I know a show can’t help the whim of network scheduling, but taking The Grinder off their air for as long as Fox did while the show was in the middle of this epic serial arc is near tragic, especially when “A System On Trial” is as good as it is. I’m generally a sucker for the episodes where The Grinder comments on the TV industry, even more so when it involves issues that clearly affect the show itself, and this was the perfect example of that kind of episode. But the episode was also able to draw on the strengths of the entire cast. No one was left out and everyone got a laugh line. Each plot was in service of this larger theme, looking at how ridiculous it is that, say, the television we watch has been affected by six strangers who happen to be in the right mall at the right time.

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As a callback to “Genesis,” “A System On Trial” starts at the beginning of the show-within-a-show The Grinder. Rob Lowe had the benefit of a wig in “Genesis,” but when “A System On Trial” opens, he looks exactly the same as he does in 2016. This exchange was lovely, especially lines like “I’d like to see him get my brother-in-law off.” But The Grinder has started ideas that pervade the entire episode, but dropped those plot throughlines when the main story starts. The impressive thing about this episode was how that first cold open set up every other joke that was told throughout the episode, and it did so quite well, while still moving the overall plot arc forward. Moving the story forward has been a problem with The Grinder as its tried out this serial format. Sometimes it works, and sometimes the gag takes over. “A System On Trial” bucked that.

Dean Sr. is slated to take the stand in his legal malpractice case. Stewart is right, he’s too angry, but Dean insists on bringing together six strangers from the mall in order to say pretty much what Stewart has already said. The unintended consequence of Dean’s love of focus groups is that everyone starts looking for criticism from the hoi polloi about how they could better themselves. Stewart wants to become more lawyerly, Lizzie figures out that she’s invisible at school, while Ethan is reinforced that he’s pretty much perfect, although he could probably step up his game a bit more. The conclusion of it all for Dean, at least, is that none of it matters at all because there was an outlier to the unanimous opinions. “Ah, what it is does matter? Turns out six people in a mall don’t have all the answers,” he says.

Everyone in the cast working in service of the same, strong joke gave everyone was a boon to this episode, especially for characters like Lizzie and Debbie who don’t often get to be the funny ones in the scene. Lizzie, especially, has not had much to do other than add a line here or there, or be a conduit for a Joel Zadak joke. But given a couple jokes to deliver and she added a nice, albeit small, B-plot to the mix. Debbie, too, who can often be a killjoy or exist to support Stewart. But Mary Elizabeth Ellis was perfect in her inability to accept the smallest of criticisms. Debbie even got to talk to Claire, even if it ended with her being slightly humiliated. Even William Devane’s Dean Sr. got a chance to have an emotion other than happiness.

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Dean Sr.’s admission that he might have, in fact, screwed up Cory’s case is one of the better plot movements this story has seen because it adds a certain amount of attention. Dean’s not going to swoop in with the twist-save because Dean Sr. made a legitimate mistake (and it had nothing to do with his day drinking in the go go late ’90s). For the first time, I’m excited to see where The Grinder goes, rather than what jokes it tells.

Stray observations

  • I like that, at the dinner table, Dean sits at the head of the table, instead of next to Debbie.
  • “Behind every big decision in my life has been a focus group.” “Even the move to Boise?” “Tested huge.”
  • Todd putting everything on Stewart’s desk back into place, after Dean moves it sit down.
  • “I broke up with Sela Ward because a focus group rated our onscreen chemistry as ‘Fine.’”

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