Being a new show, The Grinder is still trying to figure out the right dynamic between its central couple, and considering Rob Lowe has his over-the-top, pause-heavy dramatics down pat, that responsibility mainly weighs on Fred Savage’s Stewart. He needs to provide a realistic counterpoint to his brother’s flights of fancy, but if he’s too much of an endless killjoy, then the show isn’t much fun (to say nothing of wasting Savage’s talents). “Dedicating This One to the Crew” has achieved the best balance yet of Stewart’s Dean-weariness and secret enthusiasm, as he’s initially skeptical of Dean’s plot to get Ethan the role he deserves in a school play but ends up getting all too enthused about it. The results make for better comedy, without sacrificing Savage’s straight-man cred.
As the show has not been shy about highlighting, little Ethan, despite his scrawny looks, takes far more after his uncle than his father, a conflict that rears its head again when the school play is staged and his dad encourages him to join the crew. Stewart hopes his son will follow in his footsteps leading the Shadow Boys, a group of stage crew members so adept they could barely be heard. But while Ethan displays a talent for holding a flashlight in his mouth, Dean thinks it might be even better if he “put a little Shakespeare in there,” especially since, by amazing coincidence, the character he’s trying out for is “skinny, precocious, articulate, 12 years old, looks 9, wise beyond his years.” (Where was this magical play when I wasn’t getting cast in school plays for precisely those reasons?)
Dean vows to get to the bottom of the offense, and as usual, he’s unnervingly right: something is afoot with the show, namely that the director, his former schoolmate Sandy Malmuth (Michael Showalter of Stella and Wet Hot American Summer fame), still resents Dean for stealing a part away from him in high school after his football career came to a close. (“Without going into too much detail, I was having sex with the hottest girl in the school in her parents’ shower and I slipped.”) He admits to not casting Ethan to spite Dean, but Stewart is still aghast when Dean threatens to sue the school. But after Todd “hacks” Malmuth’s laptop — by stealing it — and finds evidence that Ethan’s audition video was deleted, he joins the effort with a virulence that would get an actual parent bounced from the school campus for batshit insanity.
This being Sitcom World, though, the Sanderson brothers convince the school’s principal to hold an impartial second audition for Ethan, and it’s Stewart who saves the day by hiding in the shadows when the principal admits that Ethan deserves the part and that Malmuth is blackmailing him. It’s clear that Savage is excited to be given something to do other than roll his eyes, and he makes the most of the opportunity, bounding on both of them with obvious glee before delicately skulking back into the dark. Once a Shadow Boy, always a Shadow Boy.
Unfortunately, the show’s renewed attention to the Dean-Stewart relationship is simultaneously its best quality and its worst, because everyone else in the cast besides them and Ethan once again goes largely neglected. Natalie Morales’s Claire still has barely any character development beyond “Dean skeptic,” and don’t get me started on Debbie, who is still essentially a therapist robot for Stewart in attractive-wife form. (With that said, I continue to appreciate Mary Elizabeth Ellis’s attempts to pack as much wallop as she can into the one or two good lines per episode she gets; her insistence that her childhood was rough-and-tumble because “North Boise has some very rough patches” was great.)
I also felt like the show’s attempt to shoehorn in a fatherhood lesson with Dean Sr. having given his sons different expectations was incredibly forced, especially with a weird throwaway scene of Stewart deciding to change course on an obvious settlement case because he found some last-minute (and otherwise completely unmentioned) evidence. There should have been a way to more deeply tie the rejection of his father’s bad advice to his willingness to let loose in the Ethan situation, but the writers didn’t take the time or effort to go there, and bookending the whole thing with some weird gay-panic jokes about men crying and/or hugging was a crappy touch. Nonetheless, this was probably the most promising Grinder episode yet, and I’m hoping that the show can further refine the Stewart-Dean relationship without completely neglecting the rest of the cast.
- Michael Showalter is pretty much always welcome in anything. His line reading of “The saddest, scaredest man in Sleepy Hollow” actually made me LOL. (Don’t mock his accent: “It’s regional and historically accurate!”)
- Speaking of great guest stars, how is Steve Little not officially a regular yet? Aside from Rob Lowe, he gets the best lines of the show, and he nails them all. “Anyone want to trade lunches? I kind of panicked and ordered outside my comfort zone.” “Learn from this, Todd.”
- Sanderson-Yao is definitely not Lockhart-Gardner: “How quickly can we set up a meeting with our hacker?” “Uh, never, because we don’t have one?” Also: “May I have a moment to confer with co-counsel?” “You mean, to talk to your dad?”
- “Does Debbie Have a Job” Watch: We still do not know if Debbie has a job.
- This week’s best line from The Fake Grinder: “This man sees and hears more with his heart than he ever could with his useless eyes and ears.”
- The look of utter confusion shared between Stewart and the principal while Dean and Sandy had their stare-off was pretty priceless.
- On the difference between actors and crew: “We win all the awards and they hand us all the awards … because they’re on the crew of the awards show.”