Why is this loopy, low-rated meta-comedy one of my favorite things on TV?
You know Dean, just because you walk away after you say stuff doesn’t mean you made a point.
But it really does help.
Every episode of The Grinder begins the same way: with the cast gathered around the TV, watching “The Grinder.” The latter show-within-a-show, not the actual show, is a boilerplate FOX legal drama about “Mitchard Grinder,” a hard-driving lawyer with a thirst for justice and a proclivity for bending the rules. This soapy, sloppy, unsubtle procedural (one episode has him literally punching his way out of a coffin) has, like many a similar series on broadcast television, earned significant ratings and played for years; its star, Dean Sanderson (Rob Lowe), is one of the most recognizable faces in America.
And then, after a dispute over how frequently “Mitchard” has to remove his shirt on camera, Dean quits the show, moves in with his oft-flustered brother, Stewart (Fred Savage), and quixotically re-invents himself as an actual lawyer. He played one on TV for so long, he knows all the lingo; he knows how to give a compelling oral argument; he knows how to stand at the window and have an epiphany as he watches the rain fall. Surely he can just swoop into his family’s Boise, Idaho practice and pick up like the professional he is, right?
Such is the preposterous premise of The Grinder (the actual show), as created by Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul (Allan Gregory). Rob Lowe coasts on his effortless charisma as the delusional Dean, the Buzz Lightyear of lawyers, and if the show was simply about his efforts to pass the state bar exam and make his own name as his family aw-shuckses around him, that would be at least mildly amusing. Fortunately, as The Grinder has progressed in its first season, we have only just begun to plumb the depths of its strangeness. The result is one of the best meta-comedies to come along in quite some time, a show more interested in exploring and upending literal television convention than adhering to it for a B-level sitcom.
First, I want to give real accolades to FOX, which has stealthily built an amazing comedy block on Tuesday night – even though I only watch three out of four series (sorry, John Stamos and Grandfathered), it’s the most inventively funny lineup on one of the Big Four networks since the halcyon days of Spring 2013 over on NBC: the unbeatable Community/Parks and Recreation/The Office/30 Rock Thursdays. Here, Brooklyn Nine-Nine hits that Parks bullseye of sweet and silly (that both are created by Mike Schur probably helps); Andy Samberg is genuinely great, and Andre Braugher is a national treasure. New Girl, in a resurgent 5th season, is all the funnier for slowing down its story engines and creating space for its side characters to shine (it’s the Year of Winston, guys), not to mention how it has adapted to Zooey Deschanel’s maternity leave. Both are wonderful, and I have absolutely no guilt about shouting that from the rooftops.
Nor do I have any guilt about loving The Grinder, a series that spurred more snark upon its initial announcement than it probably deserved (if I had a nickel for every Grinder/Grindr joke I saw on Twitter, I would have…many dollars). While clearly influenced by the above shows as well as Arrested Development and the short-lived but much-loved Better Off Ted (seriously, check that one out on Netflix ASAP if you haven’t already), it grinds its own way forward as an amalgamation of lawyer show, family sitcom, and meta show biz satire. But the groundwork for its success was laid before the pilot was even shot, thanks to the strength of its cast: Lowe, somewhere between Sam Seaborn and this scene on Parks, evolved into a fine comic actor; he plays Dean completely straight, or as straight as you can play a TV lawyer who believes he’s an actual lawyer, with a naïve sweetness that belies the hard-edged personality Dean had spent years cultivating.
Even better is Savage, making a long-awaited return to acting to play the harried Stewart, the lead attorney at Sanderson & Yao, and who can’t for the life of him understand why everyone is being so indulgent of his brother’s fantasies. Dean and Stewart’s own father, Dean Sr. (an affable William Devane), exhibits blind faith in his eldest son’s ability to run a courtroom, despite his zero actual experience; Stewart’s kids love their kooky uncle; fellow partner Todd (Steve Little) is awkwardly obsessed with the show and with Dean; even judges and opposing attorneys get swept up in Grinder-mania when Dean strides into a courtroom, and sustain Dean’s “objections” over Stewart’s very real objections. (“So you chose to just chose to phrase that in the most misleading way possible.” Dean: “The most dramatic way possible.”)
