There hasn’t been a new episode of The Grinder in about a month. That’s not ideal for a new comedy, particularly one in the middle of an ongoing story arc. Hopefully people didn’t forget about it, because this is a very good show, and because “A System on Trial” is a wonderful episode. It’s also the most meta episode, and the most critical of the entertainment industry, of any Grinder episode, which may be why it was so successful.
The last time we saw the series, there were a lot of flashbacks, and this episode once again takes us back to 2008, where we see a sizzle reel for ”The Grinder,” which is being shown to a focus group. Though most of us know what focus group is, it is definitely kind of inside baseball, and the way focus groups are treated in this episode, the whole bit is clearly spewing forth from the pen (or the Final Draft software) of a writer with a (deserved) axe to grind.
At the beginning of the episode, Dean is behind the two-way glass watching the focus group in action, and he’s smitten with the process… especially when everybody says he is hot. This is an inflection point in Dean’s life. He begins to believe that focus groups are a panacea, and that they have the answers to all questions. Naturally, in the present, he wants to bring that to the table in the law business.
As you may recall, Dean Sr. is being sued by a former client, and Dean and Stew (and Claire, and everybody’s hero Todd) are trying to prepare him for the case. The problem is that Dean Sr. seems quite angry, and that may not play well. Dean insists they bring in a focus group to see if they think Dean Sr. is coming across poorly. Stew thinks it is ridiculous, of course, but Dean and Todd still head out to get a quintessential focus group: Six randos you can find at the mall on a weekday afternoon who will do anything for twenty bucks.
The focus group does indeed find Dean Sr. to be too angry, but they also don’t think Stew is particularly “lawyer-y.” After all, he never says “Objection!” or anything like that. This feels almost ripped from an actual focus group that may have watched The Grinder. They do love Claire, though, because she’s just so cool and laidback. This becomes a delightful runner, particularly between Deb and Claire, where Deb (who, it is established, does not take criticism well), is just enamored with Claire’s seeming ability to not care what people think. She’s like Winona Ryder in the series finale of Strangers with Candy, except at the end of the episode she doesn’t head off to be a junkie whore.
This is all funny enough as is, and would have absolutely made the episode, but things go to another level when one person writes that they feel like Dean Sr. is hiding something. Dean, who has given his entire life over to the cards, believes this must be true, but when he and Stew confront their dad, he storms off angrily—and Dean believes him, which means now he can’t believe in the cards. It’s a real crisis of faith for Dean. He broke up with Sela Ward because of comment cards. He moved to Boise because of comment cards. What is a man without his comment cards?
While Dean has given up, Stew decides to do one more mock trial in front of the focus group, and this time he is much more lawyer-y. He even has glasses! He’s a big hit, and everybody still loves Claire, but also Dean Sr. admits that, in fact, he had screwed up the case. He’s guilty. More importantly, Dean gets to believe in comment cards again. The system may have been on trial, but it was found innocent. Or, perhaps… it was found guilty of being great.
The focus group fun doesn’t end there. Lizzie’s curious about the idea, and thinks she can use comment cards to try and improve her stock at school. When Lizzie issues comment cards, however, she’s crestfallen. A lot of people don’t even realize she exists. This, too, feels like a bit of a meta joke, because Lizzie is assuredly the least developed, most forgettable of the main cast, so much so that it’s entirely possible her name is actually Lizzy and nobody knows. At least Ethan’s comment cards were solid.
This inspires Lizzie to get herself a fancy new hairdo, which draws the attention of one boy, but Dean, in the middle of his existential crisis, hangs up on him, because, at the time, he felt comment cards and focus groups couldn’t be trusted. Lizzie’s hair was back to normal by the end of the episode, and it all sort of flamed out. She remains eminently forgettable.
All the meta-commentary of this episode is exactly what makes The Grinder so remarkable and fresh. Sure, the best Simpsons episode, “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” covered this, but The Grinder is very dedicated to its meta nature. If you are a pop culture aficionado, and, again, one imagines members of The Grinder’s audience are, this is a delightful installment in that it really subverts a lot of pop culture tropes. It was a great way to welcome viewers back… and to alienate anybody who happened to be randomly tuning in. Oh, well. The Grinder is probably destined to be an acquired taste, but one that will be beloved by its devotees long after it is gone. It’s Lookwell, with a full season order.
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.