To celebrate Thanksgiving, The Grinder brought us something we had not yet seen. We go back in time and watch Dean Sanderson in action, bringing The Grinder, the show within the show, to life. We even get to see how they celebrate Thanksgiving on the series. Specifically, The Grinder and some lady get ready to bone down. However, it’s not all fun and games for the Dean of a year ago, as we begin to see why he now finds himself in Idaho, pretending to be a lawyer. Still, since this is a Thanksgiving episode, the focus is on the family. We don’t see any of the office in “Giving Thanks, Getting Justice.” There’s no Claire and no Todd. It’s just the Sanderson family… and Joseph T. Yao, of course.
The episode is made up of two separate storylines—the one from the past and the one in the present. Both see a Sanderson brother in crisis. Back in the past, Dean is tired of what The Grinder has become. The show’s creator, as portrayed by Jason Alexander, is only interested in one of the entendres of the title—the one associated with human sexual intercourse. If Jason Alexander had his way, every scene would be Dean ripping off his shirt, clearing a table, and then getting biz-ay.
This is wearing on Dean. He may not be smart, and this episode is able to walk the careful balance of him being self-aware without suddenly becoming smart, but he wants to be taken seriously. He wants his show to take on important issues, and he wants to keep his shirt on while doing it. Alas, Jason Alexander refuses to listen, and the shirt remains off.
Enter Timothy Olyphant. You probably know Olyphant best for his work on Deadwood and Justified, and he is, indeed, a strong dramatic actor, but he can also do comedy well. (Though, not in the movie This is Where I Leave You, but that’s only because it is one of the worst movies of all-time and misuses its entire cast.) The Grinder doesn’t misuse him though. Olyphant plays himself as a surfing sage who tells Dean he needs to listen to his heart. He does, and leaves the show and, well, we know what happens from there.
It’s quite enjoyable to catch this glimpse of Dean’s life as an actor. It’s not something the show should do much, but doing it once, here, in this holiday episode, makes perfect sense. It helps re-contextualize Dean’s hopes and desires, and makes him a more well-rounded character. Since The Grinder has made it clear they don’t want to go down the road of pure absurdity, this is fairly necessary.
Meanwhile, Stewart has issues of his own in the present. He’s canceled Thanksgiving for the Sanderson family for years, but Dean is back, and he is desperate to actually celebrate the holiday with his family. Despite Stewart’s protestations, the preparations go on, and then Stewart finds out that Joseph T. Yao, Papa Sanderson’s old law partner and frequent Thanksgiving dinner guest, has been invited. Then we find out, in a fashion reminiscent of Phoebe Cates in Gremlins, why Stewart doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving. Primarily it’s about his mom and Joseph T. Yao getting freaky five years prior.
This leaves both the Sanderson boys feeling unmoored, with Dean wanting to confront Joe Yao, and Stewart preferring not to say anything to anybody. Eventually, the boys do tell Dean Sr. and Joseph T. Yao what they know, and the twist is that Old Man Sanderson is only annoyed that Joe didn’t lock the door. Apparently the Sandersons were a really swinging couple. It was the rock and roll lifestyle of the time.
It is much more fitting for the show to make this twist happen. The Grinder may be fleshing out characters and giving Dean some integrity, but it remains a silly, meta show that is not really looking to tackle serious issues. A more traditional sitcom would have made this a truly shocking revelation that led to all sort of emotions being poured out. That’s perfectly fine, but The Grinder is not about that. The only emotions we get are disgust from Dean and Stewart, and annoyance from Dean Sr. You’ve got to lock that door, Yao!
Oh, and when the episode ends, we find out that Timothy Olyphant is playing Mitch Grinder’s brother in the new show The Grinder: New Orleans. He’s not wearing a shirt in the promo spot.
In truth, the plotting of “Giving Thanks, Getting Justice” doesn’t hold together well. The twist to the Joseph T. Yao saga saves it a bit, but before that it doesn’t really have much pop to it. The stuff with Dean is funny meta pop culture stuff, but it too could have perhaps been executed better. It’s the funny moments and good jokes that lift the experience. It’s Timothy Olyphant’s appearance and Dean’s desires to find out if the silly rhyming nonsense like “scene Dean” he keeps throwing out “is anything.” While this feels like a special holiday episode, in concept, it also feels like a run-of-the-mill episode of a good sitcom in execution. Maybe Christmas will be better.
Chris Morgan is not the author of THE book on Mystery Science Theater 3000, but he is the author of A book on Mystery Science Theater 3000. He’s also on Twitter.