Savage has a quick chemistry with Lowe, and also with Mary Elizabeth Ellis (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), who plays Stewart’s wife Debbie. Most episodes feature a scene of Stewart complaining to her as they get ready for bed, and the quick-cut “yes, ands” give off the vibe of screwball improvisation, though this is doubtlessly a tightly-scripted show. Even the kids, Hana Hayes and Connor Kalopsis, ooze confidence; Kalopsis especially, as the wise-beyond-his-years Ethan, can wring laughs out of broad material as well as any tween actor on TV. It’s Ethan who, more often than not, gets to call attention to the “TV-ness” of it all – after a run of early episodes that aired out of production order, he remarks while watching “The Grinder” with the family on the importance of continuity to sustaining a narrative. Community‘s Abed would nod in agreement.
Dean, who will speak with his back to his “scene partner” and thinks the response to every statement is “But what if it wasn’t?”, treats the rest of the legal team like the supporting cast in the ongoing series of his life, roping them into stakeouts and side investigations that real lawyers never actually do. The only one resistant to his charms, besides Stewart, is Claire (the great, deadpan Natalie Morales), who is all the more irresistible to Dean the more she bucks her designation as his “romantic interest.” TV clichés steadily bleed into the reality of The Grinder; in “Exodus,” where Dean (temporarily) leaves the firm, he drives to Stewart’s house for the confrontation, then walks away down the middle of the road, silhouetted against the street lights. “You know your car’s right here,” Stewart stammers. Then, almost to the audience: “He drove here just to walk away. It doesn’t make sense.”
Nowhere is that meta aspect more successful than in “Grinder vs. Grinder,” the 13th episode and current series high point. Weeks earlier, The Grinder had introduced Timothy Olyphant as himself, the new lead on spinoff series “The Grinder: New Orleans” (and who, unlike Dean, will never turn down an opportunity to remove his shirt). Dean is immediately offended by the news, and threatened by the presence of the younger, smouldering-er Olyphant, but he agrees to take him under his wing when the actor arrives in Boise to watch Dean at work. (Well, at “work.”) But Stewart senses an opportunity to hold up a mirror to Dean’s insanity, and pushes the pair into a “Grinder-off,” bringing in a real judge to determine who is the better actual lawyer.
It’s as dizzying for the audience as it is for the other characters, who watch dumbfounded as Dean and Olyphant talk themselves into circles with Vaudevillian patter. In the end, Dean wins by losing (because “The Grinder never loses,” until he does, because real lawyers don’t always win, just go with it), and to Stewart’s fascination, it only makes Dean all the more confident in his “abilities.” After all, if you were choking at a restaurant, who would you want to be in the room: Noah Wyle from E.R., or another actor who played a doctor for less time? The logic is airtight, really.
The one thing The Grinder hasn’t yet figured out is how to best make use of the characters that aren’t Dean or Stewart; any time Debbie gets her own subplot, for example, it feels like filler because it is filler. The cast is talented, but the series revolves around Dean in practice as much as it does in Dean’s own head. Is Dean Sr. a buffoon, or is he losing his faculties? There have been hints at the latter, but the character’s lack of definition turns him into grandfatherly window dressing. The kids are punchline machines, and Morales only recently gained character traits beyond “too cool for the room,” though it’s been fun just to watch her reactions in the background. In “Grinder vs. Grinder,” the show even addressed head-on the fact that she and Ellis, the only two adult women on the show, had never shared a scene together…by having Debbie remark “I can’t believe we haven’t met yet!”
But will the series get a chance to self-improve? Unfortunately Olyphant, even playing himself, wasn’t big enough stunt casting to juice the ratings (not even a West Wing reunion with Richard Schiff moved the needle); recent episodes have added Community alum Jim Rash as a potential client, and Maya Rudolph as Dean’s new therapist, prescribed by Stewart – which backfires spectacularly, of course – but the writing may be on the wall for the fledgling show. Last week’s “The Retooling of Dean Sanderson” hit a series low of 0.6, half of what New Girl earned at the top of the block (and that’s not a good number, either). Even in this fractured age of Peak TV, that’s probably not enough to earn The Grinder a second season. That would be a shame. Right now it’s my favorite sitcom on the air, and if you enjoy any of the shows I’ve mentioned to this point, you owe it to yourself to give it a chance. The Grinder never rests.