Welcome back, The Grinder after a a baseball induced hiatus (congrats, Royals fans). “A Bittersweet Grind (Une Mouture Amer)” was a nice episode to return to. It played off the themes of “Little Mitchard No More” for an episode that felt cohesive and more complex than previous entries, with both the A and B plots working in tandem to support the entire episode.
In “Little Mitchard No More,” Deans discusses the tragedy that is the life of a celebrity. No one wants to be his friend for him, they only want to be his friend because he’s The Grinder. That, of course, has its perks including invitations to fancy schmancy galas and assuring Lizzie gets playing time on the varsity basketball team even though she is terrible at the sport. But it also means he doesn’t have any genuine relationships. Women will always want to have sex with him while watching The Grinder because he is the Grinder and not because he’s Dean. This emphasis on the falsity inherent in every single one of his relationships says so much about Dean, though. How can he be genuine himself if everyone he knows is incapable of genuine with him? It gives Dean a sense of depth he is in no way aware of. He’s just bummed he can’t find a girlfriend.
Enter Gail, Dean’s high school sweetheart who claims to have never seen The Grinder (she’s a book girl) and was into Dean pre-fame. Let’s just state the obvious and say that Christina Applegate is a treat in pretty much anything she’s in. She matches Dean’s level of delusion, not just because she pretends to not have a TV in order to seduce Dean, but because she genuinely still believes her 23-year-old is her baby. Dean latches onto this idea of family, similarly ignoring that the only right Toby does not have is renting a car without a co-signer, because it gives him a sense of normalcy in his relationships. What’s better is that belief that Toby is his worked exceedingly well against Stewart and Debbie’s parental decision-making. It works even better once Toby is revealed to be an adult.
So why does this episode work better than “Little Mitchard No More” when they deal with the same issues? Partially, that’s due to Applegate whose beginning scene as Gail is played ambiguously enough to raise an important question: Is she as deluded as Dean? Or will she see through his bullshit? “I gave Gail my virginity,” Dean says. “He did,” Gail says. “I still have it.” It’s a wonderful reading that never belies whether Gail thinks its entirely weird that Dean just announced that to the room, or if she’s proud of that fact. Similarly, “A Bittersweet Grind” works because Dean gets to be the butt of the joke. He doesn’t always get to win, sometimes he has to lose (even if losing still means having sex with an attractive woman he really likes while watching his own show). In “Little Mitchard No More,” it was Stewart and Debbie who were once again penalized for being in Dean’s orbit. Dean never got knocked down a peg — unless his admission of guilt in “The Disappearance Of Mr. Donovan” counts. But in “A Bittersweet Grind,” there’s a reason that Dean lies atop tables. Yet, even though he remains alone, Dean will always hold his delusions dear. A week of parenting a 23-year-old is not better than parenting teenagers. At least equal to.
The chemistry of this cast is really starting to come together. Mary Elizabeth Ellis and William Devane don’t have defined parts beside “wife” and “father,” respectively, but their interplay with everyone else is becoming one of The Ginder’s great strengths. That was one of the selling points of the pilot, but now that the writers are starting to get a feel for the rest of the cast, and the cast is starting to get a feel for each other, the ensemble nature of the show is only getting better and better. Rob Lowe’s grand pronouncements are undercut by Fred Savage’s rebuttals of reality. The office has their own dynamic that works with the same dynamics of Lowe of Savage. Dean Sr. and third banana Todd fall into Dean’s illusions, while Claire is on Stewart’s side of reality. While Ellis may not have a thrilling part as of yet — and, once again, it’s still early — she and Savage work well off each other. Even Ethan — it’s just Ethan! — is shaping up to be one of those wise-beyond-their-years kid (a la Trophy Wife’s Burt) who you don’t feel the need to constantly smack upside the head.