The Grinder occupies a weird space on the TV-comedy spectrum. As we saw in last week’s “A System on Trial,” it’s remarkably small in scope but big in comedic ambition. This is an extremely smart show disguised as a dumb one, affectionately draping tired tropes over itself in the form of “The Grinder” itself.
Over the course of this season, the show got a lot of mileage out of its high-concept premise, which paved the way for some terrific showbiz satire. And all the while, the underpinnings of a bizarre family sitcom became more and more fleshed out.
With only two episodes left before the season’s end, “For the People” can seem like a strange episode. It comes right in the middle of a high-stakes story arc, with the fate of Sanderson & Yao hanging in the balance. It’s a surprisingly vanilla sitcom plot, too: Stewart and Deb have both forgotten their anniversary and lie about their plans for one another. Stewart claims he’s made dinner reservations at Boise’s hottest restaurant, a trattoria with a two-month waiting list. Deb says that she’s got a mind-blowing gift of some sort. They are very obviously both lying, and Dean knows it.
Let’s be real: This is Mickey Mouse stuff. (I mean that literally. Every Disney Channel tween sitcom has used this plot like, 15 times each.) It’s still interesting, though, to see The Grinder take on such a well-worn sitcom trope in its own idiosyncratic, quick-witted way. It does so by twisting the story into something hyperbolically complex, roping in every member of its cast into one lie or another that they all desperately need upheld. It gets very complicated — and, of course, very funny.
First, the Sanderson family matriarch Lenore (played by legend Anne Archer) makes a surprise visit to her sons’ home. Lenore has disapproved of Dean’s lifestyle choice for years, and Dean — who longs for nothing but affirmation — lies to her, thinking a settled-down life would finally win some approval. So, he tells her he’s engaged to Claire.
Then, because he promised he would stop harassing Claire, he uses Stewart’s lie as leverage to get him to help convince Claire to play along.
Dean: I’ve already harassed her enough […] Tell her to do it or she gets fired or something.
Stewart: Dean, that’s the definition of harassment.
Obviously, that approach isn’t going to work. Stewart still mentions it to Claire just in case she’d be game. (She’s not.)
Good thing Dean can exploit Deb’s lie, too. Since Claire won’t play along, he wants Deb to feed his mother a story about how Claire used to date Todd, but then he became violent and horrible — and that’s why Claire won’t admit that she and Dean are engaged. Deb agrees to this ridiculous plan, only because she doesn’t want Stewart to learn she doesn’t have a gift yet.
On top of all that, Lenore is lying too! She’s not living happily with Nigel, her current partner. She’s after Dean Sr. again. Pop Sanderson, however, doesn’t know this … and he’s also fibbing. To make it seem like he’s got “irons in the fire,” his grandkids help set him up with an online-dating account, and he quickly lands him a date with Callista, a hot twentysomething who matches with him because he uses a photo from his Army days.
It all comes to a head at the trattoria, where everyone shows up: Stewart and Deb (because he got Dean to call the restaurant for him), Dean, Lenore, and Claire (because she feels compelled to go along in the most noncommittal way possible, since everybody else seems invested in their lies), Pop Sanderson, Callista (because of the aforementioned online date), and even Todd (because he’s picking up takeout).
Everyone spots everyone and the lies are immediately threatened by Todd, the only character who knows nothing and hasn’t told a single lie. (He barely even utters a sentence throughout this episode.) It’s all set up for disaster: Lenore spots Todd and wants to get Claire out of there, Todd is about to inadvertently ruin the whole invented history between him and Claire, and Dean is desperate to keep his poor clueless friend quiet. So, he sucker-punches him. It’s a pretty mean thing to do, if I’m being honest.
Of course, the gang can’t keep up the lies beyond that point. Of course, they all forgive each other and come clean. (Even Dean Sr., who tells Callista, “That picture of me was taken quite a while ago. I’m actually an old man!”) And of course, everyone still likes each other — especially Lenore and Dean Sr., who passionately make out in front of everyone.
Timothy Olyphant, Where Are You? Lenore is hilariously awful to Dean when she arrives, noting that “The Grinder” doesn’t really need him back “because Timothy Olyphant is so fabulous.” To which Dean responds: “You don’t think Timothy Olyphant is fabulous, you just disapprove of my lifestyle choices.” I, however, think that Timothy Olyphant is fabulous. Here’s hoping he stops by for one last grind.
The Dean Sanderson Sr. Guide To Dealing With Exes. When Pop Sanderson’s grandkids find him melancholic after Lenore’s return, they mistakenly think he misses her. He quickly sets the record straight: “I don’t want her back! I just want her to hate herself.”
Dean Sanderson Jr., Legal Professional. On why his marriage to Claire isn’t happening any sooner: “This law profession is the real deal for me. I can’t just up and get married in the middle of legal season.” (This is a line that makes me laugh every time I read it. Claire’s dubious repeating of ” … legal season?” is endlessly funny.)
Claire, the Long-Suffering MVP. Natalie Morales’s deadpan sensibilities are put to terrific use this week, even if Claire still doesn’t have a plot of her own. At the very least, I’m grateful that The Grinder remains committed to keeping Claire and Rob firmly out of “will they, won’t they” territory, but I can’t help getting a little nervous every time they trot that trope out for a laugh.