The Grinder isn’t a good television show.
At least the fictional version of The Grinder within The Grinder isn’t. The overdramatic, schmaltzy legal drama that Rob Lowe’s character, Dean Sanderson Jr., became a household name on is what Fox’s marketing department slyly used to advertise the actual Grinder. These too-serious promo materials depicted a sexualized Rob Lowe, sporting the cringe-inducing tagline “There’s no one he can’t get off.” Everything about it pointed to mediocrity, which is so often the case with network TV. Before the show debuted, nobody realized that these promos were a work of self-aware genius. This isn’t a crappy procedural with a pretty face and laughable tagline, it’s a show that’s making fun of all of those things with intelligent, knowing dialogue along the lines of Community and Arrested Development. It’s even more surprising that what appeared at first glance to be such a shrug-off of a show ended up turning into one of the most ambitious inaugural seasons that I’ve seen from a comedy.
The Grinder is a show that’s in love with television. It features extremely self-aware conversations on topics like television pilots, two-parters, mid-season hiatuses, finales, and the pitfalls of second episodes. All of these poke fun at Dean’s Grinder while doubling as astute commentary on the actual Grinder, which uses TV clichés and bad writing archetypes to deliver a good piece of television. It’s a dazzling balance that the show keeps in check, turning out an incredibly layered comedy in the process.
This dialogue about television manifests itself not just in cleverly veiled banter, but also full storylines that slyly wink at the trappings of network television. A multi-episode arc sees Timothy Olyphant usurping Dean and earning the lead of Rake Grinder on The Grinder: New Orleans, creating a winning commentary on the glut of spin-offs that fill today’s TV schedules.
Also: the casting is just amazing. This is the role that Rob Lowe was born to play (which seems absurd after watching him personify the role of Chris Traeger on Parks and Recreation so effortlessly) and Fred Savage’s beleaguered Stewart becomes a growing highlight that is the perfect counterpoint to Dean’s manic highs. These two feed off of each other so well that if there wasn’t already a terrible remake of The Odd Couple on television right now, I’d nominate these two for Felix and Oscar. And we seem to be experiencing a renaissance of skilled child actors lately, but Connor Kalopsis and Hana Hayes absolutely destroy as Stewart and Debbie’s children, who get progressively infected by Dean’s charm.
There’s a great deal of fun that The Grinder has with the idea of nonsense taking over logic, courtesy of Dean’s impossibly skewed perspective on life. It seeps into Stewart’s family and at times it feels like Stewart might snap at any moment. Dean has gotten into his work, family, and even his therapist. He truly has no reprieve from Dean’s fantastical way of life, and watching all of the different ways that Savage plays the beaten-down straight man is deeply entertaining. This character work and meta playfulness culminate in the finale, which brilliantly casts Kenny Lucas of Lucas Brothers fame to reveal that Kenny’s character, Cory Manler, has a (surprise!) twin brother, Rory Manler (Keith Lucas, duh). It’s a piece of casting that required a lot of foresight and it’s the only time that I’ve seen the Lucas Brothers’ twin status being used to service a contrived plot twist.
The show also played around with structure by using the snippets of Dean’s The Grinder included in practically every episode. They flung his character, Mitchard Grinder, all over the map in a broad yet accurate depiction of the ridiculous nature of many TV shows. It’s remarkable how much was mined from a one-dimensional fictional character over the course of the season. The series impressively explored every facet of Mitchard Grinder in the skinsuit that is Dean Sanderson, to the point that if this does happen to be a single-season show, at least we’ll never see the series’ thin concept get stretched to the point of snapping.
Maybe one season is the perfect amount of time to explore this idea of a fake lawyer learning how to be a real lawyer, with his fantasy world approach to living actually rubbing off some on his no-nonsense brother (who is a real lawyer). The show’s season finale – which would work as a perfectly suitable endpoint if the show does get canceled – goes out of its way to point out its symmetry to the pilot (the episode is titled “Full Circle,” after all), as well as how much the Sanderson brothers have influenced each other.
It’s in all of these ways that The Grinder ended up being one of the most satisfying comedies of the year that not only had something to say, but was interested in pushing the medium to its limit. It’s bonkers comedy at its finest.