This is not a review. As proposed in an interesting Criticwire piece earlier this week, recommending or dismissing an entire season based on one episode of television is a critic’s mission impossible. Sure, we can tell you what we thought of a small percentage of the overall series, but those early impressions are relied upon for an entire season or more by marketing teams and readers alike. That’s a lot of weight for what recently appointed Variety critic Maureen Ryan describes as “a test case.” With two, three or more episodes to consider, a rhythm can be established. Storylines can develop. Characters are given more depth. (Or the opposite happens and the series implodes.) In any of these scenarios, critics are provided firmer ground to stand on, and thus the audience is better informed.
Sadly, this was not the case with “The Grinder,” Fox’s new comedy starring Rob Lowe and Fred Savage. Despite releasing the pilot two months earlier at the TCAs, critics weren’t given more to sample before the show’s premiere (a standard practice at broadcast networks that’s thankfully being broken more and more often). That’s not to say the show doesn’t deserve its wildly positive grades. There’s quite a bit to be excited about in the pilot episode, but for now, it’s all potential. With showrunner switch-a-roos and somewhere from 12 to 22 more episodes on the way, anything could happen. Based on the pilot, here’s what gives us the most hope for the upcoming season of “The Grinder.”
9) “It seemed truthful to you guys, as lawyers?”
“It felt as real as all the other ones.”
Courtroom dramas are ripe for satire, and “The Grinder” has put itself in a unique position to both mock and take advantage of some of the more unrealistic tropes of the genre. First and foremost, the mocking. By opening with a light but obvious chastisement of Dean Sanderson’s (Rob Lowe) old show, “The Grinder” sets itself up to a) keep making fun of the dramatic aggrandizing, and b) infuse a bit of meta humor into the proceedings. More on the latter later, but more of the former this season, please.
8) Rob Lowe, looking into a mirror, being funny, again.
Let’s just get the obvious out of the way: Rob Lowe is one helluva comedic actor. If you didn’t know it before, you knew it the moment when, during the dramatic TV version of “The Grinder,” Lowe sees a pregnancy test in the garbage and looks up at himself in the mirror with toothpaste dripping down his face. There’s two layers of acting going on in that TV-show-within-a-TV-show, and both work beautifully. Or, if you need more, you can check out Indiewire’s recent ranking of his TV performances or stare at this .gif of Lowe dancing on “Parks and Rec.”
8) Mary. Elizabeth. Ellis.
Long known simply as The Waitress from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” Mary Elizabeth Ellis has been steadily building her rep as a character actress since breaking out on the aforementioned FX comedy. She’s had a few moments to shine on network TV before — most notably in the NBC misfire “Perfect Couples” and as Nick’s crazy ex on “New Girl” — but her playing cute isn’t just working on Fred Savage in the clip above. More like this, please.
7) “Coming into his own…kind of like a douchebag, huh?”
We here at Indiewire are in favor of any broadcast comedy that is willing to call an innocent child a douchebag when he or she is indeed behaving as such. More, please.
6) Kumail Nanjiani
“Um, I have a question: Have you ever talked before?”
Okay, okay. I know Kumail Nanjiani isn’t a series regular on this show and likely won’t be back very often, if at all. But if “The Grinder” keeps bringing in ornery and talented opposing counsel then the show as a whole will undoubtedly benefit. It’s an easy way to bring up the faults in Dean’s courtroom behavior, and an excellent means to infuse fresh talent on a regular basis — just like courtroom dramas do.
5) The Great William Devane is One Lovable Instigator
While a bit passive in the pilot, William Devane’s Dean Sr. was ready to upend his youngest son’s wishes at every turn. Be it by agreeing with Dean Jr.’s inapplicable Noah Wyle analogy, pushing the “team” to go to court or supporting The Grinder’s theft of his brother’s suits, Devane’s character is a ball of positivity with a rebellious streak he’s ready to ride.
4) The Family Touch
I bet many of you didn’t even notice how kid-friendly “The Grinder” turned out to be. Given the name, it may be hard to believe, but the storylines, dialogue and even the humor was all hovering around the PG-level, and Dean’s sit-down with his nephew, niece and their mutual friend should be a highlight for all ages. If the show can get parents to overlook its unfortunately implicit title, Fox may have a family hit on its hands.
3) Actor Jokes
Mocking the self-obsession surrounding actors is nothing new, but doing it in a scene involving a heartfelt story of a child suffering from cancer who just wants an autograph from her favorite TV star is certainly a ruthlessly fresh take. Glossing over Dean’s dismissal of his young fan’s plight by cloaking it with the reveal of Stewart’s hurtful notecards added a subversive layer of comedy to a scene that’s typically played straight. While still mocking Dean’s addiction to drama — another welcome trope and jab at self-serious thespians — it also kept momentum up during Stewart’s comeuppance for impatiently disrespecting his brother.
2) Meta Humor
“Aren’t I supposed to be sworn in?” kicked off a climactic courtroom scene that was everything we want the show to be and more. After a rightful objection by Nanjiani’s Leonard, non-lawyer Dean Sanderson questioned the witness anyway because, as the judge so rightly said, “This is why we’re here.” Dean then sustained an objection about his own behavior, borrowed the glasses of a jury member to make a dramatic point, and launched into a spot-on “Few Good Men” parody that lead to his team winning the case — only after Stewart cited precedent to make his brother’s ridiculous actions just legal enough. It’s a deft balance of satirization and embellishment, but damn if it isn’t just as satisfying as the improbable and unjustifiable victories in all those movies and TV shows “The Grinder” is so eager to parody.
1) Rob Lowe Said “Literally”
Guys! Rob Lowe said “literally!” Just like he did on “Parks and Recreation!” Okay, okay. It wasn’t “just” like that, but — as Lowe told us in an interview about the series — it had “just enough throttle, I thought, that people would have fun with it.”
The Grinder rests.
“The Grinder” airs Tuesdays at 8:30pm on Fox.