Fox’s The Grinder is funny. This is truly a simplistic place to begin a review, but it’s not exactly the most complicated sitcom out there — and anyway, “funny” isn’t a word I’d use to describe most recent comedy pilots.
Neither The Muppets nor Dr. Ken are funny.There are humorous moments in Grandfathered (Fox’s other sitcom with the potential to go big) and solid-enough punchlines in Life in Pieces, but both have yet to find their actual funny bone. The Grinder, though, knows where its humor lies and it sticks with it. Rob Lowe plays Dean Sanderson, a charismatic and talented actor who has spent the last few years playing a lawyer on a popular legal drama (titled The Grinder) but is trying to figure out his life post-series finale.
That in itself is a good enough premise for a Fox comedy, but The Grinder adds two more key factors: 1. Dean moves back home to Boise, Idaho where his family still lives; and 2. he decides to actually become a lawyer — just like his brother Stewart (Fred Savage), who is about to take over the family law firm. It’s a legal comedy (sort of), a late-in-life rebirth comedy, and a family comedy all in one. Throw in a great cast and talented writers, and The Grinder is well on its way to becoming the TV season’s best new sitcom.
In the pilot, while watching his brother awkwardly try a case, Dean decides that he, too, should become a lawyer — though without going to law school. Why not? He’s played one on television for nearly a decade, so surely he’s picked up some of the skills. As someone who has watched enough medical, legal, and crime procedurals to convince myself that I would be a totally great doctor, lawyer, or FBI agent, I’m more than on board with this ridiculous plot.
It helps that Rob Lowe and Fred Savage clearly enjoy trading barbs while falling back into easy roles: Lowe as the suave, smooth-talkin’ hero and Savage as the nervous, easily exasperated sidekick. Both have an ease in front of the camera that’s on full display here, and both eagerly jump into their characters. The brothers’ respective personalities can sometimes lean a bit broad, and read as stock opposites, but the actors each manage to bring out the quirks. Lowe’s expert and thoroughly enunciated delivery (the way he emphasizes certain syllables is something of an art form: look no further than his “literally” on Parks on Recreation) sells his absurd character, while Savage’s courtroom pratfalls and shrill-speak are a reminder of why he was such a sitcom star before he moved on to a pretty impressive directing career.
There are wonderful creative choices throughout The Grinder‘s pilot. There is the not-so-subtle commentary on celebrity culture: Dean woos everyone with his Hollywood charm, to the extent that even the judge is starstruck enough to let him act as a lawyer in an actual court of law. The emphasis on how sitcom-y this sitcom is, which adds some self-awareness to the traditional warm and fuzzy ending, elevates the humor rather than weighing it down. And it was a fantastic decision to occasionally combine the Fox sitcom The Grinder with the fictional show-within-a-show The Grinder by tweaking the cinematography and sound cues, and showing how much this fiction blends with Dean’s reality. The supporting cast, including Mary Elizabeth Ellis and William Devane, and the pilot’s guest stars, such as Kumail Nanjiani and Steve Little, all work incredibly well. (And I expect the cast will only get stronger when Natalie Morales joins for a big role.)
Where The Grinder goes from here is still unknown: silly legal satire, warm family comedy, social commentary, or all of the above are all distinct possibilities. Based on the skillful writing in the pilot — it’s a solid B+ — The Grinder can have fun going any of these routes.