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For several episodes now, The Grinder has been working on an ambitious arc. It’s a storyline that, as Molly Eichel expertly explained last week, sees Dean trying to be more of a Stewart, as Stewart morphs slowly into a Dean. But with “From the Ashes,” that arc expands to make room for plenty of others, all of whom, from Dean’s classmates to the universe itself, seem to be filling the void left by his renunciation of grinding. It’s funny. It’s bold. It’s deeply weird. And it sometimes works. Well, mostly.

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That’s not to say that “From the Ashes” isn’t a respectable entry in The Grinder’s solid first season. It’s thematically tidy, with even the B-plot (Debbie and Stewart running out of things to talk about now that they see each other in the office) ties into what could be interpreted as the universe’s need for drama. That might sound ludicrous (and perhaps I’ve just got 11.22.63 on the brain) but Dean seems to meet temptation around every corner, and not all of them are courtesy of Stewart’s machinations. The episode even begins with Todd and Stewart in full-blown Grinder mode, and by the time we reach the final moments, when light reflected from Dean’s discarded sunglasses flits across his face like a dying Tinkerbell, even destiny seems determined to take a hand. There must be a Grinder, and if Dean cannot grind, then another hero (or heroes) will rise.

These heroes all grind away with varying degrees of success, both in terms of the character’s efforts and general plausibility. The most realistic arrives in the form of Stewart and Debbie’s conversational dry spell, which ends in a hurry thanks to some very bad (and drama-inducing) advice from Natalie. She suggests some topical bomb-dropping, and because vaginas are plenty explosive, Debbie decides her conversational artillery will be about putting Lizzie on the pill. Sure, it doesn’t turn out well, but it’s a clear link to the larger theme, namely that sometimes (though this is not one of those times) a little drama might just be what’s needed.

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However, Stewart and Debbie’s plot-line has little to no effect on Dean. Nearly all the other scenes do, however, with nearly all the characters on their worst behavior. His classmates aren’t interested in studying, but rather in living a scene that could have been cut from Dean’s once and former television series. Jilliant is ostensibly in support of Dean’s new, drama-free existence, but not at the cost of her love life, her own fondness for drama, and her client roster. Maya Rudolph, previously misused on The Grinder, finally gets a scene that blends Rudolph’s particularly brand of weirdness with Jillian’s detached reserve. Todd, although much closer to his usual level of drama, also plays it up.

The main event, however, is Stewart and Dean. If this were a story about actual addiction (such as the overwrought one seen in the cold open), Stewart’s insistence on constantly trying to ply the drunk with whiskey would be seen as malicious and underhanded. And speaking of underhanded, here comes Cliff Bemis (Jason Alexander). Fred Savage and Alexander are plenty entertaining in “From the Ashes,” though neither comes close to their best work on the series thus far. In Savage’s case, that may be due in part to the fact that he has less to do in this episode than in most of the others of the series thus far. Giving other members of the cast the chance to go into Mitchard Grinder mode makes Stewart’s storyline stand out a little less. But you’d think that the show drifting away from Stewart-land and into Dean’s realm of drama would be the ideal terrain for Bemis, and yet the opposite seems to be true. Alexander’s scenes feel like a distraction from the main event, and like well-trodden territory to boot.

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As with “Delusions of Grinder,” one has to respect the ambitious arc The Grinder is tracing in “From the Ashes.” It’s entirely possible (and hopefully true) that next week’s episode will serve as the perfect culmination to that arc. But standing on its own, it’s an episode that falls a bit flat. It’s still plenty entertaining, but like Dean in post-Grinder mode, it just isn’t the same.

Stray observations

  • Thanks to Molly for letting me fill in this week!
  • Hey-it’s-that-guy watch: the law professor is played by Crista Flanagan, a.k.a. Mad Men’s Lois Sadler, a.k.a. the lawnmower rider.
  • I know the universe trying to force Dean to be The Grinder is a cockamamie idea, but between the symbolic, phoenix-like sunglasses and the office break-in, it sure does feel a bit like fate taking a hand.
  • Speaking of that break-in: what are the odds that was staged?

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