I know it won't last, but the infusion of Hollywood has been a real shot in the arm for The Grinder. The show has never had a problem maintaining its daffy faux-dramatic tone, but it often struggles to wrap that worldview around something interesting. This week's episode opened exactly where it should: The family gathers 'round the tube, not to watch another triumphant Dean rerun but friend turned enemy Timothy Olyphant playing the Grinder's brother in a New Orleans–set spinoff. The Sanderson clan is appropriately horrified by Olyphant's performance, and by his willingness to be treated like a shirtless piece of meat — except, of course, for Stewart, who can't see why there wouldn't be an audience for the Grinder's "less-cool, less-handsome brother," as Dean puts it. Poor Stewart.
Dean's spinoff woes come to a head immediately, as Cliff Bemis, the showrunner played by Jason Alexander, dramatically enters the Sanderson & Yao conference room to try to bring him back to TV. (I love how he responds to Todd's introduction with a warm "Thank you, son.") In Grinder world, the Twittersphere has been baying for Mitchard Grinder to pass the torch to Olyphant's character, Rake. Bemis wants Mitch to save his brother and everyone else from a bomb, dying a hero in the process.
Needless to say, the possible death of the fictional character who defined his existence is devastating for Dean — and even more devastating for Stewart, who sees the door quickly closing on Dean's chance to return to TV, and thus never getting out of his hair. It's a feeling to which I can relate, as I spent most of the episode repeating this mantra in my brain: Please, show, don't kill off the Mitch character and send the Hollywood plotlines away! I can't bear another story line about how Ethan is the seventh grade's biggest player and his dad is uncomfortable with it!
Unfortunately for me and Stewart, the Grinder does indeed die. At least it's an engaging farewell. After poring over contracts to give Dean the legal leverage to get the ending he actually wants, Stewart shoots himself in the foot by being a little too enthusiastic about ensuring the specifics (namely, the "black girlfriend" Dean wants to cast to heal race relations in America). Dean realizes that his brother wants him gone, and the resulting emotional beat is surprisingly raw. Stewart plainly confesses that he's feeling squeezed out of his own family, especially when he tries to give his son advice and he straight-up doesn't listen to him. Dean, however, feels betrayed. "First my TV brother stabs me in the back, then the real one. I don't know which one hurts worse," he says, exiting the room. After a beat, he returns: "I've given it some thought. It's the real one."
Since Dean is a Method actor — he's motivated by cluelessness more than training, but hey, whatever you need to get your shirt off — Stewart has to literally step into the world of The Grinder to make things right. The resulting scene is great, letting Stewart embrace the pregnant pauses and dramatic reveals that are normally Dean's stock-in-trade. His invented plotline as presumed-dead brother Barry Grinder, who inexplicably arrives to put rat poison in Mitch's drink, is totally unusable for the show-within-a-show, but it's a terrific comic moment between Rob Lowe and Fred Savage, who even credibly manages to ape the thousand-yard stare. Of course, no one buys into Stewart's brief career change, unlike his brother's:
Dean Sr.: "You're a lawyer, you can't just be an actor!"
Dean: "It's true, I did go to school for this."
I'm glad that the show finally found something to do with Natalie Morales's Claire, who's barely been in the most recent run of episodes. Like most red-blooded American women, she has the hots for Timothy Olyphant, and ends up hooking up with him by the end of the episode. (Almost immediately, she runs out of tolerance for his nonsense and gives him an ultimatum to get it on or get out, which is great.) Mitch Grinder may be dead, but I'm hoping that his weird sibling rivalry will continue to live on, because I'll definitely be in mourning if this is the last entertainment-industry-centric Grinder plot we see for a while.
- It's the title of the episode, but Rob Lowe's stagey rat-poison collapse and utterance of "Grinder rests … in peace" was still really funny.
- The scene where the Sanderson brothers try to convince Bemis to switch Grinder plotlines was terrific, from the dialogue ("So he works hard, plays hard." "Hard is all he knows." "By day a black cape, by night a white linen shirt.") to Fred Savage's amazing little seat-dance when they reference Mitch's Cuban nightclub, which needs to be turned into a GIF.
- In case you missed it, Vulture profiled Lowe and Savage on set. Sounds like they're having a blast.
- Also in Grinder news this week: Vox declared it the funniest new show of the year. I like the show and it's unquestionably improving, but I think that might be an overstatement. Your thoughts?
- Timothy Olyphant continues to kill it. The show-within-the-show bit at the end where he has sex with the female lead on top of his brother's dead body at the morgue had me howling.