So Was Rob Lowe's 'The Grinder' As Good As We Hoped It Would Be?
Mostly, yes. But let’s back up a minute.
As we’ve established, network TV is mostly terrible. Network comedies have it particularly hard because creating a “family friendly” funny show is actually a lot harder than it looks. Without access to the more adult themes and language that the best comedies employ (Archer, Always Sunny, Amy Schumer, Broad City, You’re The Worst), you’re left with the same tepid rehashing of four or five jokes. (“Oh, did Manny say something that made him seem like a pansy? And someone on the Big Bang Theory said something that showed he’s socially awkward? Please tell me more!”) Even shows that have a stellar season or two can end up becoming bad imitations of themselves. (New Girl, what happened? Don’t you remember season 2? Back before Schmidt became just a shorter version of Billy Eichner?)
What should hopefully help The Grinder avoid those pitfalls is that they’re essentially written into the fabric of the show. Rob Lowe’s Dean Sanderson is the embodiment of every guy who thought he could win his own trial based on his extensive Law & Order knowledge. He’s a walking After School Special screenplay. He’s the dialog from every bad Lifetime movie. And he’s amazing. I mean, not to actually be around. Being around him is insufferable. Dean not only talks like he’s on the set of a high powered melodrama, but he believes he’s the star of his show. He is, for lack of a better term, the result of a generation of children raised on TV. We saw characters on TV give moving speeches and didn’t realize people don’t do that in real life. Dean Sanderson is our TV baby, and, damnit, can he give a moving speech.
Suffering the brunt of Dean’s insufferableness is his brother brother Stewart, played by Fred Savage. In fact, the most important thing you will learn from this show is that your childhood crush on Kevin Arnold was a good, good choice. Stewart seems to be the only person not impressed with Dean’s ability to mimic humanity through a set of very orchestrated lines and movements. He’s resentful at how easily things seem to come to Dean, pissed off that no one else realizes how terrible Dean really is, and completely thrown off by how awkward his cool older brother makes him feel. Savage’s ability to play righteously exasperated while comically flustered makes his character work. Stewart is the opposite of Dean; he’s so intimately aware of his shortcomings that he’s nearly paralyzed by them.
Which is the second thing that might make this show work for a while. It’s not about Dean becoming a better person, but Stewart improving. Dean will stay entrenched in TV cliches and oblivious self- grandeur forever. He’s not getting any better. But Stewart is a real person. And real people can get better without it fundamentally changing their personality or costing them their sense of humor.
While the relationship between Dean and Stewart is at the center of the show’s action, the funniest moments actually come during the scenes with Stewart and his wife Debbie. Mary Elizabeth Ellis has been quietly crushing it for years, so it’s nice to see her land the lead. She’s sympathetic to her husband’s frustration with his brother while still being impressed with Dean in spite of herself. Also if the show’s writers could see it in their hearts to have a Ellis/Lowe Comedic Timing- off, I would be forever grateful.
Based on the pilot alone, I wouldn’t say that The Grinder will become a comedy classic. Both the material and tone are too familiar to be groundbreaking. But the show is solid, funny, and fun, and that’s usually hard to navigate. If nothing else, we’ve got another chance to hear Rob Lowe say “literally,” and that’s a small gift from the TV gods.