John Stamos, Paget Brewster (Jordin Althaus/FOX)

Just in case splitting the two will-they-won’t-they couples into their own storylines before the first commercial break wasn’t enough of a tip-off, Grandfathered would like to make its intentions for “The Boyfriend Experience” clear:

It’s going full Love Actually, but without being 60% lame.

It should come as no surprise that as it heads into the final stretch of its first season, Grandfathered chooses to focus on romantic love. While the Jimmy-Sara and Vanessa-Gerald dynamics were explored a great deal in the early episodes, things tapered off considerably after that. Yes, there were obvious moments of pining or jealousy peppered throughout, particularly where Jimmy was concerned, but for the most part the focus has been on familial love, and on Jimmy discovering the beauty and frequent inconveniences of having people sit so close to one’s heart.

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Now, however, the show’s not merely winking at it, but talking about the inevitability of both relationships openly. The restaurant staff acts as a kind of stand-in for the audience, openly discussing whatever the hell is keeping these people apart. They’re watching like we do, cheering Edie on as she feeds that toilet and gazing fondly at Jimmy and Sara as they dance like the emotionally stunted idiots they are.

While Jimmy and Sara’s story occupies the bulk of the action (and most of the traditional rom-com moments), Gerald and Vanessa’s managed a neat trick: being a sweet story that reveals how neatly two people fit together, all while simultaneously centering on a toilet. It’s just another day of working and co-parenting, but over the course of that day, they support and reassure each other, problem solve, vent frustration, and ultimately laugh. Sure, Victor and company think Gerald and Vanessa “belong together.” Maybe they do, maybe they don’t, and maybe there’s no such thing as “belonging.” But what’s romantic there is the comfort, and warmth, and ease, and respect that flows between those two very different people. It all makes the mushy stuff seem a bit trivial, come to that. Who’s got time for dating or sex when you’ve got to figure out how to keep your kid from feeding the toilet?

Still, the main event isn’t Gerald and Vanessa’s adventures in parenting. It’s Jimmy and Sara’s adventures in fake-dating.

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Generally speaking, the more we get of Paget Brewster in an episode of Grandfathered, the better that episode will be. She played as central a role in “The Boyfriend Experience” as any other episode of the series to date, and while she and John Stamos both often get the chance to be funny, it’s usually Stamos who gets to do most of the more grounded stuff (usually with Josh Peck). Not so, here: Stamos is the slightly chaotic one, pretending his date with Sara is a big game while simultaneously (and perhaps a bit subconsciously) wooing her. But while he’s the bull in the china shop, it’s Brewster’s reactions that help to define the first half of the episode. When Jimmy’s in boyfriend experience mode, she’s put off by of his lack of sense and sincerity, and Brewster manages to make even the punchlines feel rich with disappointment.

It’s the entrance of once-and-former love interest Craig (Michael Trucco, a.k.a Sam freakin’ Anders) that creates a palpable shift. Why is it that Jimmy is able to drop the facade and simply be himself with Sara? Perhaps it’s knowing that her attention is focused on this other man that allows him to speak and act honestly. Perhaps it was just the fun they had during that dance (itself a part of the boyfriend experience). Regardless, the emotional heft comes from the same place as it does early in the episode: Sara’s reactions. Look at Brewster’s face when she realizes he’s actually describing how they met. Look at her response to that lovely little speech (beautifully delivered with unexpected simplicity by Stamos). And look how quickly she’s out the door when things go sour.

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Grandfathered has done a terrific job of showing us the ways in which its characters and their relationships have matured and evolved over the season. In particular, the writing staff has brilliantly shown how Jimmy takes one step forward and two back, and how he’s sometimes learning and growing against his own better judgment. But for the second episode in a row, Jimmy took steps forward and forward only, tapping into his very real feelings for someone—last week Gerald, this week Sara—and taking steps to do something about it. In ”Gerald Fierce,” that declaration was earnestly and touchingly reciprocated. No such luck in “The Boyfriend Experience,” because as Annelse warns Jimmy, waiting too long is a bad idea. It’s Craig who gets Jimmy’s second chance, and Jimmy’s left with no one but Princess Kate.

Rom-coms have satisfying conclusions. This one gives us one and not the other. Of course, that’s the beauty of television: there’s (almost) always another act to come.

Stray observations

  • Best joke of the episode: “why don’t I go for both?”
  • Sorry for the dig, Love Actually fans. In case you were wondering, the 40% that’s not utter horseshit includes Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, everything Bill Nighy does, and little Jojen Reed playing the drums while that girl sings the world’s best pop Christmas song.
  • Michael Trucco (rightly) gets most of the guest star oxygen here, as he looks to be primed for a multi-episode arc, but hey, Brooke Lyons (The Affair)!
  • Here in Chicago, we got a winter storm warning right as Ravi and Gerald first started talking about the nanny cams, leading to half of Ravi’s line being drowned out by emergency alert sounds. I don’t know what he actually said, but it could not have been funnier than what I heard: “Yeaaaaah, that’s why you put a camera in the BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP. What a perv, right?”
  • “If I’m that stupid at 50, kill me.” “I’m going to kill you way before you’re 50.”
  • “Hey, for our third date, can we help one of your friends move?”
  • “Oh, Victor. You need to moisturize.”
  • “ Yes, I’m familiar with that marriage arrangement, and while I’m flattered, I haven’t done that since the ‘80s.”
  • “Black… white… white… white… white…”
  • “If you’re thinking of throwing things down a different toilet, just remember: they’re filled with monsters that eat little girls!” “Rawr!”

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