[Editor’s Note: Whether it was the tragic cancellation of “The Grinder” this past May or Rob Lowe’s confounding decision to follow up a show mocking melodramatic procedurals by joining a melodramatic procedural, it appears IndieWire TV Critic Ben Travers has lost his mind. Despite obvious evidence to the contrary, Mr. Travers has become convinced the CBS drama “Code Black,” which began its second season Wednesday after adding Mr. Lowe to the cast in the offseason, is actually a continuation of “The Grinder.” We can’t, in good conscience, allow the piece below to run without clarifying this is not the case. But we also couldn’t bring ourselves to break his heart. Without further ado, our review of… “The Grinder: Code Black.”]
“The Grinder” made a name for itself in its first season by taking it to the man. The man, of course, was the rest of broadcast TV — specifically, the redundant, nonsensical procedurals populating a medium desperate to hold onto viewers (even as their average age creeps closer and closer to our nation’s mortality limit). A particularly sharp edge of that Season 1 battle axe was its opening sequences. “The Grinder” always began with a glimpse at “The Grinder”: the show-within-a-show starring Dean Sanderson, that he and his family would watch to bookend many episodes.
It can be a little confusing discussing “The Grinder” — the comedy starring Rob Lowe — side-by-side with its fictional counterpart of the same name, but we’ll try to keep them distinct. (Lowe is a real actor, Dean is his character who’s also an actor — a fake actor, if you will.) But every week in these opening flashbacks, Dean, playing the titular Mitch Grinder, spat corny dialogue and went hilariously above and beyond the defense attorney’s call of duty. These sequences served to set up the Fox comedy’s weekly story in some way, when Dean and his brother Stewart (Fred Savage) would encounter a practical case that could somehow benefit from the wisdom within Dean’s old show.
Season 2 of “The Grinder” began similarly Wednesday night, after a tumultuous offseason that saw the Fox comedy move to CBS in a savvy (and surprising) switcheroo. It came as no surprise to see Dean in an extended flashback sequence in which his onscreen character was flying around in a helicopter and saving shark attack victims — shark attack victims! Ha! — on the beaches of Los Angeles.
What was a bit surprising was how long it lasted. The “flashback” kept going for a full episode, completely committing to the bit by extending from a half-hour format to an hour-long “drama” in the Season 2 premiere. But the boldest choice wasn’t the added length, or even the strange focus on tertiary stock characters (shout-out to the great Tommy Dewey of “Casual” fame, and Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden). The most shocking moment of the new season is that Mitch Grinder is nowhere to be found. Dean Sanderson is now playing a doctor, and it doesn’t feel like it’s a part from his past. This is happening now. It’s almost as if… as if… the actor has taken on a whole new role!
According to the heavy exposition in what we’ll be referring to as “The Grinder: Code Black” (those opening titles seemed to indicate “code black” was a pretty big deal), Dean is now playing Colonel David Willis, a military surgeon who works for the Combat Casualty Care Research Program within the defense department. Members of the team get sent to this hospital every year to help teach new techniques they learn out in the field — including an experimental procedure described as being “like shooting whipped cream into a Twinkie” that was only used on pigs… until now!
What would drive Dean to do this? No, not the Pigs in a Twinkie operation — that was awesome. Why would this (fictional) actor choose to go back to procedural work? He seemed perfectly happy at the end of last season, having successfully distanced himself from the Hollywood machine. He’d built himself a beautiful home filled with progressive humor and a loving family — how could it just disappear? And where are Stewart, Debbie, Todd and the kids? “Grinder” fans need to know for this debut episode to make sense!
Well, I’ve got a theory that we’ll get to in a second, but what the (fictional) actor represented just a few months prior simply doesn’t gel with this “Code Black” thing, and why Dean would choose to go back to a bogus “case-of-the-week” show remains a mystery — a mystery, as well as a tragedy. No matter what happens in the coming weeks of “The Grinder: Code Black,” it’s clear this wasn’t what Dean wanted. Not a procedural. Not on broadcast. Not again.
Throughout the hour-long experiment, there were small clues that told audiences, “Hey, it’s going to be OK. We’re in on the joke. Dean can come back from this.'” Early on, while still in the helicopter, “Ethan” whipped off his shades in a familiarly overdramatic manner. Later, he spoke to a young girl, providing edgy insight and modern wisdom just as he used to give Ethan and Lizzie back in Idaho. At this point in the episode, I actually thought we might get a quick cut to reality, when Dean’s work with kids sparked memories of why he’d left this kind of work behind.
But we pressed on, all the way to a mysterious ending that could hold the key to everything. Just after the many emergencies started to settle down, the tall, handsome doctor (Boris Kodjoe) asked Colonel David Willis a question:
“Either you’re sent here as a punishment for doing something wrong or a reward for doing something good. Which one are you?”
“Both,” Willis replied, and then walked out of the room.
While the line obviously applies to Ethan’s character in the “Code Black” universe, it’s just as obvious these words have to apply to Dean in the “Grinder” universe. The old episodes featured at the start of every “Grinder” episode always had real lessons for Dean and Stewart, so we have to assume this new episode holds the same significance.
So what could Dean have done wrong that would have led him to leave his home in Idaho and take a job on another basic broadcast procedural? My bet is that his big roll of the dice — moving home, trying to be a real lawyer, living his best life with Stewart and his dad — backfired. Either he had to go back to the procedural world because he needs the money (which seems hard to believe), or the place he called home kicked him out for not fitting in.
If the latter applies, it’s somehow fitting. If Dean Sanderson was forced out of his happy place for being too different, it’s an empowering statement that his show, “The Grinder,” would go to such daring new heights in Season 2. Bravo.
“The Grinder: Code Black” airs new episodes Wednesdays at 10pm on CBS.