The premise of The Grinder is promising on its face. A guy who played a lawyer on TV, which is, of course, very different from being a lawyer in real life, visits his actual lawyer brother after his show ends and gets involved in his legal affairs. However, thid is also a premise that can go in a lot of different directions, both good and bad. The pilot doesn’t quite make it clear which direction we’re headed in here, but the potential is very evident.
The potential comes not just from the premise, but also the case. Rob Lowe plays Dean Sanderson, the former star of the show within the show The Grinder. He’s being asked to play a good-looking TV star whose kind of a doofus, albeit a well-meaning doofus. As Rob Lowe has plenty of experience being a good looking TV star, he’s got a feel for that, and while he’s not an actual doofus, he’s good at portraying one. His brother Stewart is played by Fred Savage, the erstwhile Kevin Arnold. While Savage still has a youthfulness to his face, it’s been a good, long while since he was acting with any regularity. He shows no signs of rust in this pilot, though. He goes toe-to-toe with Lowe with aplomb, in what you could call the Superintendent Chalmers role; the sane man in an insane world.
The pilot has a lot of work to do, establishing Dean and Stewart, getting Dean involved in Stewart’s legal case and also introducing Stewart’s other family—characters who aren’t interesting here, even though his wife is played by Mary Elizabeth Ellis. It sort of works, but, like most comedy pilots, it also feels rushed and incomplete. Stewart wants a couple to settle on an eviction case with the landlord they insist is crooked, then Dean gets involved and insists they fight back. Naturally, after Dean and Stewart have a falling out, Dean returns to save the day. He gives Stewart some confidence and they win the case. It’s all fine. Stewart is somewhat implausibly mush-mouthed for a successful lawyer, but the reality of the show’s universe seems like maybe this can be overlooked.
That’s the real issue, to the extent there is an issue, with The Grinder’s pilot. What is the tone of this show? It doesn’t seem to go full Lookwell, which is a shame, because Lookwell was amazing. However, the world is still somewhat silly. It’s partially a parody of law shows, seemingly both on the in-show version of The Grinder, which is bombastic and cheesy, but also in our world’s version of The Grinder. The judge allows Dean to interject in the trial just because she’s a fan of the show, but then there are also constant objections to everything he does, from the defense attorney, played by Kumail Nanjiani. It seems to be a show dedicated to hanging lanterns on everything, but there also seems to be some attention paid to actual family lives, and to Dean’s emotional state.
Pilots are always a tricky business. There are a few really funny jokes in the episode, and Lowe and Savage are excellent. Two funny leads and the promise of some good jokes is enough reason for encouragement this early in a show’s run. The Grinder would probably be better off just letting Stewart and Dean get in wacky legal adventures, with some parody along the way, but it remains to be seen where the show will go from here. Late in the pilot, Lowe busts out a “literally,” the catchphrase of his Parks and Recreation character Chris Traeger. That was a show that took a little while to find its voice and direction, too. The Grinder will likely not reach those heights, but you never know. Right now, it’s just a show with a pretty funny pilot that makes you want to watch some more.
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.