The Grinder is definitely still struggling to find its voice (not an unusual problem for a freshman comedy, by any means), but this week’s installment was by far the funniest since the pilot, which indicates that things are moving in a positive direction. The show is at its best when it illustrates how celebrity and image warp people’s perceptions, but it mostly took a break in its early run from exploring how Dean’s return to Boise affected the Sandersons’ lives outside the office. So it’s nice to see it return to that territory with a plotline that makes complete sense: a wealthy couple (Nat Faxon and Alexie Gilmore) trying to get close to Dean by insinuating themselves with Stewart and Debbie. I also appreciated that the non-famous Sandersons were aware from the jump of the fact that they were likely being used — while still hoping for the best, because they’re not total jerks.
Things got a bit confused, though, when the big reveal at the Gerharts’ charity gala was that they wanted Dean to befriend a kid with cancer who’s a big Grinder fan. In most shows, that would be used as a “people aren’t actually so bad” twist, but instead, when Dean left, the Gerharts went right back to treating Stewart and Debbie like crap again. Even the judge who patted Stewart on the back for telling the Gerharts off ended up using him to meet Dean as well. There was an attempt to underscore that moment with Lizzie’s basketball game, in which she got put in when her uncle came to watch and immediately benched as soon as he split, but unlike her parents, Lizzie genuinely didn’t deserve the treatment she got for having a famous relative. (“I’m awful.” Debbie: “She’s pretty bad.”)
I’m not really sure what lesson the show is trying to convey with this story, other than that being the sibling of a famous person is an unending, Sisyphean nightmare in which everyone has false motives. On a more subversive, witty show, that could have been a deeply funny conclusion, too, but The Grinder’s nowhere near the sophistication level required to play out a realization that dark, so it just comes out muddled.
The same thing goes for Dean’s ongoing attempts to seduce Claire, which are supposed to be puppyishly dumb but end up kind of bordering on sexual harassment. (I’m pretty sure making your co-worker come to a conference room to watch you in a TV sex scene isn’t kosher in a legal office, even if you are the Grinder.) The show ultimately has Dean learn his lesson by doing some real legal work (“We usually just did an all-nighter montage” on the fake show, which the real show underscores by having him … do an all-nighter montage), but the most he gets out of it from Claire is an acknowledgment that he did a decent job reading documents, and even that’s pushing it in terms of encouragement.
Still, that’s enough to fuel Dean further into his will-they-or-won’t-they fantasy, which, to me, still comes across as one-sided in a borderline creepy way. I don’t see any spark to indicate that Dean’s advances are anything but solid self-delusion — unlike his legal skills, which are also supremely deluded and unusual, but do at least come in handy now and again. Natalie Morales is great at dispatching sharp, funny dismissals, but since there appears to be pretty much zero chemistry between Claire and Dean (despite what Dean would like to believe), it doesn’t make a ton of sense as to why a smart, talented, no-bullshit woman would continue to put up with working at a job where one of her bosses constantly tries to hit on her. And while Rob Lowe’s manic energy works really well in a lot of the show’s elements, in a romantic context, it reads a little entitled and a little creepy. It’s the one un-charming element in a show that rides largely on Lowe’s charm.
With that said, Lowe’s charm is otherwise powerful, and in every context save for that one, he’s more than earning his keep. (There were quite a few good Dean comebacks that I’ll round up below, but my favorite: “Going from TV law to actual law does have its challenges.” “No, that was seamless.”) If anything, I’m concerned that the show is keeping Fred Savage a little too collared: He’s obviously the straight man here, but Stewart should have some flaws and some weirdness to him too if the show is going to work. Instead, Savage barely gets any jokes of his own at all in this episode. (The one exception, which he nailed: “I’m starting to think the only honest thing you said is when you complimented me on my nice body!”)
Obviously, Dean needs to be the nuttiest member of this crew, but right now, the story of the show is pretty much just people relating to him in two ways: utter skepticism (Stewart, Claire) and utter adoration (everyone else). The only way The Grinder will get funnier is if it brings some more nuance to that portrayal and lets some of the other characters do stuff that’s a bit loopier or weirder or flawed. I’d like to see Debbie or one of the kids get genuinely pissed at Dean, or Stewart appreciate something Dean does from the start while everyone else doesn’t get it. Hopefully, this is just one of those new-show problems and things will get more fleshed-out, but right now, The Grinder still doesn’t feel much less two-dimensional than the fake legal drama it’s so eager to parody.
- Getting hired for one scene in a fake TV show within a TV show is probably one of the weirder guest slots you can book as an actor, but it was nice to see Emmanuelle Chriqui in a role that wasn’t “token killjoy on Entourage.”
- How Dean can tell someone’s using him for his fame: “They had that sort of Donner Party look in their eyes, like I was a steak they wanted to eat.”
- Brandon, the sick, Grinder-loving kid at the party, looked like he might somehow be related to Fred Savage, but as far as I can tell, it’s just a resemblance. (In real life, Stewart’s kids would probably be a lot less blonde and wispy-looking, but hey, it’s TV.)
- Dean can only relate to the concept of humility by thinking of Mark Harmon in Summer School.
- The plotline of Steve Little’s Todd fearing he’ll get “written off the show” in real life was a clever one, but sadly kind of disappeared mid-episode, presumably cut for time. Hopefully we’ll see it continue into next week.
- The Grinder (along with time-slot buddy Grandfathered) has been picked up for six more episodes, so look forward to at least a solid half-season with the Sanderson clan. They’re taking next week off for the World Series, though.