, there were a lot of calls that came in about “what the hell are you guys doing?” It was just the perfect storm.
LAWSON: There’s a shot where the ax goes right past my face into the wall and I look at it; I give it this sort of whip around. My eyes go really big. They really wanted this shot of my eyes looking really big. Well, the only way an ax can go through a piece of wood is if it’s a real ax — and that was really me! So, here we are, I’m on the set and I’m like, “Where’s the stunt ax?” There is no stunt ax. They had a trained professional landing that shot.
In the end, “Scary Sherry: Bianca’s Toast” set the tone for the show going forward, becoming the first in a long line of parody episodes that came to define Psych‘s eight-season run.
FRANKS: This was the first serious salvo for the battle for complete insanity on the show. [The network was] like, “We don’t know what we’re going to do with this. Guess we have to go along.” The thing that saved it is that it looked amazing. It looked like a movie. John’s the one who brought true, huge production value to the show. It became the marker of what this show can and will be.
Roday and Franks co-wrote Psych: The Movie, which will air Dec. 7 on USA Network.