In Praise of James Urbaniak’s Grant Grunderschmidt on ‘Review’

urbaniak_reviewLike Da Ali G. Show and Nathan for You, Review is audacious and fearless in the way that it continually ratchets up the stakes and the danger facing its protagonist. The Andy Daly vehicle has gone to such dark places in its first two seasons that it almost seemed like its protagonist Forrest MacNeil would need to die an awful death or lose several limbs in the series finale just for it not to feel like a terrible anti-climax.

MacNeil’s body survives the series’ final episode. His soul is another manner entirely. The series finale doesn’t feature the kind of reality-bending physical stunts that distinguished the end of the last season of Nathan for You. By Review standards, the episode is relatively restrained, but it’s also enormously powerful and affecting.

Review began as a comparatively light-hearted show about an affable eccentric who reviews life the way conventional critics review art and entertainment. But somewhere along the way it morphed into a pitch-black, casually surreal exploration of a man driven to destroy himself and everything and everyone he loves for the sake of a job, and a TV show, that he unwisely, even tragically, treats as a solemn destiny and duty he must honor, at all costs, and with the entirety of his being, instead of just a gig to pay the bills.

The show became a morality play about a weak and easily manipulated man torn between his antithetical responsibilities towards ex-wife Suzanne (Jessica St. Clair) and son who represent his best, last, and only chance for happiness, and Grant Grunderschmidt (James Urbaniak), the producer of his show but more importantly the demon on Forrest’s shoulder, forever admonishing to do wrong.

Evil bosses in television comedies tend to be bullying and loud, expressive and volcanic. Grant is the opposite. He’s to Review what Giancarlo Esposito’s Gus Fring was to Breaking Bad: the terrifyingly self-controlled embodiment of the banality of evil. They’re men who never need to raise their voice, let alone scream, in order to get their point across. They’re so cool and collected that they seem immune to the anxieties and vulnerability that plague lesser mortals.

The tragicomic arc of Review involves Grant subtly but persuasively manipulating the attention and validation-thirsty Forrest MacNeil into doing increasingly dangerous and irresponsible “reviews” that play havoc with every aspect of his life, particularly his troubled marriage to a woman understandably enraged at her husband’s willingness to put the needs of the show (which by extension are Grant’s needs) above hers, and his own, and his own health and sanity.

Daly and Urbaniak have explosive chemistry. They are a study in opposites. Daly is boyish and expressive, forever ranting about what’s on his mind whether he needs to or not. Urbaniak as Grant, in sharp contrast, represents the worst aspects of adulthood. He seems like someone who has never experienced a spontaneous or joyful moment in his life. He keeps his emotions and sinister motives hidden behind a bland mask of hyper-efficiency. He’s very good at his job. Unfortunately for Forrest, that job seems to entail destroying Forrest’s life and mind as much as it does producing his television show.

If Grant is the demon on Forrest’s shoulder admonishing him to do his job especially if it kills him, then Suzanne—pretty much the definition of “long-suffering,” although there comes a point beyond which she refuses to continue suffering—is the angel trying to bring him towards the light, towards a life that has room for more in it than just suffering for his art and his spiritual emptiness.

In the heartbreaking, quietly powerful series finale, the third and final episode in an abbreviated third season, the conflict between the antithetical paths before Forrest were laid out in stark terms. In it, Forrest is shocked to discover that his latest review request comes from an unlikely source: Suzanne, a woman with every reason in the world to hate her ex-husband’s job. To that end, she asks Forrest to review not reviewing anything anymore.

In an act of love and devotion that Forrest has done little to deserve, Suzanne tenderly gives Forrest a furlough out of the existential prison he finds himself in. Forrest seems fiendishly intent on total self-destruction (which is fine when you’re in your twenties and just starting out, but more problematic and troubling for a man with a wife and a child and a family to stay alive and intact for) but at the last minute, Forrest is given a chance to halt his skid towards oblivion.

In a rare act of sanity and self-preservation, Forrest is ready to take his estranged soulmate up on this unique challenge, one that saves Forrest’s life by ending the life of the show, until he talks to Grant. In a beautifully modulated performance, Grant employs a typically Machiavellian gambit where he uses reverse psychology to pretend to be happy for Grant while subtly convincing Forrest that his work on the show is far too important and precious to end, even for the best of reasons, even for the sake of self-preservation.

It’s a cringe-worthy moment when Forrest gives in to his producer’s pressure and announces that he’s going to veto his estranged wife’s request to stop reviewing things and continue on with the program. It’s a bracingly dark moment in a series filled with them, but the kicker makes it even more painful.

After coldly rejecting his wife’s attempts to save him for the sake of a show he’s too myopic to realize literally doesn’t care if he lives or dies (and might actually prefer death, as that’s a real ratings grabber), Forrest discovers that his show is being canceled, a meta-moment that echoes, a little too pointedly and painfully, the show’s actual imminent end.

Grant is the disseminator of this bad news, but because the first review request after Forrest’s wife’s involves someone asking Forrest to review being pranked, Forrest assumes that Grant is merely pretending the show is canceled as part of the Review. In the kind of killer details that makes Review so unforgettably bleak, Grant casually mentions that he’s being promoted to a position within the network, so while Forrest may have just lost his only reason to keep on living, Grant’s moving on up.

It’s not enough for Forrest to betray himself and his family for an evil and amoral television show and an evil and amoral television producer who ranks as one of the most unforgettable villains in TV history: no, Forrest has to betray himself and his family for an evil and amoral television show that soon won’t even exist anymore. It’s the perfect ending to a perfectly grim exploration of a painfully codependent relationship.

Review only recently ended its auspicious three-year run. I already miss the hell out of it, and its toxic relationships. If the show’s cult continues to grow, perhaps Grant could get his own Better Call Saul-style spin-off, although that might be too depressing even for Review fans, and our tolerance for brutally dark material is extremely high. 

Five stars!

 

Nathan Rabin is the author of five books, including Weird Al: The Book (with Al Yankovic) and the recently released Ebook “Short Read”, 7 Days In Ohio: Trump, The Gathering of The Juggalos And The Summer Everything Went Insane.

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