Rob Lowe (left) and William Devane.
Photo: Ray Mickshaw/FOX
A show’s first episode after the pilot is always a pretty rough outing, and in unquestionably its funniest moment all episode, The Grinder acknowledges that at the outset, as Deans Sr. and Jr., Stewart, and Ethan rewatch the pilot of the show-within-the-show (complete with the return of Rob Lowe’s emo hair). “Dad, this is a big episode. They have to reset the whole premise,” Ethan says. “That’s a hard thing to do,” Dean Sr. chimes in. “And we didn’t follow up the pilot as well as we should have,” Dean Jr. admits. “And we lost a lot of our audience because of it.”
Given The Grinder’s backstage turmoil, I have to wonder if this scene was added in after the fact, because this is indeed a pretty weak outing, with little of the snap that characterized the pilot’s courtroom scenes. The premise has indeed been reset: Instead of the fictional Grinder & Schutz, Dean is now on the staff of Sanderson & Yao (it’s unclear who Yao is), where his presence is flooding the firm with new business. (He still hasn’t passed the bar, though, and it’s unclear at this point if he ever will.)
Unfortunately, none of the cases Dean wants to take on involve any billable hours, which is as frustrating to Stewart as his go-to response to any stated obstacle: “But what if it didn’t?” The line is a funny acknowledgment of the tropes of legal TV shows (Stewart: “It’s impossible to argue! You can use it in any situation!”), but the show is so proud of it that it grinds the joke into dust, repeating it over and over again.
Meanwhile, Stewart tries to take a page from Dean’s book and become more easygoing, fearful of becoming Pinkus, the fictional Grinder’s naysaying legal partner and subject of the YouTube supercut “Biggest Wuss in TV History.” Being a real lawyer, Stewart knows that not every case can be won, but that’s a tough lesson to impart to Dean, who treats the setbacks of an impossible-to-win employment case as fodder for a dark night of the soul. Of course, in classic sitcom fashion, Stewart learns that the most important thing he can do for his brother is to be himself — that is, a big naysaying wuss. Dean likes nothing more than a challenge, and he needs that challenge to come from his brother, or else he’ll back down.
The most engaging portions of the episode come courtesy of the appealing Natalie Morales as rival lawyer Claire Lacoste; she didn’t make the pilot, but she’ll be a regular from here on out, and the show is better for it, since it really needs another character besides Stewart to provide a counterweight to Rob Lowe’s (delightful) manic energy. Morales has always had a great mix of girl-next-door charm and dry wit, which makes her an ideal fit for the show’s tone.
The premise by which Claire ends up switching firms to become a member of Sanderson & Yao is about as flimsy as it gets, but it provides the show with a solid will-they-or-won’t-they premise going forward, which, in a self-aware bookend to the opening, Dean acknowledges in the episode’s final moments. “There’s obviously something very powerful at play here. We met as opponents, on opposite ends of the battlefield, and now we’ll be working side by side. And that can be hard. So we should have a plan to deal with it.” Claire: “Or I could just nip this in the bud by saying there’s no chance that you and I are ever gonna happen.”
As with the pilot, the weak point for The Grinder remains the family side of the show, which couldn’t have been laden with more well-worn plots: One kid is suffering in school because he’s staying up too late, while the other is too involved with texting her douchebag boyfriend. Mary Elizabeth Ellis is giving her all to try to bring some life to her underwritten wife character, but as with last episode, she serves as nothing more than a prop for Stewart’s foundering self-worth. I hope the show figures out a way to course-correct this side of the story and make it as self-aware as the legal stuff, but given how little effort it’s made so far, I’m not optimistic that it cares enough to try. But what if it did?
- When the Grinder is depressed, he likes to mope around batting cages and city buses while listening to “Pancho and Lefty.”
- Dean’s confusion when Claire didn’t praise his TV work was pretty great. “I thought you said you loved the show.” “No, I did not.”
- Lizzie’s douchey boyfriend, Zadak, had a funny moment when he interrupted Stewart and Debbie mid–pep talk: “Stu, you’re blocking me in, boss.”
- Rob Lowe has rocked the most amazing bro jewelry so far in this show. I loved his weird little choker.
- Steve Little didn’t get much to do in this episode; hopefully that will change. “Justice has no price.” “Well, there is some price, Todd, it’s 40 hours we billed to no one.”