There’s a filter through which it’s possible to see “Tableside Guacamole” as a statement about exactly how frustrating, sometimes humiliating, and definitely exhausting it can get when you’re trying to succeed. That’s true of any industry where you’re competing for patrons (or voters, or readers, or, say, viewers), leading to circumstances where one has to walk away from the things they value, making compromises of taste, style, and personal conviction in order to appease decision- or taste-makers. Sometimes you’ve just got to hold your nose, swallow your pride, and kiss some ass.
In an episode about all of those things, Grandfathered does none of them. “Tableside Guacamole,” a hell of a title for a story about literally catering to someone, is a breezy, confident, and above all relaxed half-hour, an accomplishment that’s all the more impressive—and just a little confusing, in a mostly-good way—when you consider how manically nearly everyone in the Grandfathered family was behaving. It seems that everyone’s got a case of the try-hards. Sara’s trying to rule the ‘80s from the present day. Jimmy’s trying to recapture the incredibly driven lunatic he used to be in an effort to revitalize his restaurant. Annelise is trying to get Jimmy to be that old Jimmy, too. Gerald’s trying to help his dad, no matter the cost. The bartender’s trying too hard for tips, the emoji girl’s just plain trying too hard, and Ravi—poor, poor Ravi—is really trying to make tableside guacamole happen. It’s not going to happen.
The black hole sucking up nearly all of that try-hard? One-hit-wonder Chason Fairwick (Ryan Hansen), a pop star currently dominating the social media landscape and all Sara-Edie dance sessions (his song seems to be called “I Can’t Even,” and really, I can’t even). When Jimmy and Annelise try to reel him in for a VIP night at Jimmy’s in exchange for some free publicity, his assistant hands over what’s essentially a rider. He requires pinball machines, mandatory costumes, an ’80s theme, room for up to 100 friends, absolutely no maroon, and, of course, tableside guacamole. Is this reasonable? No. Does Jimmy say yes? You bet he does.
It’s a slightly ludicrous plot contrivance, but Chason’s ‘80s night does get nearly all the main characters in the same room—always welcome—and offers up a number of unusual delights for Grandfathered: outlandish costumes, a strange (and not at all elegant) setting, Sara getting hit on by an 18-year-old, and most importantly, a person way more self-centered than Jimmy. This is familiar territory for Hansen, and he really steps up to the plate, giving Chason a level of dim-witted entitlement that’s easy to dislike without any chewing of the neon-decorated scenery. It’s another example of letting the audience—and Jimmy—learn more about who he is and how he’s changed by throwing him in a situation the old Jimmy would have embraced. Show-don’t-tell may be a pretty basic rule, but it matters for a reason, and Grandfathered’s better at it than most.
Another thing Grandfathered does better than most? It avoids relegating most of its female cast-members to the position of prop or plot device. It’s more than a little surprising to see that at this point in its first season, neither Sara nor Vanessa has wound up existing solely to motivate a man. It’s silly, but it matters. Vanessa’s tip bit might be brief, but it was basically perfectly executed, and while Sara’s “middle-aged lady is made to feel old by the young girls” storyline might not be groundbreakingly original, her worries had absolutely nothing to do with what men thought of her. Better still, this episode included two familiar tropes—the overly demanding, selfish, and dim-witted diva, and the career-person forced to choose between family and business in a heartwarming way—and assigned both roles to men. Perhaps these things just happen in the Grandfathered writer’s room. That would be lovely, actually. But whether intentional or deliberate, it’s nice to see a show where the women are just women, without a bunch of crap thrown on top.
There’s one downside to executing with such effortlessness and confidence, however. While a breezy, leisurely-paced episode will always be more welcome than an over-stuffed storyline that’s trying to do 20 things at once, it’s a little strange to have an episode in which everyone is working so hard feel so utterly anti-climactic. We got a beginning, a middle, and an end, to be sure, but by the time we reached minute 25 it felt as though almost no time had gone by—and not entirely in a good way. It’s easiest to connect with a story when there’s a way to walk for just a little while in the protagonist’s shoes. Maybe it’s intentional, and just another way of showing us that his heart just isn’t in it anymore, but at no point did the stakes seem at all high for Jimmy. He did the big things—he got an infected tattoo, for goodness’ sake—but it never seemed to creep past the plot and into the bloodstream. Grandfathered has done a great job of making us care about the people. At least this week, however, they didn’t do so well with the plot.
- Hey-it’s-that-guy watch: Ryan Hansen! He’s been on so many things, but to me, he will always be Dick Casablancas (and fine, he’ll always be Kyle Bradway, too.)
- Nice use of “Modern Love.” Aw, Bowie.
- “What would Harriet Tubman do?” “No.”
- Another week with tons of cute kid stuff, but that little dance between Sara and Edie really took the cake. Paget Brewster could not have looked happier.
- I am really digging Victor (A.J. Rivera). Every week his deadpan gets better and better.
- One of my favorite random callbacks in this episode was Jimmy settling in to read Edie’s book/magazine/whatever. He sure does love his children’s entertainment, doesn’t he?
- I’ll admit that I didn’t totally dig Sara’s storyline, but Paget Brewster managed to make it just wry enough to feel fresh, and the fact that those girls were actually just being nice was a surprising little touch.
- So, which was your favorite Ravi guacamole pun? I’m partial to “rock out with your guac out.”
- If you find yourself really craving some more TV about people who are trying way, way too hard, I highly recommend last night’s near-perfect episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. There’s a party bus involved.