I knew I was going to like The Grinder when Stewart (Fred Savage) walks into his kitchen to find his brother, Dean (Rob Lowe) sitting in the dark. “Can’t sleep,” Dean says with dramatic gravitas as he swigs a beer. “It’s 8:30,” Stewart says back.
Dean is so self-serious because for the last nine years, 22 episodes a year, that was his modus operandi. Dean was the title character of legal drama The Grinder where he fought the tough cases, often to the tune of swelling music. But Dean’s time on the The Grinder has come to a close, and now he’s adrift on the extended metaphorical highway of life. Dean retreats to his hometown in Idaho, and to the hesitant arms of his brother, who is a font of legal knowledge but doesn’t have the necessary charisma to make it as a trial attorney. It’s in the first scene between Dean and Stewart that the true tone of The Grinder — the Fox comedy, rather than the show-within a show — is set. Dean is so fully immersed in his former character that even while talking to his brother, he speaks as if a camera, angled just so, is following his every move. The light hits him at the perfect, the music swells, the metaphors continue.
There’s something about a character who is so wholly unaware of the real world that is going on around them. It’s what makes The Comeback’s Valerie Cherish so heartbreakingly wonderful. But the difference between Valerie and Dean — both out of work actors desperately in search of their next act — is that everybody else seems to buy into the world that Dean lives in his own mind, with only Stewart to act as the only sane character. Everyone else — from their dad (William Devane) to Stewart’s wife (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Mary Elizabeth Ellis) to his two kids — is so enthralled by Dean’s charisma and celebrity that it doesn’t matter that he doesn’t have a law degree or any actual legal knowledge.
This commitment works because Rob Lowe fully accepts his role. Lowe went into full character mode for Parks and Recreation’s Chris Traeger. He was an odd character from the beginning and was eventually written into a corner to the point Lowe’s decision to opt out of Parks and Rec was both good for himself and the show. It’s difficult to keep a heightened character interesting without his novelty wearing off or becoming grating like Chris could certainly be. It’ll be one of the more interesting aspects of The Grinder to track as it progresses. It also helps that Savage is a generally affable screen presence. It helps that the guy rolling his eye is also a sweetheart with his own failings. He’s the underdog, not as magnetic or handsome as his older brother, and it’s okay that he has a brotherly animosity toward this guy that everyone else loves.
But Lowe is not alone in his commitment. Jake Kasdan’s direction in the pilot is also committed to the regular tricks of the legal drama. It’s a gimmick that I continued to giggle at, as the music swelled as Dean hoped that his brother would endorse his decision to stay in Idaho rather than let him go back to California. It also shows that as much as The Grinder is mocking shows like, well, The Grinder, there is still this underlying love for the genre, and that love is the source of some of the best parodies.
- My brother is a lawyer and I will never tire of attempting to legally debate him based on years of watching Law & Order.
- You can see Natalie Morales in the background of the courtroom scenes. She’ll be a regular in upcoming episodes.
- The other regular characters were essentially non-entities in this episode, as to focus on the development and relationship of Dean and Stewart. But the guest stars, particularly Kumail Nanjiani, were a nice addition. Because when it comes down to it, The Grinder could very well end up being a comedic legal procedural, in which these semi-regular presences float in and out of the show when necessary. It opens up quite a few comedic avenues for the show to go down.
- Biggest laugh: “What part of #teenlife do you not understand?”