For a show that’s yet to finish its freshman year, The Grinder pumps out remarkably confident television. There’s an outward modesty to it — which is amplified by its simple premise, small cast, and bare minimum of locations — but it’s nevertheless witty as hell. And although “A System on Trial” isn’t as funny as “Genesis,” it is quite possibly the most tightly constructed episode of the season, focusing squarely on one very silly thing: Focus groups.
In the cold open, we learn why focus groups are such a big deal for Dean. Flashback to 2008, just before The Grinder is set to premiere, as Dean watches from behind a two-way mirror while a focus group talks about the show’s sizzle reel. He is initially skeptical of the process, and doubly so when a lone holdout objects to the show’s tagline, “There’s no one he can’t get off.”
“There’s gotta be someone he can’t get off,” she says, just trying to be realistic. “You mean he can just get anybody off? Please. I’d like to see him get my brother-in-law off.”
What makes this cold open so good is that it’s not just a marvel of silly double entendres, but also a microcosm of the entire episode. Dean’s first reaction to focus groups is correct. It’s kind of nutty to ask random people superficial questions, then take their responses as actionable advice. But then, after Dean tells the moderator to ask about the lead actor, and they all agree he’s hot … well, focus groups suddenly seem pretty cool.
Naturally, Dean applies the same logic to the problem currently facing Sanderson and Yao. He and his brother are trying to prepare Pop Sanderson to take the stand in his malpractice suit, but he’s being ornery and doesn’t see the point of it all. Although he clearly has a temper problem, Dean wants to gather a focus group to determine whether or not he actually has a temper problem.
So, Dean goes to the mall with Todd to round up a focus group for them to blindly trust and “allow them to guide us and steer my father’s case.” Meanwhile back home, Lizzie and Ethan wonder if their uncle is right about focus groups and decide they might benefit from them, too.
At the firm the next day, Dean’s focus group watches as Stewart goes through a mock examination of his father. Pop Sanderson is feeling this whole gimmick even less than their earlier prep session, and the focus group picks up on his frustration. (“It seems like the old dude got angry for no reason.”) And then, they completely pivot their titular focus to Stewart’s performance.
The verdicts are grim, as the focus group offers such criticisms as, “He didn’t seem like a real lawyer,” and “He didn’t say ‘objection’ once,” and “He had no charisma.”
That night, Dean finds a complication in their focus group: One of the participants said they think Pop Sanderson was hiding something. Since it’s only one person, Deb thinks they should ignore it, but Dean explains that focus groups are an all-or-nothing sort of thing — and this time, nothing is not an option.
But first, Stewart’s kids come home with the results of their focus groups. Lizzie is distraught because half of the girls from her school don’t even know who she is. Ethan is pretty chill about what he learned, though. “My friends kept it pretty positive,” he says. “Mostly asking for more of some stuff, but nothing I can’t deliver on.” It’s a great B-plot that gives the underutilized Sanderson kids a lot of rich comedy, but even if it were all just a set-up for Dean’s response, I wouldn’t be too mad.
Dean: Guys, we can either stick our heads in the sand or deal with the facts. Lizzie? You’re forgettable. We know that now. So, the question becomes: What are we gonna do about it?
All this focus grouping, however, doesn’t unearth whatever Pop Sanderson is hiding. In fact, Dean thinks he isn’t hiding anything. To him, that’s is an awful revelation — even more awful than if his father had lied — because he’s always believed that he could trust random groups of people with zero insight. The system has failed him. Devastated by this lesson, he reverses his position on focus groups — and then, of course, Stewart manages to prove them worthwhile. Turns out their father was hiding something. He didn’t bring the deal in question to Cory Mandler. He just took it.
And so, Dean’s faith in focus groups is restored once more, closing a story progression I like to call the Grinder Loop. Here’s what it looks like:
- Dean embraces a patently absurd idea.
- Dean drags everyone in his orbit into pursuing this absurd idea.
- Dean attempts to understand why this idea was always absurd.
- Dean accepts that the idea is absurd, even though he doesn’t totally understand why.
- A highly unusual circumstance proves the idea correct, leading Dean right back to his original position. The Loop is complete.
It is a deceptively simple way to make us laugh, just like the rest of The Grinder.
- Kids probably shouldn’t focus group. The Sanderson Kids’ focus group adventure ends in a pretty great scene where Ethan storms into his parents’ room and shouts, “NO TIME TO EXPLAIN, JUST SAY SOMETHING NICE ABOUT LIZZIE’S HAIR.” Turns out Lizzie cut her hair very short and dyed it brown, all in an attempt to be less forgettable.
- Claire, how are you so cool? Claire tests very well she just doesn’t care, man. Deb’s quest to understand just how she does it is one of the episode’s best running gags.
- How to look lawyerly. Stewart’s self-consciousness about not seeming much like a lawyer is another great running gag. When the situation is right, self-conscious Fred Savage can be a lot funnier than perpetually flustered Fred Savage.