Well, looks like we’ve got a full-blown Grinder arc on our hands, everyone. Last week’s closing revelation that Dean and Stewart’s father was being sued for malpractice came so completely out of nowhere that I wondered whether the show would even bother continuing that story, tonight’s episode leaves no doubt. There’s an actual, honest-to-goodness mystery brewing here, albeit in that undercooked kind of way that sitcoms tend to do when they’re trying their hand at something so completely plot-driven. Whoever is going after Dean Sr. has way more legal acumen that Stewart would have expected, and there could be a very legitimate case against his father. Also, Dean and Maya Rudolph’s Jillian are, if not outright dating, then at least very publicly kissing, with all the ethical messiness that implies. What’s fascinating about all this is that The Grinder is taking all the meta-humor at its comedic core and now weaving it ever more directly into the show’s narrative structure. The show has already dipped its toe into multi-episode storytelling, with the hiatus-spanning two-parter about Dean leaving (his brother’s) home, not to mention all the business with noted wastrel Timothy Olyphant.

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But what we get tonight—and, though it wasn’t quite as obvious in the moment, what we got last week—is an episode without an ending, one where the show barely even gestures at wrapping up an episodic plot. It’s a perfectly ironic step for the show to take, as Dean’s concerted efforts to reduce the fake drama in his life is immediately followed by an onslaught of real drama: his inappropriate relationship with Jillian (or, if we’re being pedantic, Jillian’s inappropriate relationship with him), Deb losing her job, whatever is going on with Dean Sr.

Up to this point, The Grinder has gotten a lot of mileage out of how delightfully low-stakes its conflicts were, simultaneously justifying the universe tolerating Dean’s antics by suggesting people had nothing better to do and getting laughs from the explicit pointlessness of it all. Dean and Timothy Olyphant’s showdown in “Grinder V. Grinder,” with Dean Sr.’s bored buddies acting as de facto jury, is probably the apex of this particular form of Grinder comedic plotting. But now, real things are actually starting to happen, and The Grinder responds by essentially abandoning the confines of the standard sitcom half-hour. These various plot arcs could all wrap up next week, or they could just as plausibly carry the show through to the end of the season (and, if those dwindling ratings are any indication, the series). The Grinder is never afraid to get weird, conceptually speaking, and that counts for a whole heck of a lot.

Not that any of that matters if the show isn’t funny, and on that count “The Ties That Grind”—probably my new favorite episode title, though the gloriously bilingual pretension of “A Bittersweet Grind (Une Mouture Amer)” deserves consideration—acquits itself well, or at least as well as any non-courtroom, non-Timothy Olyphant, just generally non-grinding episode is likely to. Of particular note is Dean’s utterly botched attempt to apologize to Claire for what he quite accurately recognizes has been near-constant sexual harassment. It’s a scene that typifies how nimble The Grinder can be in both acknowledging its weirder or more off-putting elements while still steering right back into that particular skid. Dean’s delusional nature generally insulates him from being held responsible for his bad behavior, and his conduct toward Claire has probably been the most unsympathetic of his various actions.

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So it’s clever then for him to outright apologize for his harassment in a way that loops right back to being harassment, only for him to go away promising to rework his apology in a way that downplays the sexual harassment. To make Dean properly self-aware would be to wreck the whole premise of the show, but scenes like that suggest there’s plenty of comic mileage to be had from that very particular brand of oblivious self-awareness. Dean’s later conciliatory effort, in which he reunites Claire with the birth parents she already contacted a decade ago, suggests the way forward, at least temporarily, is for Dean to spectacularly fail at being her supportive friend rather than her would-be lover. If that’s the case, it’s not a bad course correction, though I doubt it will last long before Dean resumes his quixotic quest to woo Claire—perhaps his feelings will reignite the next time Timothy Olyphant shows up.

Deb also gets a chance to branch out here, as her sudden, mostly aimless unemployment leads to her unexpectedly bonding with that little punk Zadak. His outspokenness and total willingness to address Stewart and Deb by their first names makes him a natural fit for the show’s fast-paced oversharing sessions, in which Stewart seethes while the conversational momentum takes him far, far away from what he would recognize as a sensible reality. The Grinder presents a universe in which its younger characters—especially Ethan and now Zadak—are so preposterously wise beyond their years that they’re not recognizable as anything but plot devices. That adds another layer of meta humor to Stewart’s irate reaction when Zadak suggests it would just be organic for Deb to help Dean Sr. get organized for his pending lawsuit. Once again, Stewart is the only person who recognizes just how unlike real people his family members are, which doesn’t help with his eminently plausible, emotionally grounded frustration with his father. At least there’s one younger character who acts more or less consistently like a teen actually would, as Lizzie dumps Zadak the moment Deb starts to like him.

The one character who remains tricky to pin down here is Dean Sr. His unquestioning support of Dean and vague indifference toward Stewart has long made him an odd presence on this show, as though he’s a somewhat tossed-off deconstruction of the crusty father archetype who would, on any other show, have no respect for his famous son. As it is, Dean Sr. functions much as Ethan and Lizzie—and Todd, for that matter—do, as an enabler and amplifier for whatever Dean’s latest bit of insanity might be. That makes him a fine presence in the group scenes, but he’s always been such a weird character that it’s still hard to know quite how seriously the audience should take him in, say, his one-on-one scenes with Stewart, and William Devane’s performance has generally been too broad to really anchor the part in much of a recognizable reality. That works fine when Dean Sr. is just there to be Dean’s improbably supportive dad, but it’s harder to know quite how The Grinder is going to land an emotional arc that appears to pivot on Stewart and his father resolving their years-long tensions. The Grinder is at its best when it’s this as weird and self-referential and fantastical as it dares, so it will be interesting to see whether it can land a plotline that really does seem to depend on a decent amount of emotional realism.

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Or perhaps Dean will rediscover his love of preposterous drama to deliver an improbable victory for his dad and his brother. Either way, The Grinder remains a delightfully intriguing concoction, with even a solid little episode like “The Ties That Grind” pushing at the limits of what sitcoms even are. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t, but you’ve got to respect the grind.

Stray observations

  • Does anyone commit to “flustered” harder than Fred Savage? Stewart desperately needs to discover his chill sooner or later. My money’s on later.
  • Thanks to Molly for letting me sub in this week. I’m really digging the delightful weirdness of The Grinder, and I might even have some longer-form thoughts on the show in the near future.

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