First, the bad news: Tonight’s episode of The Grinder was allowed to air because the World Series already ended, and the World Series already ended because the Kansas City Royals bested my beloved New York Mets. Even though I’m a huge fan of Rob Lowe’s new television high jinks, I was really hoping I wouldn’t have to come back to The Grinder until next week.
However, despite the failings of the Mets, there are two pieces of good news: There’s only 108 days until pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training, and during its World Series hiatus, The Grinder got a full season order. While the show hasn’t been much of a ratings machine, it is still outgaining whatever Fox had in the same time slot last fall (can anybody remember any single element of the short-lived reality series Utopia?), and the critical praise heaped upon it (including by yours truly) seems to be enough to let the first season play out. It’s a shrewd move for Fox, as it keeps one of the better-talked-about shows of the new season on the air and also keeps Lowe involved in those football promos.
Can we talk about the football promos for a minute? I completely abandoned the NFL two years ago after their remarkably poor handling of the Ray Rice domestic abuse case, but the clips of Lowe talking to Cleatus (the bizarre robot that for some reason is Fox Sports’ mascot), cracking wise about holograms, and picking games like he’s Balki Bartokomous have me almost thinking the NFL isn’t just a pitiless machine that grinds human brains into mush for pleasure and profit. Almost.
But speaking of grinding! This week the show welcomes its first big-name guest star since Kumail Nanjiani livened up the pilot. She arrives in the form of Christina Applegate, who plays Dean’s old high school flame. Dean is feeling melancholy because he is just coming off his latest sexual encounter that was based purely around his celebrity, which elicits some sympathy from Debbie. Stewart isn’t having it. “I’m sure a lot of people like him because he’s absurdly handsome and rich,” he notes.
But Stewart realizes that if Dean meets somebody who really fulfills him, it might get him to move out sooner. So he sets up a meeting with Gail (Applegate) at the law firm (they handled Gail’s divorce), and she and Dean immediately hit it off (much to the delight of Todd). Not only does she still look as good as she used to, but she also isn’t even aware of The Grinder. “I’m more of a book girl,” she tells Dean, who is overjoyed to have someone in his life he knows doesn’t want him just because he was on a show that was a staple of the culture.
Stewart’s plan to get Dean and Gail together seems to be working exceptionally well, particularly when Dean announces that he’s going to be a father — to Gail’s already-out-of-the-womb son from her first marriage. There’s a lot of riffing about the travails of fatherhood, but the joke was set up from a mile away: Gail’s son Toby is actually 23 years old. The other, funnier bit of fallout from the Gail affair is that Dean disappears from the law firm, which leads to a very simple but extremely effective montage of everybody actually getting work done rather than being distracted by the TV star in their midst. (Claire gets the most done, probably because she’s being so cool about all this.)
Gail, Dean, Stewart, and Debbie all meet for dinner, where Gail accidentally outs herself thanks to a quote from the episode of The Grinder we saw in the opening scene and a conspicuously placed painting on the wall where it looks like a television might have been mounted. In the end, Gail was only looking for what most other women were looking for: to have sex with Dean while the couple watches a rerun of The Grinder. “Gail, you’re not really a book girl, are you?” Dean says, always grinding. After his interrogation, he says dejectedly, “I’m sorry. I can’t say I enjoyed grinding you like that.” Dean is disappointed — it’s the kind of disappointment that comes with a realization that love is fleeting, or that comes with an unlikely World Series run undone by defensive blunders and inopportune strikeouts.
- We’ve been moving through the Rob Lowe Appreciation Society project chronologically, but I have to jump ahead to Lowe’s work as Sam Seaborn on The West Wing. I was in Washington, D.C. over the weekend for a wedding, and during some downtime my wife and I ducked into the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, perhaps my favorite museum on the planet. Though it has been years since I dreamed of being an astronaut, I still get caught up in tales of the space program, of John Glenn’s trip around the Earth and of the Apollo missions to the Moon. Every trip to Air & Space makes me newly inspired but also a little sad because human ingenuity used to mean building rockets so that we could touch the face of God, and now it’s mostly about monetizing apps and crafting ways to deliver pulled pork in fast food restaurants. To cheer myself up, I watched an episode of The West Wing from season 2 called “Galileo,” which centers around the launch of a Mars probe and opens with Lowe intoning a hair-raising speech — an introduction to the president’s broadcast about the nature of man’s curiosity and the undeniable power of imagination
Later in that episode, he defends space travel not as a waste of tax dollars but as a necessary stirring of the human spirit. “We came out of the cave, and we looked over the hill and we saw fire. We crossed the ocean, and we pioneered the west, and we took to the sky. The history of man is hung on a timeline of exploration, and this is what’s next.” Sam Seaborn is the best.
- Apparently Entertainment Weekly called The Grinder, “One of the more competent legal dramas in quite some time.” That sounds about right.
- The exchange between Gail and Dean about how they have both held up pretty well since high school is fantastically meta: Both Applegate and Lowe are aging insanely well.
- The subplot involved Ethan being allowed to date while Lizzie isn’t, but it was kind of tossed away. However, the end of the episode suggested that Dean would be spending more time with the kids, and as we saw in the pilot, those sorts of interactions can lead to some pretty funny stuff.
- After the weirdness with Toby, Dean realizes he has a lot to learn about fatherhood. He tells Stewart, “I’m not a better parent than you. At most I’m equally good.”
- Dean: “Please hold my calls.” Claire: “Has he ever even gotten a call here?”
- Dean resents the idea that Claire thinks he can’t be a good father because he is not biologically linked to Toby. “I would never say that, because I’m adopted,” Claire explains. “Bulletproof response!” Dean says.