[This is a review of The Grinder season 1, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
Perhaps the most interesting thing about FOX's charming new comedy The Grinder isn't the fact that it stars Rob Lowe as a character somewhat similar to the one he played to great success on Parks and Recreation, but that the new series compelled Fred Savage to return to acting. The former child-star of The Wonder Years has spent a great many years directing everything from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia to Modern Family, so his return in front of the camera is certainly a welcome sight.
And it's definitely a boon to The Grinder, which, although the comedy initially hinges entirely on Lowe's performance as Dean Sanderson Jr., erstwhile star of the fictional TV legal drama The Grinder, the series is well aware how the differences in Lowe and Savage's performances can contribute to what is a funny and successful pilot episode.
For one thing, the pilot is remarkable for the speed with which it sets up the series' plot, without spending all of its time separating the jokes from necessary exposition. Instead, the episode is one of those rare instances where the humor and the character building are imbedded in the explanation of what The Grinder is going to be about. Perhaps the most convincing piece of evidence that this is true comes from the very first scene.
Rather than establish Lowe's character as the star of The Grinder for the past nine years, setting up a dichotomy between a Hollywood hotshot on the verge of not knowing what to do with himself and his family back home in Idaho, the series begins with Dean in the company of his adoring family, watching the series finale of his (apparently) beloved TV show. It's not really a cheat to skip an unnecessary step, and yet it feels like The Grinder is smart for getting away with something. By cutting to the chase, putting Dean immediately in the situation the series' conceit needs him, and surrounding him by the entirety (well, almost) of his supporting cast, the show has more time to establish what it is going to be about and what its goals are.
In fact, the opening sequence actually has Dean's younger brother, Stewart (Savage), spell out those goals by explaining what he liked about the final episode of his brother's show. In telling Dean that he liked how The Grinder has decided to settle down and have "a family," Stewart basically sums up the premise of the show he's on, and that summation serves as the impetus for his brother's decision to stay in Boise, working at the family's law firm – which he thinks is fine because he played a lawyer on television for nearly a decade.
It's a ridiculous premise, but it works because The Grinder is betting more on an idea running beneath the conceit of a pretend lawyer convincing himself (and others) that he could be the real deal. That idea is that Dean has been defined more by the role he has played for nearly ten years than anything else; being the Grinder is how the world sees him, and it's how he sees himself. It's even more important than being an actor, because, instead of going out and landing a new role, Dean decides he'd rather play his old one in real life.
Thankfully, the series finds purpose in what Dean's doing beyond helping him recover his sense of identity. In seeking to join the family law firm, he's also helping solve Stewart's issues with public speaking and his reliance on note cards. The Grinder's flair for the dramatic and loose knowledge of the legal system (or, at least, nine years worth of legal jargon) seems like the perfect remedy for Stewart's willingness to always settle and his refusal to push back. The result, then, is a media circus surrounding an otherwise unremarkable bit of litigation between a landlord and his tenants – a fact that the show knows how to tap a little extra humor from as well.
The pilot may be a little uneven in certain parts – William Devane as Dean Sanderson Sr. and Mary Elizabeth Ellis as Debbie Sanderson (Stewart's wife) are basically relegated to the role of cheerleaders for the two leads – but mostly, The Grinder makes up for its shortcomings with sheer exuberance. The final court scene featuring a flabbergasted Kumail Nanjiani as the opposing lawyer is as much a riff on the banality of legal dramas as it is on the world's obsession with celebrity culture. At one point, the presiding judge (Rose Abdoo), rules in Dean's favor, saying, "I'll allow it," after he shakes her hand and, you know, provides legal council at a trial without actually being a lawyer.
There is a hint of perfunctory pathos in Stewart's realization that he too is a grinder, and in his asking Dean to stick around, but even that can be easily overlooked, considering it sets up one of the few remarkably self-assured and promising new comedies of the fall season.
The Grinder continues next Tuesday with 'A Hero Has Fallen' @8:30pm on FOX.
Photos: Ray Mickshaw/FOX