Actors appearing as skewed versions of themselves in TV guest spots has been going on for years. Sometimes it works. Other times it feels fairly obvious and facile. However, in the grand history of actors playing “themselves,” perhaps nobody has been better than Timothy Olyphant on The Grinder, and this week’s episode was the pinnacle of Olyphant’s time on the show.
As you may or may not know, in the world of The Grinder, Olyphant is starring in the new show The Grinder: New Orleans, where he plays Mitch Grinder’s brother Rake. He’s also dating Claire, and so, when you put everything together, Dean and Tim have a bit of a feud going on. What makes Olyphant so great on this show, aside from his talent, is that he’s not playing things broadly. He fits into the silly, meta world of the series, but he’s also not playing an implausible version of a real actor. He’s not Neil Patrick Harris in the Harold and Kumar movies. He’s basically Dean, but he’s a guy we’ve seen in actual stuff.
When Olyphant starts hanging around the law office, and giving out advice based (much like Dean), on his TV work, everybody starts getting annoyed. Even Todd! Fortunately, Stew and Claire hatch a plan to get both Dean and Timothy Olyphant out of the office a bit, by turning them against each other. This backfires, though, when Tim starts hitting up Dean for advice on how to act like a lawyer. Of course, he teaches him all of the important stuff—how to underplay your actor. How to take your sunglasses off for maximum effect. Suddenly, the two are buddies, and they are both weighing in on things.
It’s wonderful watching them turn all chummy, but we knew it couldn’t last long. Stew and Claire drive another wedge between them, and they begin arguing over which one is more like an actual lawyer. This leads to the most logical conclusion: A mock trial must be held.
We are treated to speech upon grandstanding speech, and witness cross-examinations and so on. In the end, a couple of key pieces of information come into play. During the cold open (the part where the family watches the show-within-the-show), Stew points out that Mitch Grinder never loses. Stew later says, offhand, that a professor once told him you aren’t a real lawyer until you’ve lost a case. Since Rake Grinder lost a case in the third episode of his show, he’s closer to being a real lawyer. That is, until he wins, and Dean puts a couple of things together and realizes that, now that he’s lost, his proximity to real lawyer-ness has boosted, and so he is the winner. Also, Claire and Deb meet.
This episode works so well because we get the pleasure of seeing Dean and Timothy Olyphant in action as “lawyers,” without the show having to strain credulity by putting them in an actual court. That’s smart. It’s also smart to let Claire and Stew have a few more reasonable people conversations. The smartest thing, however, has been bringing in Olyphant, periodically, to work as Dean’s nemesis. He’s wonderful. And when Dean and Tim get together, and they were together a lot here, it’s always funny. It can’t last forever, but let’s enjoy it while we can.
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.