Rob Lowe mechanic

‘The Grinder’ turns back time, and that backstory humanizes its star in the process

The Grinder (Tuesdays, 8:30, Fox) has proven to be one of the best new shows out there, and what’s particularly impressive about it is the way the series has continued to evolve over the 18 episodes we’ve seen so far.

That was especially true with this week’s episode, “Genesis,” which finally explained just how Dean Sanderson (Rob Lowe) became the character of TV lawyer Mitchard Grinder, and illuminated a different side of Dean and the central relationship between him and brother (and actual lawyer) Stewart (Fred Savage). It did so in a fascinating new way, too; a prolonged trip to the past.

While The Grinder has often very successfully used clips from its show-within-a-show to provide backstory and history, those only pop up when characters are watching the show, so the overall program has remained relatively grounded in the present. There have been some previous flashbacks to the recent past, such as Dean’s arguments with Grinder creator Cliff Bemis (Jason Alexander) around the end of the series (and ahead of the creation of Timothy Olyphant spinoff Grinder: New Orleans) in episode eight, but those have been kept pretty short.

This time, the flashbacks went back further (to 2005) and were much more detailed, occupying almost half of the episode, and they provided quite a new perspective on what we know about Dean and Stew. Paste‘s tweet about Chris Morgan’s episode review summed it up perfectly; “Genesis” was “the origin story we didn’t know we needed.”

Before this week, The Grinder had spent 17 episodes mostly portraying Dean as a drama-crazed actor who sometimes can’t tell the difference between life and his show, and even the recent arc of his relationship with therapist Jillian (Maya Rudolph) and her attempts to have him leave his Grinder character behind were filled with drama.

Meanwhile, Stew had largely been critical of Dean and his drama, going so far as to push Dean towards therapy in the first place (which backfired spectacularly on several fronts). While the show found clever ways to bounce these characters off each other and off their families and friends and kept them from being one-note, we thought we generally knew that Dean had always been obsessed with acting and that Stew wanted him to be more grounded. As another show out there might say, it turns out that “the situation’s a lot more nuanced than that.”

Even the cold open in “Genesis” breaks from the typical mold of a “Grinder” clip, instead showing us an imaginary Caroline Rhea sitcom called “Fran of the House,” with Dean making his first TV appearance as “Hot Mechanic.” Sadly, the extensive backstory he developed for “Cliff Lubbock from Galveston” didn’t make it to air, much to his chagrin, but fiancée Kelly (Jenna Fischer) still seems encouraging.

It turns out that she’s manipulative and unsupportive, though, wanting him to leave acting behind after two years to work at her father’s freezer-door company in Indiana, and a visit from Stew and his wife Debbie (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) illustrates how Kelly’s playing Dean and how much acting means to him. Fellow actor Benji (Chris Klein) gets Dean to go over lines for new show “The Grinder,” which infuriates Kelly and shows Benji just how perfect Dean would be for the role, and he, Stew and Debbie all find ways to encourage Dean to choose acting over Kelly and go audition for the part.

It’s refreshing to have the Sanderson brothers’ roles somewhat flipped, with Dean looking to leave drama and Stew encouraging him to continue it. That’s been a trend for the last few episodes thanks to the Jillian arc, and it continues in the present-day parts of this week’s episode, where it turns out Stew needs Dean’s Grinder side to help investigate the malpractice case threatening the firm.

To draw him back into drama, Stew gets Todd (Steve Little) to trash the Sanderson and Yao offices and sets Dean to investigate it (which works out all too well). The present-day material in this episode works, especially with Dean’s hilariously-failed interrogation of the plaintiff suing them, Cory Manler (Kenneth Lucas), and it furthers the larger story of Dean’s return to being The Grinder. It’s mostly setup for the flashbacks this time, though, and those are spectacular.

The payoff comes when Dean, infuriated by Benji’s revelation that they’ve recast The Grinder as a woman (“Dammit, what is wrong with this business? Every good part goes to a woman!”) uses the “Cliff Lubbock from Galveston” backstory (which, thanks to Dean’s insane immersion in the role, works incredibly well on a security guard actually from Galveston) to sneak on to the lot “to fix Alan Thicke’s Maserati” and crashes a woman’s audition for the role (“I see you like my brassiere. You can have it, because the only support I need… IS THE U.S. CONSTITUTION!”) with a hilarious speech about how being a white man in Hollywood “is my cross to bear.”

This part seems perfectly timed in the wake of the Oscars and the increased discussion about diversity in Hollywood, and it shows how self-absorbed Dean still can be. It (and the revelation that Dean assumed the character’s name was “Mitchard,” not “Mitchell”) is enough to win over Bemis, though, and the episode ends with him tossing Dean the legendary Grinder shades.

As an aside, it should be noted how great the various guest stars on this show have been. Fischer plays Kelly’s manipulative nature very well, while Klein’s encouragement of Dean is hilarious, and Alexander has been fantastic every time he’s shown up. This series has also gotten tremendous, side-splitting performances out of Rudolph as the extremely unprofessional therapist, Olyphant as Dean’s rival and the star of “Grinder: New Orleans,” Christina Applegate as Dean’s old girlfriend and Nat Faxon and Alexie Gilmore as snooty neighbors, all playing off the strong cast of regulars well. The Grinder both uses an impressive collection of acting talent and makes the most of it, and that bodes well for its future.

However, the best indication of how much is still potentially left for The Grinder to explore is the surprising way this episode changed what we thought we knew about these characters. It turns out Dean needed Stew’s support and confidence to grind, both in the past and in the present, and that Stew realizes and (sometimes) supports just how important acting is for his brother. The show’s successfully played them off each other before, using the terrific interplay between Lowe and Savage to great effect, and it’s done well to sometimes make Stew the crazy one before this, but the previous central idea was of Dean with his head constantly buried in the acting clouds and Stew trying to pull him back to earth.

“Genesis” shows that it took some help from Stew to get Dean to those clouds, and that he recognizes the value in his brother’s acting obsession. Spending half an episode on a 10-year flashback is a bold gamble, like so many other ones taken on this show, but it’s one that pays off spectacularly when you open the envelope. Grinder rests.

Andrew Bucholtz

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz is a staff writer for Awful Announcing. He also covers the CFL and other sports for Yahoo! Canada.