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File under “things I never thought I’d say about Grandfathered”: “Gerald Fierce” should probably have been an hour long.

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That’s both praise and criticism—mostly praise. With “Gerald Fierce,” that slightly-different thing Grandfathered’s been doing all season gets quite a bit more obvious. It felt a lot closer to something like Jane the Virgin, or Hulu’s Casual, or even Louie, than the rest of FOX’s Tuesday comedy block. That’s not to say that all of a sudden Danny Chun’s smart little show became something other than a sitcom, because it didn’t. One of the best things about Grandfathered is the way it wears its sitcom bonafides proudly, all the while quietly updating or subverting some of those bonafides. Diverse cast, non-traditional relationships,

So yes, “Gerald Fierce” is still very much a sitcom, filled with pratfalls and punchlines and bits, so many bits (looking at you, Hot Gandhi). But it’s also something quieter, and sadder, and lovelier. It’s one show with another one hidden inside, like a delicious televised Cadbury Egg. Unfortunately, the show that’s hidden inside probably needs a lot more time to achieve its ends. Does it work? Mostly, but not quite. Did it hit as hard as it should? Probably not, although it looks like Papa Martino will be showing up soon, so maybe that’s intentional. But if the worst you can say about something is that it tried to do something ambitious and thoughtful and it mostly worked, you’re still talking about a pretty great episode of television.

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What’s different? Well, first of all, it devotes a pretty significant amount of time to stuff that dpes a lot more than set up the next scene (or the next joke). It links the show’s four main characters together in ways that feel both familiar and new, tying in ideas about parenthood and hardship in an earned, honest. It plays with time in a way that’s not just a set-up for future punchlines. It’s emotionally resonant almost the whole way through, not just in the scene or two where we all learn a lesson. To put it plainly, it does things that feel familiar while working from a new playbook. (Again, I just wish that playbook was longer.)

The ‘main’ storyline, that of Gerald preparing to fight a random creepy dude from the internet because of a selfie Jimmy took while Gerald was smooching his ex-girlfriend, is a bit of a red herring. That guy doesn’t matter (although this female writer would like to thank fictional character Gerald and actual writer Dan Klein for Gerald’s refusal to apologize to the stalker he openly calls a “misogynist bully.”) It’s what prompts the smooching to begin with—that being Gerald’s confidence which results in no small part from having a Dad that’s proud of him—as well as the response it provokes in Jimmy. Gerald’s so happy to have a Dad, and eager to finally have a man in his corner to tell him Dad things, like how to win a pinewood derby and how to fight a big angry asshole from the internet. Jimmy, however, has some dad stuff to work out. What they have in common is that in some ways, they’re both little kids who didn’t get what they needed from their dads.

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John Stamos and Josh Peck both rise to the occasion—Peck in particular, who’s easily got to be the most improved actor on the show over the season (if not the most improved actor on any show this year). They’re both aided as well by the character’s respective flashbacks, which give us a new glimpse into the lives of our heroes. Gerald’s shows us the insecure kid who was mostly OK without a dad, but just mostly. Jimmy’s however, shows us someone we’ve never seen before: a skinny, scared boy with a black eye whose dad says he deserves to get hurt if he doesn’t fight back. And that’s where the lack of time comes into play: in or out of the flashbacks, this episode could have included a lot more of that kind of storytelling without losing the audience. It’s not funny—well, mostly—but it’s meaningful, and illuminating. It’s not a great sitcom, it’s just great storytelling.

Theirs wasn’t the only thoughtful story of the night—again, impressive in about 24 minutes. Sara and Vanessa, once again, got their own little storyline, but this time it was one single mom with another. While their story—Vanessa twisting Sara’s arm so that she’ll help paint Edie’s nursery and then (unintentionally) dumping most of the work on her once she arrives—isn’t as deftly handled, it’s still pretty affecting. It’s understandable that Sara would be frustrated and feel taken advantage of, but also frustrating to see her respond in a human, but somewhat less than generous way. The moment when she realizes that this is another woman who has to balance a busy, complicated life while raising a kid—a woman whose life isn’t that unlike the one she led when Gerald was young—is really something to see. Paget Brewster’s always great (or dope, if you like), and she can nail a punchline like no one else on the show, but it’s nice when she gets moments that hit a little harder.

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So “Gerald Fierce” doesn’t totally work. It’s almost great. Grandfathered can do smart, snappy episodes that still pack a slight emotional punch. This isn’t that, because it aims higher than that, and that should be celebrated. We don’t really exist in a world where the Grandfathered team can tell FOX, “oh, hey, we actually need 45 minutes for this one,” but imagine if they could. Imagine if the insightful, meditative character-building being attempted were given room to breathe. It would be something else, huh?

For now, we’ll just have to settle for learning more about these people in small spurts, week by week. For a show this good, that’s good enough for me.

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Stray observations

  • And once again, Grandfathered proves that its diverse in ways that extend beyond casting. A santeria subplot? That’s pretty damn cool.
  • Speaking of, I loved the overhead shots in Edie’s nursery that seemed to be from the perspective of the spirits.
  • And speaking of things about Grandfathered that are sneakily progressive, this is yet another week where they easily pass the Bechdel test, in addition to calling out a misogynist asshole.
  • Stamos and Peck have gotten really, really good together. Their timing is great.
  • Hey-it’s-that-guy watch: Alex Solowitz!
  • “Maybe this can be another one of those things we both agree is dumb.” “Like baseball and yogurt?” “Those are dumb!”
  • “Hey! In 15 years I sell an app, and my dad hugs me for it. Suck it, scouts! I’m from the future.”
  • “Eyes, nads, eyes, nads, pits. Everyone forgets the pits.”
  • “Alternate idea: you could move to up Maine. Stephen King lives up there, seems very nice.”
  • More Victor for all! Where the hell does he live?
  • Sidenote: I watched Meet the Patels this weekend, which is available on Netflix, and was thoroughly charmed. Ravi Patel is great, on and off the show. Recommended.

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