Jerry Minor, Michael Showalter, Rob Lowe, Fred Savage

One of the great things about The Grinder is that it manages to feel like nothing else on television while precisely and savagely aping a style that couldn’t be more familiar. From the score to Lowe’s performance, which sometimes feels like Sam Seaborn left the Santos White House to take up a career as an actor and forgot everything he learned in law school, it plays with familiar tropes and forms while cooking up something wholly its own. That remains true with “Dedicating This One To The Crew,” but while the formula hasn’t changed, there’s something about this episode that feels a little too familiar.

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That’s not to say that it wasn’t an entertaining half hour. Anything that gives Connor Kalopsis’s Ethan some additional screentime is fine with me. One of TV’s best kid actors gets to be the linchpin on which the whole plot hangs, turning his back on the Shadowboys (and wounding his dad’s pride in the process) in hopes of landing the lead in the school play. Kalopsis has a knack for delivering punchlines as though he’s not aware they’re even there (“My heart’s goin’ like a jackhammer right now”) and in lesser hands, nothing about this plot would even work. “And that man’s name… was Luther!” had to strike a balance between being at least pretty good—Ethan’s been watching a lot of TV drama lately, after all—and not that good, or the whole question of whether or not he legitimately earned the role would be irrelevant. Here, kid, act like you’re acting, but don’t be quite as good as you actually are.

Oddly, the fact that Kalopsis was so terrific is part of what made “Dedicating This One To The Crew” feel like such well-trodden territory. School plays crop up often in comedy, perhaps because so many of the people creating the material have related experiences from which to draw. From Jack Donaghy being a protein to Luke and Lorelai bickering through Fiddler, it’s an area that has served many a comedy well, because the backdrop alone provides plenty of jokes. Here, we don’t make it past the auditions, but Ethan’s quest to play the unnamed lead immediately called to mind George Michael’s quest to smooch Maeby in “Bringing Up Buster,” the memorable third episode from Arrested Development’s first season. Like Kalopsis, Michael Cera knew how to make the jokes not seem like jokes in a very grown-up way, and as with “Dedicating This One To The Crew,” two adult men get way, way too emotionally invested in what’s going on.

Obviously much of what happens on The Grinder exists solely to get Dean and Stewart to work out their brotherly conflicts. It makes sense that the writers would begin to have the pair look to the past, rather than focus solely on the present. But somehow, Dean returning to the place he became an actor (and “the saddest, scaredest man in Sleepy Hollow”) leeches away what makes the show feel so fresh. It isn’t winking at a TV trope, it’s just honestly calling on one, a choice that feels like a big misstep. One might never have predicted that it’s the law office that makes The Grinder work, but with this episode, at least, it seems true.

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Worse, the big lesson Stewart learns in this episode also didn’t ring true. Part of what made “A Hero Has Fallen” work was the joyous note in Savage’s performance as Stewart figured out that he’s the Pincus, and that while being the practical one might not be as much fun, it has its purpose. Until the closing moments, no such note shows itself here. While it would be understandably upsetting to learn that your famous sibling was told to reach for the stars while you were told to know your limits, it’s difficult to buy into any of Stewart’s reaction. It doesn’t have to make a ton of sense—this isn’t a realistic show—but it does have to resonate in an honest way, or the jokes simply don’t work.

Still, as every FOX ad from now until the end of time will surely remind us, The Grinder is one of the year’s best new comedies, and even a slightly lackluster episode still sparkles. Watching Steve Little’s Todd “hack” into the director’s computer by highlighting the auditions folder and then double-clicking it was a terrific gag, and Michael Showalter’s incredibly welcome guest appearance as said director was pitch-perfect. The twist, if you can call it that, puts Stewart hiding shadowboy-style in the wings as Showalter’s character reveals the roots of his deception, and as a last-minute reveal, one could do worse. As inappropriate as the behavior of the Sanderson brothers was (seriously, poor Blaine—first that terrible wig, then he loses the part), it was a pleasure to watch then grind… together… for justice. It just would have been nice to have them do so in a way that didn’t feel so unoriginal.

Stray Observations

  • Hey-it’s-that-guy watch, kid edition: Jacob Guenther! Also known as Julie from Mad Men—and, currently, Chris the precocious barfly on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
  • “If he’s that talented with a flashlight in his mouth, what would happen if we tossed a little Shakespeare in there?”
  • “Great actors don’t act. They be.”
  • “Without going into too much detail, I was having sex with the hottest girl in school in her parent’s shower and I slipped.”
  • Thanks to Molly Eichel for letting me fill in! She’ll be back next week.

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