John Stamos (FOX)

Grandfathered’s back!

That exclamation point is used in all sincerity. When a new series returns after a break, it’s often easier to see flaws that were hidden in the first big rush. But Daniel Chun’s charming, simple story avoids that trap, instead serving up an episode every bit as breezy and surprisingly thoughtful as its strongest entries to date. What worked before works now: a stellar supporting cast, effortless jokes, and a quiet way of both adopting and subverting classic sitcom tropes in a way that’s never condescending of either the audience or the format. Better still, some of the things that were less excellent have noticeably improved.

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Top of that list: Grandfathered’s grandfather. Way to go, Stamos.

In “Perfect Physical Specimen,” Chun and company push their star to his best work of the series since the pilot, giving him seemingly endless opportunities to both nail his charming schtick and do real, honest acting. Jimmy, you see, is continuing to learn things. On a lesser show, he’d be learning not to be silly and shallow, but Jimmy is silly and shallow (see: safe full of discontinued hand cream Velvet Gent.) Instead, Jimmy’s learning to have, and be affected by, feelings. Feelings that matter. He doesn’t handle them well. He doesn’t know how. He’s a little lamb who’s lost in the wood, and luckily, he’s got a whole pack of people who watch over him.

The feelings Jimmy learns to have in “Perfect Physical Specimen” couldn’t be more relatable. As always, Grandfathered takes a common sitcom set-up—in this case, a health scare—and executes it in an effortless, never cloying way. You know where it’s going, of course, because that’s part of the pleasure of a sitcom: he’ll find out something might be wrong, spiral out of control somehow, and then ultimately realize he’s fine. No way this episode ever ends with Stamos learning his skin cancer treatment plan. But Grandfathered distinguishes itself through the honesty with which it approaches set-ups that might otherwise be cliché, and in “Perfect Physical Specimen,” it’s up to Stamos to do almost all the heavy lifting. And bless his golden-tanned heart, he pulls it off.

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It’s an episode filled with small pleasures from Stamos—not all of them subtle, but nearly all of them earned. Look at the gleeful way he giggles about the suspicious mole. Look at the giddy smirk he unleashes after that terrible, terrible anesthesia joke. Look at his body language as he clutches Edie’s doctor bear, fidgeting like a two-year-old. It’s funny, and absolutely painted in broad strokes, but it’s somehow still honest. That’s a man who’s terrified, both for himself and his surprise grandbaby, but he’s terrified in sitcom-land, so it’s still in service of the joke.

Grandfathered doesn’t have the dizzying meta-humor of The Grinder, the antics of something like The Big Bang Theory, or the bizarre wit of shows like Community and Parks and Recreation. It has its own, quieter intelligence, its unique blend of sincerity and silliness. It’s a bonsai-trimming session soundtracked by soul. It isn’t audacious about it, but Grandfathered is every bit as smart as the best comedies on TV, and in “Perfect Physical Specimen,” Stamos rises to the level of the material—and of his co-stars.

Two of those stars finally get a sub-plot worthy of them, as well. In the first half of the season, Kelly Jenrette and Ravi Patel were often relegated to superfluous B-plots that didn’t add much—and sometimes even detracted—from the main action of the story. But in spending nearly all their 21 minutes trying to get into that safe, the existence of which Annelise and Ravi seem to take as a personal affront, Jenrette and Patel nail the “sidekicks” vibe the show has been trying for and missing. It helps that the unrelated cold-open (bring back The Keeners, please!) is so effective, a charming start that makes their return all the more welcome, but the biggest change is that the plot itself seems to actually matter. The safe, of course, is a red herring—what counts is that these two people take it personally not only that Jimmy (their boss, remember) would hide a safe from them, but that they’d be unable to guess said safe’s passcode. It’s silly, but it’s linked to things they actually feel, a territory which otherwise has mostly belonged to the rest of the cast. Unsurprisingly, it makes for Jenrette and Patel’s best performances to date.

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Yes, we’re in #peakTV, and there are more sophisticated things on the air. There are shows, comedies and dramas alike, working at a higher degree of difficulty. But to this point, the things that distinguish Grandfathered seem to have largely gone unnoticed. It’s just there, quietly being excellent. Like Jimmy himself, the show has a lot more going on beneath the surface than it seems.

Stray observations

  • The twins playing Edie just get cuter. I really appreciate the way they’re letting them simply be kids, and the honest way that Josh Peck and Christina Milian interact with their squirming, babbling co-stars.
  • Can we all agree that Suspicious Mole was the real star of the show here?
  • This is the second Dr. Phil cameo on a show I cover in the last few months, and in both cases he was surprisingly good. Seriously. He’s for sure the least hammy cameo Grandfathered has had thus far. If he wasn’t famous, I’d be praising the great guest star they got to play the irritated doctor. Maybe he can quit being Dr. Phil and just be Comedic Actor Phil?
  • Solid little fingers-up-the-butt joke at the end there. Peck’s little uttered “oh” is what really makes it work.
  • “Oh god, they’re gonna leave a watch in my baby’s head!”
  • “Come on, punch me.” “No.” “Come on, like Houdini! BOOM!”
  • “Oh honey, that’s just simple syrup.”
  • “What are you doing, you slut?!” Poor Cindy.
  • “How do you think I’d look with a man-bun?” “You’d look like a man with an assistant that doesn’t tell him the truth.”
  • “Get up and leave, you welcome-overstaying garbage people!”
  • BRB, gotta go get some more queso dip and scotch.

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