When “The Grinder” made its debut in late September 2015, it was pretty clear something special was happening. But given only one episode to screen before the premiere, we here at Indiewire couldn’t give our full-fledged endorsement — simply because there wasn’t enough evidence to make a judgment. Great pilots don’t always lead to great series, just as shoddy pilots often can. But now that we’re 18 episodes in, it’s become abundantly clear that “The Grinder” is one of television’s best comedies.
Buoyed by Rob Lowe’s vigorous energy and admirably inventive in its constructs, “The Grinder” has smoothly transitioned from a semi-episodic burst of meta humor to a witty and gripping ongoing grind. So, as we patiently await a return to the grind (Episode 19, “A System on Trial,” will air April 12), let’s go over the reasons why Fox needs to renew this freshman comedy right quick. After all, shows this special don’t come along all that often, even in the golden age of TV. The grind is hard, but this Grinder makes it look easy. So let’s #KeepGrinding.
9. Anatomy of a Grinder
Courtroom dramas have been around for ages, stocking up a backlog of entries rich for skewering. Enter “The Grinder.” There was never any doubt that the Fox comedy would take some of TV’s oldest cliches to task, but how long it could keep it up without forcing the issues or overcomplicating the core story was a concern. Yet the series’ ability to find new cliches to skewer each week — in the fake courtroom and beyond — is frankly remarkable, as “The Grinder” has gone after everything from how lawyers aren’t detectives to episodic v. serialized story structure — and that’s just in one episode (“The Olyphant in the Room”). Plus, it’s shown no signs of slowing down. In fact, it’s only become more lethal as it goes further and further down the serialized path. Seeing how long they can keep it up would be an enticing reason to renew by itself, but I’m starting to think there’s no limit to this group’s creative spirit.
8. Rob Lowe is Emmy Bound (Or Better Be)
A six-time Golden Globe nominee with an Emmy nod for “The West Wing” under his belt, Fox knew who they were getting when they signed the well-loved and highly respected Rob Lowe to a series this adventurous. “The Grinder” is no traditional sitcom, so it would need to win over the critics (check) and voters for it to become must-see TV. So far so good, as not only are the media elite enthralled, but Lowe snagged a key Golden Globe nomination in a competitive field to kick off 2016. Now Emmys season is upon us, and the TV Academy better be paying attention to a performance both outrageous and real. Dean’s tether to the Earth is controlled expertly by Lowe, letting him drift to hilarious heights but always finding his footing when it counts. It’s a precise comedic turn, and one worthy of accolades. Fox needs to throw its support behind the deserving Lowe, both in actual campaigning and by showing faith with a renewal order.
7. But Don’t Slouch on the Rest of the Cast
As the season has developed, Lowe isn’t the only actor who’s been given a chance to stretch his range. In what virtually amounted to a body swap comedy, “Delusions of Grinder” found Fred Savage’s Stewart taking over in the dramatics department for his brother. Usually the “simple law” man, Savage seemed to relish the opportunity of taking his character to a new extreme, just as Mary Elizabeth Ellis has thrived when Debbie is given a little extra to work with; like when Dean invited his body double to stay with them (and Deb took advantage) or when she started volunteering at the office (and had to figure out how to talk to Stewart all over again). The kids — Hana Hayes and Conor Kalopsis — have also established their own identities (Ethan’s refined mimicry of Dean is particularly impressive), and William Devane continues to charm as a father who idolizes his son, rather than the other way around. The Grinder is just one guy, but “The Grinder” is certainly a team effort.
6. And the Guest Stars! Oh, My, the Guest Stars!
In “The Grinder” showrunner Ben Wexler’s previous (brilliant) series, “The Comedians,” there’s an entire episode devoted to why reaching out for a guest star early in a show’s run is a lazy and self-defeating practice. When Billy Crystal (played by Billy Crystal) goes to visit Mel Brooks (played by Mel Brooks) to ask him about being a guest star on Billy’s fake television show (on Billy’s real television show), Brooks tells him, “Gimmicks don’t work. Gimmicks never work. […] Believing in yourself, being true to yourself, is called integrity. A guest star would just get in the way.”
The joke, of course, is that when incorporated well — like Brooks was in that episode — guest stars can boost a series at any time. They can’t steal focus or disrupt the flow of the established story, but, otherwise, they’re hugely helpful because they’re stars. And they’re stars because they have talent. And talent wins out. Just look at this list of guest stars who’ve already appeared on Season 1 of “The Grinder”: We’ve got Timothy Olyphant, Maya Rudolph, Jason Alexander, Christina Applegate, Jimmy Kimmel, Nat Faxon and Jenna Fischer, just to name a few. That’s seven guest stars in 18 episodes. Two more, and you’ve got one in every other half-hour block, and I’ll be damned if any of them did anything but add to the majesty of the proceedings with their unobtrusive and very, very funny performances. Mel Brooks would be proud.
5. Dean Sr.’s Storyline Has Changed the Grind (Again)
When the news broke at the end of Episode 14, “The Retooling of Dean Sanderson,” that the father/son(s) law firm was being hit with a malpractice suit targeted at Papa Sanderson, I doubt many anticipated what was to come: one of the longest-running serialized sitcom plots in recent memory. It may actually feel longer than it is, given that it began just after the series’ other multi-episode arc came to an end with Timothy Olyphant leaving town, but it still marked a shift from what was largely episodic storytelling to a sitcom that’s becoming strictly serialized. What’s interesting about these two storylines is how one started with perhaps the show’s biggest guest star (Olyphant) and the other is grounded firmly in the main characters; almost as if fans were meant to be lured in by the appeal of a big name, stick around for all his episodes, and then, hopefully, be hooked enough to keep watching after he leaves.
