Second episodes are hard. The Grinder knows it. They talk about it extensively in the first act, breaking out meta commentary that pushes the fourth wall to its breaking point. The fact that this is a TV show about the former star of a (lousy) TV show—a TV show that happens to have the same name as the actual show in our actual world, really allows The Grinder to play around in some wonderful ways. But the main issue this show had facing its second episode? What kind of show does it want to be? The pilot seemed to be stuck somewhere between silly, absurdist comedy, and a more traditional modern sitcom. While “A Hero Has Fallen” didn’t quite make a clear decision on that divide, it did make a real push toward the silly side, and The Grinder will probably be better for it.
Rob Lowe is even more absurd as Dean Sanderson this week. He’s riding high off his first, inexplicably successful case, and he wants to chase that feeling. Meanwhile, Stewart realizes that he’s the Pincus. Pincus is, of course, the by-the-numbers wet blanket from the show-within-the-show. He’s the one always telling The Grinder that he can’t win, and that he’s making a huge mistake. He exists to be proven wrong, to be, in the words of an internet video that Stewart watches, “the biggest wuss in TV history.” Stewart doesn’t want to be that, so he decides he has to loosen up. He has to embrace the insanity of his brother.
What is Dean’s ridiculous worldview bringing forth this week? While the big hullabaloo over the case from the pilot brought in a bunch of potential clients, Dean wants them to wait until they find something that speaks to them. What speaks to Dean? Stewart and Debbie’s friends Dawn and Trevor got fired for their relationship. It was within the rules of the contract they signed, but Dean sees this as a chance to win a case not for Dawn and Trevor, but for love.
Of course, this is absurd, and Natalie Morales as Claire is more than willing to pop his bubble. Dean is defeated, allowing him to have a sad, existential montage. The Grinder takes great delight in tweaking the clichés and tropes of television, particularly law dramas. Stewart also realizes the world needs Pincuses. Without them, the world is just insane, and the Grinders of the world have nothing to rally against. Thus, Stewart embraces his inner Pincus and tells Dean they can’t win, which is just the motivation Dean needs. Then they proceed to just annoy and badger Dawn and Trevor’s old boss into giving them their old jobs back. The Grinder rests!
Also, Claire gets hired by Stewart, which means now Morales will be around. While she is delightful, her tenures on television have tended to be short, whatever that may signify. Her presence is also indicative of The Grinder not quite taking the plunge into pure, Lookwell-esque lunacy. Like Stewart, she doesn’t buy into Dean’s nonsense. She thinks his TV show was dumb and melodramatic. The more reasonable voices on the show regularly, the less absurd the show’s world becomes, and the less clear the show’s tone. Dean is currently imagining himself in a will they-won’t they situation with Claire. Claire isn’t having any of it. It would be delightful if this dynamic continued, if Dean remained delusional, and Claire remained uninterested. If this show eventually acquiesces to the traditions of television romance, we know we’ve lost the chance of having a completely, delightfully ridiculous show airing in primetime on a network channel.
That’s not to speak ill of The Grinder. This was a very funny episode of TV. Lowe and Fred Savage are really strong in their roles already. The family is used just lightly enough to keep them amusing, and they are really just there to bolster what Dean and Stewart are up to. It seems to be a “some hugging, no learning” kind of show, which is about the best you can probably hope for from a modern network sitcom. It still exists in a bit of a netherworld in terms of tone, but with Community no longer on TV, it’s the show most interested in the way TV works that we currently have, and it’s fairly wonderful in its own way.
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.