When The Grinder first debuted on FOX, many people, or at least a certain set, compared the show to Lookwell. The series was created by Conan O’Brien and Robert Smigel, and starred Adam West as Ty Lookwell, an actor who played a cop on TV for years, and believes that entitles him to actually attempt to solve cases. Hilarity ensues. And this is, indeed, a similar premise to The Grinder, which starred Rob Lowe as Dean Sanderson, an actor who played Mitch Grinder for years, on the show-within-the-show “The Grinder,” and now assumes he can be an actual lawyer alongside his brother Stew, played by Fred Savage in his return to acting.
You may have never heard of Lookwell, and that wouldn’t be surprising—Lookwell failed. They made a pilot, and that was it. It’s a cult object, albeit one with a strong following. The pilot was genius, but it was weird and idiosyncratic and they didn’t think it could sustain itself on TV. The Grinder, by dint of getting a full season, succeeded at a greater degree than Lookwell, but only slightly. After one season the show was canceled (admittedly, to nobody’s surprise) making network television much less weird for the moment.
And this is incredibly disappointing, because The Grinder was also a very good show. It was smart and clever, and kept evolving and digging deeper into its story. The first episode may have been what people expected, where Dean gets involved in trying an actual case, and it’s mostly funny and silly. But after that, the show grew into something fascinating and delightful, especially for those who love TV. That’s who The Grinder was really for. You had to know the tropes of law dramas, as well as sitcoms and also the backstage machinations of television. You had to enjoy jokes about focus groups and how the sausage is made. It was a show for TV obsessives, who also didn’t take television too seriously.
It was ambitious to believe they could garner a big audience with this premise, and The Grinder seemed destined to become a show that divided the television viewership, but one that would also be a critical darling. And it also would have been great if Rob Lowe could have drawn in more people in to watch the show, if only to get it a couple of good seasons. There was definitely life left in The Grinder.
Rob Lowe’s Dean was a ridiculous character, but he never felt absurd. He always worked, and he always made sense, no matter how egocentric or naïve he was being. Fred Savage was a top notch straight man who seemed like he never stopped acting. Natalie Morales basically just did her thing as Claire, but you hire Natalie Morales to do that thing, because she is so good at it. Steve Little made Todd a weird delight—so bizarre, but so funny. Mary Elizabeth Ellis and William Devane performed well and Hana Hayes and Connor Kalopsis were actually talented child actors. Then, there were the guest stars. We must single out Timothy Olyphant, who was great as a skewed version of himself, alternatingly feuding and bonding with Dean.
As the show went on, there were more and more episodes that seemed to reflect on The Grinder itself, and seemed to be indicative of creators frustrated with the process. One episode was basically a big middle finger to people who considered the show to be too complicated. Even with such commentary, the series always remained fun, and it always remained interesting. When the show ended, Dean gave a meta speech about this whole thing having legs, and about a future worth having. That future will not arrive, and The Grinder shall grind no more. The show is canceled, and nobody is here to say, “But what if it wasn’t?” There will be no last minute reprieve, no big reveal, no side story that breaks the main story wide open for us. “The Grinder,” which starred Dean Sanderson, was a bad, boiler plate show, but it was a success. The Grinder was much smarter, and funnier, and ambitious, but that’s also what did it in. It turned into Lookwell with a full season order, but, surely, it will develop its own cult following. Meanwhile, we can all dream of some sort of Law & Order type show, with Ty Lookwell and Dean Sanderson in the leads.
Chris Morgan is not the author of THE book on Mystery Science Theater 3000, but he is the author of A book on Mystery Science Theater 3000. He’s also on Twitter.