Instead of debuting two similar-feeling new shows, Grandfathered and The Grinder, in back-to-back time slots, Fox should have found a way to combine them into one program, perhaps titled The Grindfather, starring John Stamos as a studly restaurant-owner suddenly saddled with raising a grandchild he never knew he had (Grandfathered), and Robe Lowe as an actor who used to play a lawyer on TV, now a sort-of-real lawyer (The Grinder). In this alternate-universe scenario, the Stamos show would take up maybe two minutes of every episode of The Grinder, because that’s all it and its main character deserves.
Both shows are new entries in the durable TV genre of Irresistible Asshole Man-Child (the acronym is I AM). But where Grandfathered, despite being a sitcom, plays things relatively straight and ends up burning up what little comic fuel it has almost immediately, The Grinder has fun with the concept, kicking it around with wry contempt, then picking it up off the ground and dusting it off and studying it for a moment, then deciding it might be a fun challenge to see if they can make people care about a character, and a concept, that’s not only played out but stomped flat.
Where Grandfathered indulges in 50-something fantasies of being a thin, quick-witted, financially successful stud who’s just getting his first gray hair (gee, which executive class with the power to green-light a TV show is being pandered to?), Lowe’s series sends up these same clichés in the deadpan-absurd manner of one of those fake TV shows or movies that used to get trailered each week on 30 Rock. What it’s making fun of is shows like Grandfathered, which genuflect to the idea that guys like Jimmy are kind of sad, but neither punctures that sort of character nor makes a case for why he’s just fine the way he is. It’s a midlife-crisis story that plays its ace card by the end of the pilot (the show’s official Twitter account already declared “There may be hope for Jimmy Martino” over an image of him diapering a baby) and offers few other virtues to compensate for its overall tediousness.
Grandfathered is half-assed even by the exposition-dump standards of network pilots for I AM programs. Little of its dialogue even sounds like dialogue; most of it, in fact, sounds like stuff writers might scribble in their notebooks on a page marked, “IDEAS FOR DIALOGUE: MUST WRITE BEFORE FRIDAY!!!” Stamos’s character, Jimmy Martino, is shocked to learn that he has an adult son he never knew about, and that the son is all grown up and has a daughter, and now he’s going to have to help raise the daughter, and oh dear, that means growing up himself, finally. “You should have told me I had a son walking around!” he tells his son’s mother, then reiterates that he’s not thrilled about “talking to a woman I haven’t seen in 26 years, about a son I never knew I had.” She replies that “the entire time we dated, you refused to call me your girlfriend,” and adds, “You were proud of how bad you were at relationships, and the only things you cared about were your career and your sex life.” “Girlfriend?” she then asks, looking over Jimmy’s shoulder at the woman who drove him there. “Employee. Lesbian. Job requirement,” the woman replies, smiling. Jesus H. Christ in a rowboat, people.
Grandfathered’s placement on Fox’s schedule right before the endearing The Grinder almost makes you feel sorry for it. It’s as if a lame comedian were asked to warm up each week for a comic who actually has an idea or two, and who kicks off his act by making fun of the guy who just introduced him, cleverly enough that his predecessor isn’t sure how offended he should be.
Lowe’s show begins with a meta-funeral for an I AM–type show, titled, of course, The Grinder. The show-within-a-show is airing its final episode. It’s about a brilliant, studly lawyer who routinely wins impossible cases with brilliant investigative work and moving summations, then goes home to the gorgeous, giving, much younger girlfriend who only cares about whether he’s happy. The snippets of this nonexistent program don’t just mock the middle-aged–Peter Pan genre, they send up TV clichés circa 2015, including jump-cuts accompanied by ominous “boom” sounds. “What is it that I’m not seeing?” Lowe-as-Grinder asks, studying a wall full of crime-scene photos and documents while a creepy kid choir trills on the soundtrack; one of the pictures is a photo-negative image of a hairless cat. “Grinder rests,” his character concludes after delivering his summation, presumably not for the first time.
Lowe’s character has a name, Dean Sanderson Jr., but the actor is essentially playing a more hapless and clueless version of his Parks and Recreation character, the one-man self-help library, Chris Traeger. Dean is an actor whose life has been defined by a particular (constructed) role and doesn’t know what to do with himself when he can’t play it anymore. The answer, of course, is to continue playing it offstage (something he was sort of doing anyway) by joining the family law firm and helping his brother Stewart (Fred Savage) deal with his confidence and memorization problems. Stewart respects his brother as a performer but can’t quite bring himself to indulge the twit’s insistence that he was making a TV show of substance. Dean’s midlife crisis is not hugely different from the one that Grandfathered’s Jimmy is facing — What do you do when your comfortable identity is suddenly negated and your complacency shattered? — but it’s presented with more imagination. “I liked that he was a lone wolf, the Grinder, and now he’s decided to have, uh, a family,” Stewart says of the Grinder finale, inadvertently foretelling the rest of the pilot that we’re about to watch.
What follows isn’t on the level of that opening, but it’s funny enough to make you inclined to come back for seconds. The firm’s owner and patriarch, Dean Sr. (William Devane), thinks it would be good to have a TV star associated with their humble firm even though Dean knows nothing about actual law. It took a moment for me to realize which underrated TV series The Grinder evokes: Remington Steele, wherein Pierce Brosnan, a good-looking, proudly superficial thief impersonating the nonexistent founder of a detective agency, helps his partner by channeling his knowledge of classic Hollywood movies. Dean’s knowledge is limited mainly to his own TV series, but there were a lot of episodes and a lot of cases, and he had to do a fair bit of research to get the terms right — and wouldn’t you know it, sometimes his ludicrous improvisations pan out. Acting taught him how to figure out who lawyers really are, based on what they say and how they move. It would be preferable if he’d been a law student, but there’s still value in having spent so many years studying human nature.
On top of it all, Dean is as handsome as Rob Lowe. That’s a legal weapon that not even Harvard Law School can arm you with. Stewart’s wife, Debbie (Mary Elizabeth Ellis of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), is an old flame of his, and likes having him around because he’s fun, and fun to look at. “Objection!” an opposing lawyer (Kumail Nanjiani) bleats when Dean shakes the female judge’s hand. “You can’t touch the judge.” “Shut up!” she says, then adds, “I’ll allow it.”