“The Grinder”: No Rest for the Wicked

The Grinder is an odd duck. It’s not exactly a family comedy or a workplace comedy, though it has elements of both. It’s not exactly a lawyer comedy, though some plot points revolve around legal procedures. It’s certainly not a documentary about the origins of the popular gay corollary to Tinder, though it’s easy to see (or hear) why you would make that assumption.

But there’s one thing that’s easy to say about The Grinder: it’s really funny.

The first seven episodes have been all over the map in terms of defining the show’s path. The pilot establishes that Dean Sanderson (Rob Lowe) has moved in with his younger brother Stewart (Fred Savage) and his wife Debbie (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) after ending a run on a popular TV law procedural called The Grinder, in which he played the lead role. Some episodes take place almost entirely in the home of the loving but dysfunctional Sanderson family, while others split their time between the home and the Sanderson family law firm. Some episodes rely heavily on the interplay between Dean and Stewart, while others focus on the amusing rapport between Stewart and Debbie. After most episodes, I find myself thinking, how much more story is there to tell here?

The Grinder isn’t unusual for being a work in progress (and a low-rated one at that, though it’s been renewed for a full season). It is unusual for wringing so many laughs from its inconsistency. The stories and setting might be in flux, but the show knows exactly who its characters are and how to set them apart in interesting ways. Lowe’s preening self-importance clashes with Stewart’s traditional know-it-all attitude in ways that will strike a chord with anyone who has a sibling. Similarly, the banter between Stewart and Debbie is barbed but rarely sour. You can tell these two people love each other even when they’re arguing or taking each other down a peg.

In that regard, the show lucked out with a terrific central trio of performers. The slick self-absorption of Lowe’s performance as Chris Traeger on Parks and Recreation proved an effective warm-up for this part, which requires him to play to the cameras and embrace his star wattage. Savage, meanwhile, is a delight of a different kind, with an infectious smile and note-perfect timing. Ellis had little to do in the early episodes, and a half-baked solo Debbie storyline in the most recent episode never quite took off, but she more than holds her own in scenes with the family, and I’m eager to see the show find the right lane for her character.

There are also smaller pleasures, the kind that often aren’t in place on a network sitcom until much later in the first season. The gavel-assisted smash-cut at the end of each act never fails to amuse. The precocious Ethan Sanderson (Connor Kalopsis) would get along great with the similarly named Evan (Ian Chen) and Emery Huang (Forrest Wheeler) on ABC’s terrific Fresh Off the Boat. TV’s most reliable sitcom booster Natalie Morales (most recently excellent on Parks and Recreation and Trophy Wife) adds a welcome dose of feminine energy to the workplace scenes on a show that’s almost entirely constructed around masculine desires and foibles. Better yet, Morales’ Claire deftly rebuffed several romantic advances from Dean, thus subverting the trope of the male lead sleeping with a much younger woman (thus far, anyway – don’t prove me wrong, show!). And the direction from seasoned sitcom veterans like Jake Kasdan and Jay Chandrasekhar has been uniformly solid, breathing life into what could have been tired metacommentary on TV tropes.

Most of the pleasures of The Grinder are silly and superficial, like the giggles that inevitably arise anytime someone makes an inappropriate use of the word “grinding,” or the escalating hilarity of the motif in this montage:

But that doesn’t make the show any less enjoyable or effective at what it’s trying to do. There’s little to be gained from thinking about The Grinder as anything more than a solidly crafted superstar sitcom that’s laser-focused on being charming and funny. Some shows don’t need to provoke more thought than that.

But what if it did?

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