Last May, Fox blew up its Tuesday-night comedy block, which had been pared down from a full night of sitcoms in 2012 to the two lone survivors of that non-starting lineup: New Girl and The Mindy Project. (R.I.P. Ben And Kate and Raising Hope.) Holding New Girl until 2016 and letting Mindy go to Hulu, the network has built atop the ruins a monument to comedic smarm: One full hour of Rob Lowe and John Stamos charming all but a chosen few who cross their paths. In The Grinder and Grandfathered, the network essentially ordered two more-or-less promising treatments of the same concept: Upon hitting a new milestone (the end of a TV show for The Grinder, grandfatherhood for Grandfathered), a middle-aged dude who’s largely coasted through life on charm and good looks (Lowe for The Grinder, Stamos for Grandfathered) forges a new path with the help of family members, known associates, or a series-mandated sidekick (Fred Savage in The Grinder, Josh Peck for Grandfathered). Welcome to the new Fox Tuesdays, the battle of the network sitcom smarm.
The Grinder is a very good pilot that suggests six or seven different directions for the show that follows—not all of them as sharp or as funny as the first episode. It could ramp up its commentary on celebrity culture, as the people of Boise, Idaho adjust to being in the presence of a former TV star: local-boy-made-good Dean Sanderson (Rob Lowe). It might skewer the American legal system, as Dean channels his work on a long-running legal drama (also called The Grinder) into joining his father (William Devane) and brother (Fred Savage) at the family law firm. Considering how well Lowe, Devane, Savage, and Mary Elizabeth Ellis function as fictional flesh-and-blood, it’s also possible that The Grinder is just a low-key family comedy dressed up in high-concept clothes.
Some directions have already been ruled out by genuine behind-the-scenes drama, though we may never know what differences of opinion led to the departure of original showrunner Greg Malins. He’s since been replaced by Ben Wexler (late of The Comedians and The Michael J. Fox Show), who joins a full house of executive producers that add a few more layers to The Grinder’s Russian nesting doll of “What comes next?”: Nicholas Stoller (fresh off the late-summer triumph of The Carmichael Show), Jake Kasdan (who’s also engaged with New Girl and Fresh Off The Boat), and co-creators Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul.
With Kasdan directing, The Grinder begins on a New Girl-esque foot. The series premiere finds its sense of humor in the interplay between ensemble members, and lets Dean’s fish-out-of-water status drive the narrative—much like New Girl did when Zooey Deschanel’s character could still be identified as the “new girl.” Drawing on the relentless optimism and boundless confidence of Parks And Recreation’s Chris Traeger, Lowe plays Dean as a creature of pure charisma, his powers of persuasion effective on family members, good-for-nothing teenagers, and officers of the court. But it was the well-disguised vulnerabilities that made Chris a vital part of the Parks And Rec team, and Lowe successfully transfers those aspects of the character over to his new gig as well. Nine seasons of fake lawyering have skewed Dean’s sense of reality to humorous ends, but they’ve also left him searching. He winds up back home because there’s no script for life after The Grinder, a situation that’s surely familiar to the actor who once went from The West Wing to Dr. Vegas—or the guy playing his brother.
Fred Savage is the true comeback kid of The Grinder, The Wonder Years star-turned-go-to sitcom director making his return to series TV after a decade-plus behind the camera. He’s an ideal foil for Lowe: Stewart Sanderson is the stammering, voice-cracking everyman neurotic to Dean’s Hollywood charmer. On the job, they make an amusing Goofus and Gallant: Law-school graduate Stewart relies on notecards in the courtroom, turning his arguments and examinations into monotone recitations; ex-pretend attorney Dean strides into closing arguments and bluffs his way around all legal procedures. An actor trying to match Lowe’s energy levels would throw the series off its equilibrium, so Savage handles Stewart’s exasperation with care. That exasperation is justified, but it’s played in a grounded way that expertly contrasts the times when Dean drops into his old TV character, sculpting real life into rerun life.
There’s potent satirical content in the times when The Grinder (the Fox comedy) starts to resemble The Grinder (the made-up lawyer show). The rapturous reception to Dean’s homecoming speaks to the state of celebrity worship in 2015, and Dean’s ability to woo a judge and jury based solely on secondhand trivia and bar-exam cram sessions points an accusatory finger at lady justice. And the show has already made a winning running gag out of the ways The Grinder’s life bleeds into Dean’s, through sudden shifts in filmmaking techniques, soundtrack cues, or dialogue. (Near the end of the premiere, Dean hears an offhand remark about finishing what he’s started in a much graver tone than the speaker ever could’ve intended.)
