The Grinder has quickly become one of the strangest shows I've ever seen. Though it began as a gentle, fish-out-of-water family comedy with some meta-analysis of TV tropes, it's veered suddenly into a wider exploration of show business. In "The Olyphant in the Room," it's trying to achieve some bizarre fusion of the two.
After the past two episodes, in which Timothy Olyphant arrives to play the televised Grinder's brother and muck things up emotionally for Dean, I figured the show would go in one of two directions: a deeper dive into showbiz satire, or a return to its more lightweight original premise. Instead, it's decided to do both, chucking further showbiz antics but keeping Olyphant around as a fly-in love interest for Claire. When this show premiered, I'm guessing no one predicted that Timothy Olyphant would be a semi-regular cast member, playing himself, but here we are.
There's certainly an acknowledgment within the show's ongoing meta-show that it's all become a bit confusing for viewers. This week's Grinder cold-open centered around catching up with a show after missing a few episodes, presumably a sop to newcomers who might be walking in blind after watching Fox's new lead-in, Brooklyn Nine-Nine. After managing to slip in a Dean-voiced nutgraph of the show's premise, the characters all but outright exhort new viewers to go back and catch up. "I don't want to be spoon-fed [exposition]," says young Ethan, with Dean Sr. piling on: "If you're not following something, then feel free to watch the earlier episodes any time!" (At least they had the dignity to not flash "On FOX NOW!" at the bottom of the screen?)
While I'm certainly grateful that The Grinder's pursuit of happiness dovetails with Olyphant's full-goof scenery-chewing, this installment doesn't have the kick I'd hoped, partially because the central conflict has left the TV realm and now revolves around the "relationship" between Dean and Claire. There's never been a moment in which I thought Claire had an iota of respect for Dean, which makes their romantic pairing less of a will-they-won't-they and more of a he-will-she'll-pass-thanks. That's fine for hammering in exactly how delusional Dean is, but his commitment to stalking her (with Todd's help) once again veers into creepy territory. That's not a good place for a lead whose likeability is already tinged with more than a touch of arrogance. Dean may be a lunkhead, but you'd think his puppylike attention span would have alighted on another woman by now, even if he's grown tired of casual sex with eager fans.
At least there's one person in Boise besides Stewart and Claire who's immune to Dean's juju: Neal (Rob Yang), a Boise Herald reporter who's writing a story about Stewart, not Dean, much to everyone's shock. When his attention begins drifting toward the whirlwind that is Dean, Stewart despairs that his brother is stealing the limelight again, but there's a nice twist: Neal is actually writing a smear piece on Dean, which will represent Stewart as what he is — a sane angel who keeps his cool amidst the slings and arrows of his deluded actor brother's self-regard.
Since Stewart is still a good guy, though, he doesn't want his brother to be publicly embarrassed, so he tries to help Dean change the narrative by solving a byzantine and never-resolved case involving an environmentalist throwing bricks into SUV windshields, which somehow inspires Dean to fly to L.A. and bait the perpetrator on Jimmy Kimmel Live. (It's a bit odd to see an ABC show getting cross-promotion on Fox, but since the network doesn't have its own late-night show, it must be fair game.)
The resulting machinations are a mushy mess: The case never gets solved, the cast stakeout at the car dealership fizzles almost instantly, and the Boise Herald hit piece runs anyway. (Weirdly, Neal's story doesn't seem to bother Dean one bit.) Even Claire and Olyphant's relationship is a mystery, since they spend most of their screen time making out while Dean gets irritated over TV's most boring hobgoblin: the theft of a reserved parking spot.
I love that The Grinder wants to be self-aware, and I do think it has a deep deck of great actors, but given how this post-hiatus episode is a big turning point for the show's future, I'm just really not sure what the goal is. I would've been thrilled to see things move in an overtly showbiz direction, but it seems like the show will continue on its traditional sitcom path, with overlaid mockery of tired legal-drama clichés in each episode. That's not necessarily a deal-breaker, since The Grinder can coast pretty far on Savage's and Lowe's charms, but it's a waste of the satirical potential the show showed in its pilot and in the pair of episodes that preceded "The Olyphant in the Room."
- Steve Little's Todd continues to be worth the price of admission. I love how the obvious conclusion for recreating the crime scene was to throw a brick through his SUV's windshield, as well as his mistaken reaction that the smear piece was about him: "Has to be, I deserve it."
- Olyphant must be an even bigger dummy than Dean, or he's rubbing his nose in their rivalry: That "GRINDER1" vanity plate on his vintage muscle car may have gone unmentioned, but there's no way Dean didn't notice it.
- Stewart on Debbie photographing the journalist's notes with her phone: "That is so unethical, honey. I love it."
- Claire seemed really surprised and upset that Olyphant kept cancelling on Kimmel because things came up last-minute. Maybe Todd's right and she's actually getting sick of him. Or maybe she just really likes Kimmel.
- Olyphant has absolutely no fear of mocking himself, and I love it. "Do you know that I was once on a TNT miniseries called Stakeout?" [Ed. note: He wasn't.] "I committed pretty hard to it, lost a bunch of weight, lived in my car for the whole shoot." "Wow, that seems unnecessary." "Yeah."
- This is my last week recapping The Grinder. I also cover Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which has moved to Tuesdays, and unfortunately, I can't cover both. Look for a new recapper when the show returns in two weeks. Thanks for reading!