The series follows television actor Dean Sanderson, Jr. (Rob Lowe), who returns to his hometown of Boise, Idaho after his long-running television series, The Grinder, ends. Though Dean is not a lawyer, he believes that his experience playing one on television makes him qualified to practice law. He decides to join his family’s law firm, Sanderson & Yao, much to the chagrin of his younger brother Stewart (Fred Savage), who is a real-life lawyer. (synopsis via Wikipedia)
On the surface The Grinder, starring Rob Lowe as a TV star who struggles after his long-running courtroom melodrama is cancelled leaving him professionally and existentially adrift and rudderless, is not the most innovative of sitcom premises.
Running something like – kid with big acting dreams moves to LA, strikes it lucky as the star of his own TV show, finds fame and fortune until life gets in the way and he’s forced to return back home, in this case Boise, Idaho, to reassess who he is and where goes next – it sounds like the sort of TV show (or movie or book) you’ve seen a thousand times before.
It immediately conjures up the idea that lessons will be learned, bonds with family members strengthened, and everything will end relatively happily ever after.
And to an extent that does happen in The Grinder, created by Jarrod Paul and Andrew Mogel, although it is often subverted in deliciously off-the-wall, over-the-top ways by Rob Lowe’s character Dean Sanderson who is prone to narcissism, very little self-awareness or self-reflection and who routinely fails to understand that real life almost never imitates art.
Channeling more than a little of his character in Parks and Recreation, Chris Traeger, Lowe imbues Sanderson with an hilariously maddening disconnection to the real world.
He is intelligent and talented no doubt but is so caught up in himself that he fails to comprehend over and over again that he cannot take his fake skills as a TV lawyer and go to work in the law firm run by his father Dean Sr (William Devane), an unabashed fan of his eldest son’s dubious acting talents – Sanderson’s The Grinder TV show is routinely presented as a melodramatic satire of the plethora of legal shows on the air – and his far less confident younger brother, who actually is a lawyer in real life, Stewart (Fred Savage).
What makes The Grinder work, which could so easily have fallen prey to Annoying Narcissist Syndrome, is that Lowe plays Sanderson with a beguiling mix of sweet need and detached-from-reality bravado.
Yes he is insanely off the wall nuts at times but at heart he is an earnest guy who really wants to do something worthwhile with his life, and that provides the our point of connection and empathy with a character who could have easily generated neither.
Helping the show’s likability factor is the rapport between Lowe and Savage, the much put-upon young brother who seems to be the only incapable of taking Dean seriously;even Stewart’s levelheaded wife Debbie (Mary Elizabeth Ellis), often the supportive voice of reason for his husband, particularly when he has come off second best in a benign stoush with his over-eager brother, has her own bouts of fangirling.
They genuinely come across as two loving brothers, one of whom lacks the other’s overwhelming confidence and chutzpah and who has long laboured in the shadow of the other’s incandescent, near omnipresent celebrity, leading to the kind of believable tension you often see between siblings.
The tense interactions are never too fatal – it’s a quirky sitcom after all – but it does lead to situations where everyone else has fallen under Dean’s spell and it’s only Stewart, who ends looking more often than not as the lone voice of sanity crying out in the wilderness, who can right the good ship Sanderson.
Still neither brother is seen as better than the other with each of them given their due in writing that tiptoes to the edge of cliche but never quite topples over.
Yes Dean is crazily over the top and damn near deluded much of the time but he’s sweet and well-meaning and wise enough to realise that Stewart has achieved all those things he wishes he had like a wife, kids and real sense of purpose; Stewart is often presented and many times feels like the stuck-in-the-mud conservative younger brother who will never hold a candle to Dean but then he is often the one who anchors his older brother when almost no one or nothing can.
And that is the great strength of The Grinder – it takes its characters, many of whom don’t fully inhabit reality quite as fully as they should, and its hilarious absurdist courtroom scenes, quite seriously.
Yes there’s a huge amount of humour at play, and it’s very well executed, especially with actors of the calibre of Lowe, Savage and Devane at work, but the central idea of the show which is struggle many of us have to find out what we want from life and whether what we have is actually hitting the mark, is a real one and it’s never trivialised in the pursuit of laughs.
Even amidst all of Lowe’s exquisitely-funny melodrama, you get the sense that there are real emotions at work and while you’re laughing at the silliness of it all, you’re all too aware that here is a man in existential freefall.
That’s why the show works so well – it is the consummate sitcom yes, and in that respect, it is duty bound to shoot for laughs, many of which it successfully lands but its creators are too aware that really good comedy, the lasting, memorable, connecting kind is based on real meaningful emotions.
Alas that didn’t grant televisual longevity to The Grinder, which was cancelled after one season in May of this year, but it has given us 22 episodes of intelligently-written, daffy silly fun which manages to make some pertinent points about the business of being human, reminding us in the process that all the really good sitcoms as every bit as insightful as they are funny.