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The Grinder is the year's funniest new show

The Fox sitcom is a weird, mind-bending odyssey filled with laughs.

Dean (Rob Lowe, right) deals with the creator of his old TV show (Jason Alexander), who sees him mostly as a set of chiseled abs.
Dean (Rob Lowe, right) deals with the creator of his old TV show (Jason Alexander), who sees him mostly as a set of chiseled abs.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for November 22 through 28, 2015, is "Giving Thanks, Getting Justice," the eighth episode of the first season of Fox's sitcom The Grinder.

The Grinder belongs to my favorite TV subgenre: shows about people who are stuck in TV shows and only gradually realizing they are stuck in TV shows.

What The Grinder alters about this formula is that most of its characters were leading a perfectly normal life before Dean Sanderson (Rob Lowe) reentered their world, forcing it to conform to TV logic. That's led to a lot of good jokes but also some raw, terrified desperation. Look at this show in a slightly different way, and it becomes a horror movie.

The Grinder is about the differences between TV reality and "real" reality

Dean and Stewart on The Grinder.
Dean (Rob Lowe, left) reenters the life of his brother, Stewart (Fred Savage), who'd really rather not, thanks.

Dean's claim to fame is that he starred as the title character on The Grinder, the show-within-a-show that bears the same name as the one you're watching. This is just the first leg of the weird, metatextual, mind-bending journey the series embarks upon; the fictional Grinder was a boilerplate legal procedural, where Dean's character always got the job done because he never stopped grinding. (Amusingly, Dean didn't realize the double entendre.) It was a massive hit that ran for several seasons.

Once his show ends, Dean drops out of the acting world to return home to Boise, Idaho. There, his brother Stewart (Fred Savage) is leading a perfectly happy, normal life as an actual attorney, at the family law office still run by their father (William Devane). Dean, who's looking for purpose in his life, decides that he played a lawyer for so long that he could probably be one in real life, and it's here that the show takes flight.

See, Dean isn't entirely wrong. As it turns out, he can use an actor's charisma and charm to win over essentially everyone he comes into contact with. It's as if he knows a very important secret: If you insist something is true long enough, and sell the lie with enough force, people might start to believe you. Dean's success in this regard drives Stewart up a wall, as it often seems he's the only one who can see how ridiculous the whole scenario is. But celebrity has its perks, and one of them includes bending reality just a little bit.

The interplay of the show, then, is between reality — the boring world where most of us live, and where Stewart's greatest legal triumph is convincing the city to better mark a left turn that's led to many accidents — and the hyper-exciting world of television that Dean carries with him everywhere he goes. Dean doesn't know how our "real" reality works; nearly everyone he encounters is so excited to get a taste of Dean's version that they go along with whatever he says should happen.

And consider this: Dean's scheme to become a lawyer is patently preposterous. That everybody goes along with it suggests, ever so slightly, that even our humdrum reality isn't real. It suggests to Stewart and a few others that maybe Dean's mere presence has transformed them from real people into fictional characters.

In a Thanksgiving episode, the show goes even further off the wall

Timothy Olyphant is in The Grinder.
Complete with Timothy Olyphant playing himself!

In "Giving Thanks, Getting Justice," which aired Tuesday, November 24, the "real" Grinder turns its central premise on its ear. Up until this point, the series had shown footage from the fictional Grinder in every single episode, but it had never gone into in-depth detail on the behind-the-scenes world of that show, depicting Dean as a working actor. In "Giving Thanks," however, the show flashes back to September 2014, when Dean is in the Thanksgiving spirit because he's shooting the fictional Grinder's Thanksgiving episode.

So far, The Grinder has been surprisingly light on show business satire for a series that features a TV star as one of its main characters. It's far more interested in how the tropes of television storytelling work or don't work in the "real world" (or at least Dean's approximation of it). But "Giving Thanks" reveals that Dean's approach to Boise reality is very different from his approach to Los Angeles reality. When he was living and working in LA, Dean felt just as beat down and destroyed by the acting world as Stewart has felt since his brother came home.

In a plot that subtly tweaks Hollywood's attitudes toward women, Dean is getting tired of starring on The Grinder because every episode requires him to take off his shirt for no particular reason other than to show off his chiseled form. The show's creator — played by Jason Alexander — insists it's an important creative element; Dean wishes the show could get back to talking about the issues that really matter, rather than contriving reasons for shirtlessness.

At the episode's apex, Dean escapes to the beach to stare out at the waves — and is promptly joined by a scruffy Timothy Olyphant (playing himself). Olyphant has always had an underexploited gift for goofball comedy, and The Grinder turns him first into Dean's sage (he commiserates about pointless shirtlessness and advises Dean to get around the requests by leaving "just a little bit" of his penis out) and then transforms him into Dean's nemesis (when he nabs the leading role in a Grinder spinoff, effectively replacing Dean entirely).

Yes, Hollywood found Dean to be just another pretty face, and had no qualms about swapping him for some other guy who was more willing to take off his shirt. Dean was understandably bummed. But, oddly, it's this exact situation that Stewart now finds himself in, as he's convinced that Dean's return to his life — along with his brother's weird adherence to TV logic — means that Stewart is being written out of his own life story, regardless of how ludicrous this sounds.

The episode's other plot line, involving Stewart having caught his and Dean's mother sleeping with his father's law firm partner at a previous Thanksgiving (their parents have since divorced, for other reasons), also swirls around notions of replacement — but with a twist. When Stewart tells his dad about his mom's infidelity, his dad doesn't break a sweat. She should have locked the door, he says. They lived wild lives back in the day (which was actually about five years ago), and the boys shouldn't be so shocked.

The Grinder is one of those shows that's perhaps too clever for its own good — something its low ratings reflect. Audiences have to know a lot about how television works to really enjoy it, and they have to be on board with the deconstruction of approximately three different TV genres to really get into it.

But the show is centered on an idea everybody can understand, one that "Giving Thanks" expresses particularly well: Not everything that happens to us is an existential struggle. Sometimes it's important to fight to leave your shirt on, but other times it's best to understand that other people might have different needs. If they're family, you love 'em anyway.

The Grinder airs Tuesdays on Fox at 8:30 pm Eastern. Previous episodes are available on Hulu.

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