The Grinder Series Premiere Recap: Thanks for Watching

L-R: Fred Savage and Rob Lowe. Photo: Ray Mickshaw/FOX
The Grinder
Episode Title
Editor’s Rating

In a network fall that’s once again loaded with indifferent, focus-grouped comedies that seem to have been conceived and made in an entirely different dimension from the likes of Broad City, Louie, and Veep, the first installment of The Grinder isn’t a groundbreaking entry, but it at least shows some signs of life. It snapped up Parks and Recreation’s freshly liberated Rob Lowe, who brings back some of the jazz-hands-concealing-clawing-pain act he deployed so avidly in his portrayal of Chris Traeger. But it’s also brought Fred Savage back to the other side of the camera, after more than a decade as the go-to director for the likes of Party Down, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and Garfunkel and Oates, among other entries with a bit more edge than those who’ve tuned him out since The Wonder Years cut bait more than two decades ago might be used to. 

We don’t get to see any of the glamorous Hollywood life of Lowe’s TV star Dean Sanderson, as the show opens on the night of his hit legal drama’s series finale. Instead of a flashy party, Dean takes in the show’s end from an armchair in his brother Stewart’s (Savage) Boise home, alongside their father, Dean Sr. (William Devane); Stewart’s wife, Debbie (Mary Elizabeth Ellis, forever known to Always Sunny fans as the Waitress); and Stewart and Debbie’s two kids, unpopular middle-schooler Ethan and high-school-age daughter Lizzie. The two other Sanderson men are both attorneys, while Dean only plays one on TV, and the disparity is obviously frustrating for Stewart, whose sturdy, family-man “grind” in the courtroom pales in comparison to Dean’s showboating-yet-aw-shucks persona.

As a result, Savage mostly spends the pilot serving as the nebbishy straight man to Lowe’s preening man-child. They definitely don’t look like siblings (Ben Savage and Chad Lowe are probably staring morosely at their silent phones right now), but the two have an engaging comic chemistry that I could see really hitting its stride once the writing catches up. Adult sibling relationships don’t get a lot of play compared to the sitcom standards of nuclear-family dynamics and single pals seeking love in the big city, so there’s also a lot of untapped material for the show to work with. (The exception to that rule, of course, is Modern Family, a comparison to which Fox would probably need smelling salts to recover from.)

The freshest parts of the episode definitely take place in the courtroom, where Lowe, Savage, and a killer lineup of comedic ringers (including Kumail Nanjiani, who scored some laughs with his exasperated deadpan as Savage’s opposing counsel) lampoon the legal system’s willingness to bow to celebrity. (Nanjiani: “Objection, Your Honor. Dean Sanderson is not an actual lawyer!” Judge: “Oh, please. This is why we’re here, Leonard.”) Watching Lowe bounce around the courtroom like an overgrown child with a cool new toy would put a smile on anyone’s face, but it’s unclear if the show will be able to sustain this level of daffy theatrics on a regular basis while still trying to keep at least one foot in the real world. Considering that The Grinder’s main argument is that the worst possible thing you can do in a courtroom is be boring, failing to deliver on that front could quickly become the kiss of death.  

That’s doubly true after taking into account the show’s deathly dull family dynamics, which don’t have much spark beyond the bounds of Savage and Lowe’s relationship. Fresh off a second season of watching Rick and Morty make mincemeat out of a near-identical family configuration, it feels like time travel to be watching a show in which the tired tropes of dismissive teen daughter, nerdy son, and unendingly supportive wife are proffered without a single tweak. Lizzie is a nonentity, and Ellis’s considerable talents are wasted on a character that could basically be a blonde-wigged robot chirping out a supportive word salad and achieve more or less the same effect. Things pick up slightly when Dean tries to use his legal tricks to solve Ethan’s popularity problem by manipulating Lizzie’s football-player beau, but in a pilot that’s already overstuffed, the plotline gets dropped almost as soon as it appears.

Given the behind-the-scenes turmoil on The Grinder, it’s not clear where it’ll go from here: The very likable Natalie Morales, who doesn’t appear in the pilot at all, is apparently a series regular, and Steve Little, so great as sycophantic Stevie on Eastbound & Down, shows up briefly as Stewart’s colleague, but doesn’t get to do much. Like the Grinder himself, we may be in for a bit of an identity crisis before the defense finally rests, but I’m hopeful that Lowe and Savage’s combined efforts will be able to secure a winning verdict.

Other notes:

  • I’m hopeful about this show if for no other reason than its stacked deck of bit players and guest stars. In addition to Nanjiani, there were also some great turns from Rose Abdoo (Gilmore Girls’ Gypsy) as the bedazzled judge and Brian Huskey (Veep’s gloriously nasty political reporter) as the lying landlord Dean who breaks down on the stand.
  • Given that the protagonist is a TV drama star on the outs, the shout-outs to Noah Wyle (the subject of a lengthy debate about heart attacks) and Camryn Manheim seemed appropriate.
  • The montage of final moments from the fake Grinder show wasn’t the greatest, but Lowe did make me laugh when he followed up his signature “Grinder rests” with a hasty “ … one last time.”
  • The Grinder may understand how to take a good selfie (backlighting!), but he’s still got a lot to learn about Instagram. #teenlife
  • “I will leave. Tomorrow. At first light.”
  • Lowe got in a nice little goof on his former role in the final scene: “Sometimes you find exactly what you’re looking for, and you’re not allowed to pursue it, for literally no reason.”