We need to talk about Fred Savage. Rob Lowe has (justifiably) been getting much of the attention for his work on The Grinder, but let’s not underestimate Lowe’s co-star. Although he has a number of memorable film credits to his name, both as a child and as an adult (The Princess Bride and Little Monsters in the former, The Rules of Attraction in the latter), his home has always been on television. He first broke out on The Wonder Years, where he lived out his own adolescence weekly for six seasons. Savage was also the lead on the criminally underrated sitcom Working, which aired on NBC at the end of the ’90s and fell into the network’s post-Seinfeld comedy malaise (from which it arguably never recovered). Savage has also spent the last decade as an in-demand director of television comedy, lending his skills to hits like Modern Family and 2 Broke Girls, kids stuff like Wizards of Waverly Place, and cultishly adored stuff like Party Down and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
But Savage is a natural television comedian, and the first few episodes of The Grinder — particularly this week’s entry — have borne this out. There has been a little bit of consternation in the comments that Savage’s character, Stewart, might be too one-note, and even the people who have enjoyed the show so far concede that it would be hard to maintain Stewart’s level of elevated exasperation over an extended period of time. I agree with that sentiment, which is why I was glad to see that Stewart, while still generally bamboozled by his famous brother, has a few more layers, speeds, and moods to him than simply the guy in the pilot who was worried that he would never be able to lower his tone of voice ever again.
WANT MORE? Keep up with all the latest from last night’s television by subscribing to our newsletter. Head here for more details.
As “Little Mitchard No More” shows, Stewart doesn’t just have to play the awkward straight man opposite Dean’s charismatic punch-line machine. He proves that not only does he have great chemistry with his wife, Deb (Mary Elizabeth Ellis, getting more and more time to shine), but is also an excellent foil against some top shelf guest stars in Nat Faxon and Alexie Gilmore. They play Lyle and Vanessa, a posh couple who suddenly wants to become friends with Stewart and Deb. Stewart is immediately skeptical, as he has spent a lifetime being exploited by people who want to get closer to his famous brother. But Deb insists they go in with an open mind, and though it’s pretty clear from the start that Lyle and Vanessa only want to be in Dean’s orbit, Stewart is easily charmed thanks to Lyle’s insistence that it looks like he’s been working out and his praise for a traffic situation that Stewart helped correct.
A dinner escalates to a fundraiser, where Stewart will have the opportunity to cozy up to a judge. Lyle and Vanessa want Dean to come, too, and while Deb and Stewart go along with it, Dean claims he knows for sure they are only interested in him. He can recognize the signs, you see. “They had that sort of Donner Party look in their eyes, like I was a steak they wanted to eat,” Dean says.
He ends up being right. When Dean doesn’t show at the fundraiser, Vanessa and Lyle are upset, and they spin a tale about a sick kid in order to lure him over. (It goes unresolved, but that kid is definitely not ill.) Although he is seduced by the empty admiration, Stewart has finally had enough: He calls out Lyle and Vanessa for using him to get to Dean, and they basically own up to it. Stewart even gets to meet the judge in the end — it turns out nobody really likes Lyle and Vanessa.
NEXT: Dean’s still trying to get with Claire [pagebreak]
Meanwhile, Dean still has the full court press going on Claire, and she continues to have none of it. Admittedly, this narrative is a little creepy, as Dean is pretty clearly sexually harassing Claire in the workplace. But it’s a sitcom, and it’s Rob Lowe, so we’ll give it a pass for now. Besides, his behavior has improved. After an episode of The Grinder doesn’t impress Claire, Dean asks Deb what an “authentic” woman would like from him. Deb tells him to be humble — solid advice, but Dean manifests it by pretending to take a phone call about donating to a fake charity called Church for the Blind. He realizes that Claire’s true passion is work, so Dean decides to throw himself into the mix. But when Claire asks him to do some real research on a bunch of background checks, Dean blanches because they didn’t do paperwork on his show. “We usually just did an all-nighter montage and skipped the boring stuff and got right to the juice,” Dean tells Claire.
After a hilarious attempt at crafting his own one-man montage (which includes him writing the words “Motive” and “Follow the $” on a marker board and literally throwing stuff against a wall), Dean actually ends up reading the background checks and finds a piece of evidence that exonerates a schoolyard bully. Claire admits she underestimated Dean, a nice moment that he ruins by clearing off her desk in preparation for sex. As Dean is learning, you can take the man out of The Grinder, but it’s much more difficult to take The Grinder out of the man.
- This week, the Rob Lowe Appreciation Society celebrates Oxford Blues. The movie, written and directed by Robert Boris (who also co-wrote the Dan Aykroyd pimp comedy, Doctor Detroit), was released in the summer of 1984 and found Lowe at peak heartthrob status: He had already scored headlines and magazine covers with The Outsiders and Class and nailed some critical praise for his turn in the adaptation of the John Irving novel The Hotel New Hampshire (and was less than a year away from his turn in St. Elmo’s Fire). In Oxford Blues, he plays a young hustler who manages to fake his way into the titular prestige school in order to seduce a member of the British royal family (played by Amanda Pays). It starts out as a high-concept teen comedy, then shifts to a pretty traditional sports flick by the end. The tone is all over the place, but Lowe handles both well, and his on-screen chemistry with both Pays and fellow Brat Pack member Ally Sheedy is top shelf. In Oxford Blues, Lowe plays a wounded narcissist with a heart of gold, not unlike Dean Sanderson on The Grinder.
- Last week on Moonbeam City, Dazzle Novak (Lowe) investigated a drowning by crafting a mechanical dolphin suit and then falling in love with an actual dolphin. The highlight was a montage set to a parody of Toto’s “Africa,” with the new chorus, “I kiss the reef in Aquatica / Never going back to all those stupid d—s on land.” Why aren’t you also watching that show?
- Dean’s breakfast: Water and lemon juice, blended for reasons that escape Stewart.
- The Sanderson kids are benefiting from the presence of their famous uncle: Middle school Ethan is dating a high school senior, and Lizzie made the varsity basketball team because she promised that Dean would come to games. She has no business being there — as Dean notes when he attends a game, “She is truly hideous to watch.”
- “What kind of God makes a world like this?” “You can’t say that every time we take a case.”
- When Deb encouraged Dean to be humble, he only understands it through a complicated metaphor involving Mark Harmon’s character in Summer School.
- The use of the word “grind” has not gotten old yet on this show: Dean insists to Claire, “Put me out front, and let me grind” (she has no idea what that means), and Stewart tries to impress the not-sick kid by explaining that while Dean played a fake lawyer, he is a real lawyer. “He just pretends to grind, but I am actually grinding!”
- Sure, it’s sexual harassment, but some of the Dean and Claire stuff is pretty funny. “It was you who made me realize I like to dig deep.” “Oh. Gross.”
- Nat Faxon is great: He’s awesome on Married and was super funny on the criminally canceled Ben and Kate a few seasons ago.