These are all neat little flourishes, and they’ll help The Grinder stand out among a crowded fall field, but they’d mean nothing if they weren’t backed by the already solidifying dynamic between the Sandersons. Not just Lowe and Savage’s odd-couple routine, but Devane’s believable esteem for his boys and Ellis’ calming presence as Stewart’s wife, Debbie. There’s a sense that things in Boise trucked along just fine before The Grinder came to town, a sense helped along by guest-starring turns from Kumail Nanjiani, Steve Little, Brian Huskey, and Rose Abdoo, all of whom earn repeat appearances with their work here. (Also on the call sheet, but buried by post-pilot retooling: Natalie Morales, who plays a bigger part in future episodes.) It’s a foundation that bodes well for the show—whichever show it ends up becoming.
The opening of Grandfathered is a little more shapeless than that of its Tuesday-night companion, with much of the premiere whizzing by in montages that pit playboy restauranteur Jimmy Martino (John Stamos) against his newfound mid-life crisis: He’s a grandpa. The whole thing comes as a bit of a shock to Stamos’ character, who doesn’t even know he’s a father until his all-grown-up kid, Gerald (Josh Peck), pops by the restaurant, introducing his kid, Edie (twins Layla and Emelia Golfieri) in the process. In Grandfathered, as in restaurant management and one-night stands that grow into sitcom premises, efficiency is key.
Stamos is to Grandfathered as Lowe is to The Grinder, with the former dabbing a little more mirror-hogging smugness on his new onscreen persona. But whereas Dean’s second act feels dictated by the character’s choices, Jimmy’s is a function of the plot. Sure, his extracurricular activities were bound to have some consequences, but Gerald and Edie’s introduction follows quickly after a restaurant set piece establishing Jimmy’s out-of-whack work-life balance. The character finds his own Stewart in the form of his ex-girlfriend/Gerald’s mother/Edie’s grandmother Sara (Paget Brewster), who has little patience for Jimmy’s bullshit and no reservations about calling it out to his face.
With an unctuous protagonist on a path to redemption, Grandfathered’s most redeeming quality is its supporting cast. As Sara, Brewster is disapproving of Jimmy but never a nag, the gibes directed at her ex always motivated by her love for Gerald and Edie. After playing straight woman to the entire student body of Greendale Community College, puncturing the ego of one unrepentant bachelor looks like second nature for Brewster, and many of the pilot’s biggest laughs arise from her disbelief and disgust with Jimmy. (She hasn’t seen the guy in two decades, but still knows that claiming their relationship gave her gum disease will hit him harder than any accusation of the venereal kind.) Peck has been primed for this type of role since graduating from the Nickelodeon school of sitcoms in the late ’00s, and he’s retained a knack for shifting on a dime between hangdog expression and giddy punchline delivery. At Jimmy’s namesake restaurant, Kelly Jenrette and Ravi Patel make impressions as the management and the talent; Christina Milian doesn’t have much time to make her own impression as Vanessa, but Grandfathered barely has enough time to introduce Jimmy’s granddaughter, let alone the woman who gave birth to her.
If Grandfathered is going to stumble anywhere, it’s in rekindling the romantic flames between Jimmy and Gerald and the mothers of their children. Complicating Gerald’s quest to win Vanessa’s heart: It’s strongly hinted that Vanessa is attracted to Jimmy. Father-son dating advice makes for the weakest portions of the pilot, scenes that signal a crasser comedy about Jimmy wing-manning Gerald back into his baby mama’s bed. None of these developments seem to consider that there might be other, unseen, and more eligible suitors for Vanessa or Sara.
Romance greases the gears on a show like this, but Grandfathered is always more interesting when it’s the premiere of a show about people navigating the unique little family unit they accidentally made. Even the scenes of Jimmy at the head of his workplace family are more satisfying than the Grandfathered that inevitably wraps its first season with Jimmy asking Sara to give him a second chance. Then again, any version of Grandfathered is more palatable than the one in which Jimmy and Vanessa hook up.
Created by: Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul
Starring: Rob Lowe, Fred Savage, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, William Devane, Natalie Morales
Debuts: Tuesday, September 29 at 8:30 p.m. on Fox
Format: Single-camera sitcom
Pilot watched for review
Reviews by Molly Eichel will run weekly
Created by: Daniel Chun
Starring: John Stamos, Josh Peck, Paget Brewster, Christina Milian, Kelly Jenrette
Debuts: Tuesday, September 29 at 8 p.m. on Fox
Format: Single-camera sitcom
Pilot watched for review
Reviews by Allison Shoemaker will run weekly