In “The Grinder,” Rob Lowe (“Parks and Recreation”) stars as Dean Sanderson, a fictional television actor known for his role as a dashing lawyer on the eponymous show-within-a show.
At the beginning of the episode, Dean watches the series finale with his brother Stewart (Fred Savage, “The Wonder Years”), his brother’s family and his father Dean Sr. (William Devane, “24”). Brother Stewart works as a real-life attorney in their suburban hometown with his wife Debbie (Mary Elizabeth Ellis, “New Girl”) and their two kids. When Dean shows up, Stewart begins to feel like a secondary character in his own life, thanks to Dean’s fame and success acting as Stewart's real-life job.
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While struggling with an eviction case, however, the endlessly charismatic Dean helps Stewart by deciding to become a real lawyer.
This plan is met with obvious skepticism by his brother Stewart, who is reasonably offended by how cavalier Dean acts about pursuing a career as a lawyer. Unfortunately for the show’s credibility, Dean’s decision is met with enthusiasm from everyone except Stewart.
The concept of “The Grinder” sets it miles apart from the cookie-cutter comedies and sitcoms plaguing fall pilots, and the show has the potential to be both biting satire and trippy meta-humor in the future. However, the first episode doesn’t quite deliver the funny insight into fact versus fiction promised by its premise. Along with its responsibility, the show must also deliver a solid, albeit somewhat conventional, family comedy with great chemistry between its leads and some well-placed jabs at Hollywood legal dramas.
Neither Savage nor Lowe fall into the trap of being the unfunny straight man. The consequence, however, is that the series doesn’t use its talented supporting cast. The notable exception is newcomer Colin Kalopsis who plays Stewart’s 13-year-old son Ethan. Kalopsis is given some of the best lines in the show, and it wouldn’t be surprising if we’ll be seeing a lot more of him in the future. On the other hand, Ellis’s role as Debbie is relegated to the stereotypical wife-character — ironic, given the show’s aims at exposing television clichés, and a shame given Ellis’s talent.
Rarely does a show’s pilot reveal exactly what its makers have up their sleeves, and it’s likely that the pilot of “The Grinder,” though an entertaining half hour of comedy, has yet to show the true potential of what the series can be.