In comedy, and particularly in the opening weeks of a 30-minute network sitcom, there’s not a ton of room for growth. One of the great mantras of Seinfeld was “no hugging, no learning,” a philosophy that jettisoned the need for the characters to change from their fundamental archetypes. That was specific to the pessimistic take on human nature Seinfeld delivered, but even though other shows broaden their horizons with travel, weddings, babies, and nerds who can both transform into cooler versions of themselves and build robots, the first season (or first few seasons!) have to let everybody stand still long enough to develop a recognizable character. Only then can the creators really play.
That’s why, while it might seem that The Grinder is already in a bit of a creative rut, I like that it is circling the wagons around a few fundamental truths: Stewart is uptight, Dean is charmingly narcissistic, Todd is blindly sycophantic, Ethan is sweetly conniving, Debbie is kind but self-conscious. Several commenters have already complained that The Grinder is too deep in a template, and they argue that there’s no way Stewart can keep getting frustrated in the same way and Dean can come to the same revelations week after week. They’ll have to move beyond those crutches eventually, but for right now they work, and that’s at least partially because the primary relationship at the center of this show is between two brothers.
I have a brother. He’s two years younger than me, though he’s always been bigger. He played several sports throughout high school, while I toiled in the drama club. I’m a beer guy; he drinks whiskey. I have a PS4; he plays Xbox One. We don’t have a whole lot in common. Though we do share some basic interests (baseball, Scorsese movies, being amused by our Uncle Bob), there’s always a bit of a feeling-out process whenever we get back together despite the fact that we’ve known each other for three decades. I get the sense that I’m not alone, and that a lot of brothers — particularly when they live in different places as adults, as is the case with me and my brother — go through something of a reset every time they get back together.
WANT MORE? Keep up with all the latest from last night’s television by subscribing to our newsletter. Head here for more details.
That’s why Stewart and Dean’s relationship rings so true. Sure, they’ve known each other forever, and they might have just had a similar conversation a week ago (or however long time moves in the universe of The Grinder), but there’s always a circling back to the roles in which they feel most comfortable. Such was the case tonight, which saw the two brothers go head to head over the fate of young Ethan’s future in the theater: Would he join the crew, as his father did as a member of the legendary Shadow Boys, or would he follow his uncle into the spotlight and onto the stage?
Much to Stewart’s chagrin, Ethan gets seduced by the lure of praise and awards, so he auditions for the play — only to be denied by school play director Sandy Malmuth (played snootily by Michael Showalter). Stewart and Debbie want to treat this as a learning experience for their son, but Dean obviously won’t take such an injustice lying down. He heads to the school, where it turns out he and Sandy have a history: Dean’s first role as Ichabod Crane (taken after he broke his ankle while having sex in the shower the week before the state football championship) was at the expense of Sandy, the original holder of the part. Dean is convinced Sandy is denying Ethan the part (which is “right in his wheelhouse”) as a way of getting back at him. Obviously, that leads to a hacking plot, wherein Todd uses his Excel skills to somehow find the auditions on Sandy’s laptop, only to find that Ethan’s performance isn’t there.
NEXT: Stewart goes all in
Stewart initially resists Dean’s madness, but he’s hung up on the fact that their father used to tell Dean to “swing for the fences,” while Stewart was told to stay within his limitations. “He said, ‘Here are your limits; don’t go past them,'” Stew tells Debbie. He doesn’t want Ethan to feel inferior the way that he often felt growing up, so he goes all in on the plan in order to show his faith in his boy. Dean and Stewart head to the principal (played by Jerry Minor) and ask him to observe Ethan’s audition as an unbiased third party. Even though Ethan’s monologue elicits a fist-pump from Dean, he’s still told he’s not getting the part.
But you know what they say about telling secrets in the theater: Always check for the Shadow Boys. Stew uses his old crew skills to haunt the wings of the theater, where he hears the principal telling Sandy he’s sick of being blackmailed (and we don’t want to know what happened on that pole vault mat). Ethan gets the part, Dean and Stewart feel vindicated, and their dad even admits he was wrong to discourage Stewart back in the day. The resolution is a lot like a lot of the resolutions the Sandersons have seen over the past few weeks, but that’s how families work, brother.
- This week, the Rob Lowe Appreciation Society pays tribute to Bad Influence, a psychological thriller from 1990 starring Lowe and James Spader. Like a lot of the movies that Lowe made in that era, it’s a forgotten gem, which is shocking considering it has a script by David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, Spider-Man) and was directed by Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential, 8 Mile). Spader stars as a spineless yuppie who is frustrated that another guy at his finance job is going to get a promotion that he wants. One night at a bar, he meets Lowe, who saves him from a beating and encourages Spader to stand up for himself. Spader feels confident for the first time, but it soon drifts out of control when their relationship leads to crime and murder. Roger Ebert really liked Bad Influence and compared it to Looking For Mr. Goodbar (an apt comparison), but it’s actually closer to Fight Club, except Lowe’s character actually exists. It’s shamefully impossible to find — you can’t rent or stream it digitally anywhere at the moment, though you can get a DVD that also comes with Masquerade (an inferior Lowe flick) for a couple of bucks at Amazon.
- There was no new Moonbeam City last week. WTF, Comedy Central? But while we’re on the subject of that network and animation, can we talk about how great South Park has been this season? Although I never felt the show dropped off in quality, this season has some remarkable teeth to it. The most recent run of episodes focusing on Randy’s new PC awakening (thanks, in part, to the opening of a Whole Foods) has been absolutely brilliant. Last week featured the stellar use of a Peter Gabriel song (actually a cover of a Magnetic Fields tune), the revelation that Japan chooses who is gay, and a whole lot of my new favorite TV character Cupid Cartman.
- This has nothing to do with anything, but I was talking to my father about this show, and when I told him it was called The Grinder, he asked me if it was about sandwiches. He grew up in Connecticut, and I had forgotten that in New England big sandwiches are called grinders, which I still find exceptionally odd. I realized I just call all sandwiches “sandwiches,” but people do seem really into their own regional colloquialisms, whether they become subs, hoagies, or heroes. Man, did I just waste everyone’s time with that sandwich bit or what?
- Did we always know that Dean’s name on the show-within-a-show The Grinder was “Mitch Grinder”? So that was his real name and his nickname?
- Speaking of names: The family law firm is called Sanderson & Yao. Do we know who Yao is?
- During the show-closing monologue of the other Grinder, Mitch thanks everybody who helped him “vigorously get this man off.”
- Todd doesn’t see the value in going for broke. “For what it’s worth, I took a really big swing with this lunch order, and I really regret it.”
- “Todd, your question about full-body chills? They are possible.”