Like other sitcoms that pit a charming doofus against a world-wise schmuck, The Grinder enjoys having it both ways. Stewart and Dean both need to be right most of the time, and that’s a tough balancing act to maintain. Stewart is pretty straitlaced and Dean is pretty deluded, even by sitcom standards.
Thankfully, the deftness of the show’s writing is catching up to the talents of its leading actors. This week’s Grinder is, once again, a marked improvement on the episode that came before it, with funnier jokes and much more interesting plot threads.
As always, the fake Grinder sets the tone for the aspect of Dean’s identity we explore in the episode. His role, which involves an elaborate role-playing scheme as a British barrister, is the best the show has concocted so far. (Stewart: “He slept with that guy’s wife while wearing his face! I think that’s illegal!” Dean Sr.: “Not in Europe.”) The real Dean also wears a mask, if you can call it that. It’s the mask of Famous Person, which gets him out of all sorts of scrapes. He decides to be a real human for once: He waits in lines at restaurants, refuses boxes of free socks, and even suffers the indignity of ordering his own coffee.
Of course, denying Dean the attention that he photosynthesizes into energy doesn’t end well — especially after he runs a stop sign and gets pulled over by a cop. (The cop is played by an unexpected, but extremely welcome Nathan Fielder, who I didn’t realize had a guest-slot-on-network-sitcom level of fame, or sufficient time off from being comedy’s answer to Marina Abramović to ascend to it). He really wants to let Dean off the hook for his misdeed (“My wife and I have this free pass thing where we both get to pick a celebrity …” “And I’m hers?” “Er, sure, yeah …”), but Dean insists on getting the ticket, since that’s what normal people do. The only problem? Normal people also fight their tickets, even when they’re in the wrong. The episode hasn’t even hit its midpoint before Dean is grinding away in court, once again charming Rose Abdoo’s starstruck judge, whom we haven’t seen since the pilot.
Stewart, on the other hand, is the actual suffering everyman of the Sanderson clan. He desperately needs a mechanic to fix his car in time for a weekend getaway (or, as everyone else wants to call it, a “sex vacation”) with his wife. At Dean Sr.’s suggestion, he tries to use Dean’s celebrity to get things done, but Dean has none of it: “People with TV shows aren’t more great than those who tragically don’t have them,” he insists. So, Stewart takes a page from Claire — who correctly predicts that tricking Dean is about as easy as tricking her dog to go to the vet — and sneakily uses his brother picking him up as an incentive to get the repairs done.
That would have been enough, but from there, things get byzantine. The owner is so starstruck by Dean that he offers to finish Stewart’s repairs for free … but he’s felled by a ruptured appendix when Stewart and Dean come to pick the car up. The new mechanic doesn’t know that the brothers are getting the repair gratis, and when they take the cap without paying, he calls Fielder’s cop on them. Fielder is still harboring a vendetta from the earlier court case and throws them in jail. They manage to get out early by manipulating a guard, but Dean goes back inside again because he feels like skipping out isn’t authentic to his normal mission.
I’m confused just typing all of that out, much less trying to analyze what the show wants to say about Dean’s celebrity. This is a character who’s astute enough to realize that he can’t skip out of jail without doing irreparable damage to his reputation, but also clueless enough to compare his time in the clink to Martin Luther King Jr.’s imprisonment. Trying to understand what, if any, motive The Grinder has in its examination of celebrity only ends with me wishing that I’d paid more attention in my collegiate literary-theory seminars.
On the major upside, there’s some plot movement around Debbie. After seven agonizing episodes, her employment status has finally been mentioned. Though “Does Debbie Have a Job Watch” has ended, now I get to convert it to “What Is Debbie’s Job Watch”, since the show doesn’t actually get around to mentioning what, exactly, she does. Still, a plotline that passes the Bechdel test is a goddamn miracle by the standards of The Grinder, and Debbie’s conflict with her clueless assistant was enjoyable, if a little bit paint-by-numbers. Getting to see her bring a conflict of her own to the marital bed was a nice change.
Also, I can’t overstate how refreshing it was to see some location shots and new sets in this episode. It seems like new network sitcoms are being kept on a tight leash with location budgets, and as a result, shows can feel claustrophobic before they’ve even had a chance to fully establish themselves. I hope we get to see more coffee trucks and auto-body shops and jail cells and whatever else the show wants to feature, because anything’s better than another week of the same three-set grind. After all, there’s only one kind of grind we’re here to see.
- Fielder makes the most of his weird, spacey delivery. On his son’s championship soccer game: “He scored the winning goal. I wasn’t there, but at least his stepdad got to see it.”
- The hardest part of giving up your fame? No more late-night Boggle with Paul Giamatti.
- Mitch Grinder’s full name is Mitchard? Now, if you’ll excuse him, he has a lorry to catch.
- Dean’s mantra for the fake Grinder’s writers: “What makes the Grinder the Grinder is that he never gets by on just being the Grinder.” How often do you think this is repeated in the actual writer’s room?
- This show in three sentences — Dean: “Never stop fighting!” News reporter: “Stop fighting what?” Stewart: “I have no idea.”