Think I’m crazy? Well, that may be, but “The Grinder” did feature one key exchange during Olyphant’s arc — between Dean Jr., Dean Sr., Ethan and Stewart, while watching “The Grinder,” of course — pointing to just how self-aware its decision-making has become:
Stewart: “Shouldn’t an audience be able to join a show at any time?”
Dean: “At any time.”
Dean Sr.: “Period.”
Stewart: “Okay, so how would they even know that he’s a lawyer?”
Dean: “What am I supposed to do, enter every scene and say, ‘I’m Mitch and I’m a lawyer, and I’ll stop at nothing to grind for justice’?”
Stewart: “No, not every scene, and not in that voice…”
Dean: “Can you imagine if I walked around saying, ‘Oh, I’m Dean and I used to play a lawyer on television, but now I live in Boise and I live with my brother’?”
Stewart: “Oh, you live here now?”
Dean: “I’m just saying: It’s bad writing.”
Ethan: “I don’t want to be spoonfed.”
Dean Sr.: “If you’re not following something, feel free to watch the earlier episodes any time you want.”
Dean: “It’s not too late for you, Stu. You can catch up.”
Olyphant’s arc lasted about five episodes, and now the malpractice suit facing Dean Sanderson Sr. (Devane) has hit that total with no signs of stopping. Through this plot, the writers have taken us to many refreshingly unexpected places — including Dean Jr. abandoning “the grind” and Stewart becoming as dramatically manipulative as Dean once was — but the fact it’s lasted so long already, and could reach through to the season finale, is just one more example of how “The Grinder” can successfully experiment with genre, expectations and structure.
4. A Better, “Modern” Family
What defines a show as “family friendly” is a bit of a sliding scale, considering parents need to individually choose what’s acceptable viewing for kids, but in a time when sexual innuendos are an accepted part of day-to-day life — or at least nightly TV — “The Grinder” is refreshingly wholesome. That’s not to say it lacks an edge, as its meta humor provides a layer of sophisticated comedy set primarily for an older audience. Yet the TV-PG series still feels like the family comedy of the modern era.
Shot in single-cam style without the addition of a laugh track, “The Grinder” focuses on familial obligations and pillars as Dean grows from a man embedded in a character to his true self as an uncle and brother. His status as a role model for Deb and Stewart’s kids has come up multiple times, for better (Lizzie and Ethan’s dating lives) and worse (their struggles when Dean moves out), and the importance of brotherly love is an overarching theme revisited in a variety of ways. Jokes land whether they hold another meaning or not, making the show ideal fodder for everyone without either age demographic feeling stiffed.
3. Grind Into the Future
Fox isn’t necessarily known for embracing the future of television in terms of making their series readily available for bingeing, but they actually deserve more credit here than they’re getting. For instance, all four of its Tuesday night comedies are available for streaming the next day on Hulu (as are many, if not all, of its other shows), and you can actually watch the newest seasons of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” “Grandfathered” and “The Grinder” in their entirety on the service. (Seriously, you guys, get a Hulu subscription if you don’t already have one. I promise, I am not being paid to say this. I just love it that much.)
This plays to a huge advantage for most modern comedies, but particularly for “The Grinder.” Its rhythms are best appreciated in large doses, and its just-a-notch-north-of-the-real world isn’t one you want to leave quickly. Plus, with the serialized structure implemented mid-season, it’s actually important you catch up on any episodes you miss. While you’re there, go ahead and rerun through the ones you’ve seen, too. It could use the ratings boost.
2. A Three-Dimensional Grinder
One of the biggest question marks after the pilot episode was sustainability — whether or not a premise based around an ex-actor who still acts all the time would grow tired or repetitious too quickly. And while the strong ensemble certainly helped alleviate some of the burden placed on Lowe’s central character — the source of most of the show’s humor — it was clear Dean needed to be more than a joke to everyone around him. He couldn’t just be an out-of-place Hollywood caricature to be hemmed and hawed at while pretending to be a real lawyer at a real firm in a real Idaho community. He needed to be a real human being. He needed to be believable.
And 18 episodes in, he’s exactly that. While Dean maintains the exaggerated nature of a drama addict — a nature he hilariously tried to kick through therapy, but instead proved to himself and to the audience why we all need his drama — we’ve watched as his outer shell is peeled back just enough for us to see the real man inside. Credit to Lowe for knowing exactly when to let us in and when to keep up the persona, but the writing staff seems to have an uncanny handle on this character already. Even as the format has shifted throughout this first season, The Grinder himself has remained rock steady; his arc smooth and well-plotted. Rather than worry for the future, fans now can rest assured there’s nothing but good to look forward to — assuming there’s more to come.
1. More Episode Titles, Or Else
A quick ranking of the Top 5 “Grinder” episode titles, which makes the above demand self-explanatory:
5. “A Bittersweet Grind (Une Mouture Amer)”
4. “Dedicating This One to the Crew”
3. “The Ties That Grind”
2. “Delusions of Grinder”
1. “The Olyphant in the Room”