You cannot demand things of comedy pilots, particularly ones that are produced for network television in 2015. The length of the season, the limitations of the form, the penchant for corporate meddling, and the time it takes for a writing team to generate real chemistry all work against the debut of any sitcom actually being funny right from jump street. There are countless classic comedies with terrible pilots (both Friends and Seinfeld have nigh-unbearable first eps), and just as many that have entire early seasons that are truly garbage (like the opening frames of Parks & Recreation).
The most you can ask of any comedy series’ first 30 minutes boils down to a pair of questions: “Is it funny?” and perhaps more importantly, “Is this a show?” The first one is pretty straightforward — since pilots are often the result of literal years’ worth of rewrites, they often represent the best ideas the creator had and will often be the only thing to cling to for the first dozen episodes. If those jokes don’t actually make you laugh, then sticking around to see if anything improves is pointless, because it’s all down hill from there.
The second part is more vital. Time and again, I’ll watch the pilot to a new series and think, “Well, this is good, but what does episode 5 look like?” High-wire concepts are good and interesting, and more creative teams should aspire to experiment with forms, but it is possible for the concept to be so complicated that it murders sustainability. Again, plenty of quality shows have pivoted from their cumbersome opening concepts to allow for broader ideas (New Girl did this, as did the American version of The Office), but some are hopeless from the start (even before we all saw how truly awful the Mulaney pilot was, there was no way it was going to be able to sustain its core idea for any length of time). Plus, The Grinder had another problem in the walk-up to its premiere: It replaced its showrunner earlier this month.
So with those caveats and criteria in mind, we welcome The Grinder to the new fall season, and there is good news on two fronts: The pilot is funny, and I’m fairly confident it won’t be hamstrung by its core conceit. Rob Lowe stars as Dean Sanderson, the star of a soapy primetime lawyer show also called The Grinder, and the episode opens with Dean watching the series finale in the home of his brother Stewart (Fred Savage) and his family. Dean is at a crossroads: His show is over, and he finds himself full of melancholy and mildly envious of Stewart’s quietly fulfilling suburban lifestyle.
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He got that way by handling the family law business in small-town Idaho. Stewart is well-studied in the ins and outs of law, but, as we see in his first appearance in a courtroom, he lacks any sort of charisma — he prepares endless note cards, then reads from them in comically speedy and mumbly fashion, to the point where the opposing counselor (played by a show-stealing Kumail Nanjiani) asks Stewart, “I have a question: Have you ever talked before?”
Dean sees an opening: Since he spent so much time being a fake lawyer, he believes he can be an actual attorney and lend a hand in the family business. Stewart is resistant to it, primarily because Dean doesn’t have any actual law background but also because he’s clearly tired of living in his famous (and beloved) brother’s shadow. So he sends Dean away in a note card-assisted dismissal, but Dean decides that this is just another challenge he has to grind through, so he crashes Stewart’s trial to spectacular effect. Using typical TV lawyer tricks, Dean gets a shady landlord to confess to messing with a couple’s rent check, and the Sanderson boys manage to combine their powers to win the case, much to the chagrin of Leonard (Nanjiani). “Your honor, this is insanity. I have 10 million objections, rounding down,” he says.
Dean plans on leaving, but he’s so energized by his success in the courtroom that he decides to stick around for a while to help out his brother. The pair stand awkwardly triumphant at the end, comfortable with the knowledge that there are any number of directions The Grinder could head from here. Laughs and potential — that’s a successful comedy pilot.
- We had to evaluate the pilot on its own merits, but from this point forward, this is how these recaps of The Grinder are going go work: Since there’s only so much you can say about a 30 minute goofball sitcom, particularly one in its always-tenuous first season, there will be a brief rundown of the plot, followed by some jokes, and then an exploration of a past Rob Lowe role. I find him to be one of the more underrated actors out there, and his résumé is full of great films that might be foreign to anybody who discovered him via Parks & Recreation.
- Lowe is also currently on Comedy Central’s Moonbeam City, an ultra-violent ’80s-channeling cartoon that airs after South Park on Wednesdays. If you love Lowe, it’s worth checking out. Last week, his character Detective Dazzle Novak became obsessed with directing a fictional re-enactment of his arrest of a kid trying to steal a bike. It contains the line, “He’s tall like a big glass of Clamato!” which should be enough to make you program your DVR.
- The executive producer of the show-within-a-show The Grinder is listed as Cliff Bemis, who will be played later in the season by Jason Alexander. But there’s a real guy named Cliff Bemis — he’s an actor who has mostly done TV guest spots over a four-decade career. I will not rest until I figure out what the deal is with that in-joke.
- Savage is an exceptional straight man, and not only does he have obvious chemistry with Lowe, I’m also instantly intrigued by his relationship with his wife Debbie, played by the super funny Mary Elizabeth Ellis. You probably know her from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but she was also the best part of the ill-fated NBC disaster Perfect Couples from a few years ago. Savage’s venting to her was one of the best sequences in the episode, which included his exasperated line, “He’s gonna stay here forever, and I’m going to be stuck talking up here in this octave forever!”
- There was a side plot that involved Dean arbitrating some sort of deal between Stewart’s kids and a popular football player that didn’t quite work, but did give us the immortal line, “What part of hashtag teen life do you not understand?”
- Even the jokes between the jokes worked: Stewart finds Dean drinking in the morning and asks him what’s up. “I couldn’t sleep,” says Dean. “It’s 8:30,” Stewart replies.