A defense of the Fox meta comedy

By Jeff Jensen
May 11, 2016 at 03:39 PM EDT
Patrick McElhenney/Fox
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Over the course of its first and possibly only season, The Grinder became one of television’s funniest comedies. It presented as a spoof on a familiar premise of the radical life reboot: worldly, hollow modern retreats from the rat race — by choice, force, or circumstance — and/or returns to his small hometown to humanize, reconnect with family, and just generally get over his self-centered self in messy, entertaining fashion. The Grinder’s hot take: making the drop-out a vain but endearing Hollywood actor, Dean Sanderson, star of a successful, ridiculously formulaic legal drama called The Grinder, played by an actor who has become ridiculously successful at playing endearingly vain, Rob Lowe. The laughs came from from his reality-blurred persona (Dean had completely internalized his on-screen alter ego, superstar lawyer Mitch Grinder), his sibling rivalry with his real-lawyer younger brother, Stewart (Fred Savage of The Wonder Years), and his disrupting impact on Stewart’s family. It was also sprinkled with winks at TV tropes — including the trope of its own premise. In what would become one of the best recurring gags on television, each episode would begin with Dean and company watching a Grinder episode slick with a silly cavalcade of clichés and ripe with innuendo. Tagline: “There’s nobody he can’t get off.”

The initial formulation was winning, but the writers quickly realized it would be more fun to play into those winky sprinkles. By driving small town courtroom farce or home life conflicts completely through the satire of TV conventions — will they/won’t they romantic tension; the main story mystery solved by side story epiphany; the spin-off series — and through Dean, whose demented insistence on applying heightened drama TV reality to even the most mundane human encounter threatened to make a mockery of anything “real,” The Grinder found a heady and hilarious identity. With a pair of true TV stars and pop icons fronting the enterprise, you’d think The Grinder could have connected with a large enough audience that could sustain it at a time when meta is hip in various forms across many mediums (the feature film Deadpool; USA’s Mr. Robot; Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), when even boutique meta-comedy like The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and FX’s Man Seeking Woman can score renewals, and at a media-saturated #PeakTV moment when so many people are so TV piqued and media savvy. And yet, as I write these words, The Grinder is on the bubble. The penultimate episode was watched by less than 2 million.

You can’t fault the cast. Perhaps no actor on television is smarter about his image and more skilled at wielding it as an instrument than Lowe. He proved it with those DirecTV commercials in which he parodied himself; he perfected it on The Grinder, in a performance that owes so much to Rob Lowe’s Rob Loweness and yet makes you completely forget about Rob Lowe. There was just Dean, man remade in the image of the common television protagonist, for better and worse. Savage was a match. He shredded the child narrative that has defined his career until now by playing to and against his affability. Stewart was an elastic modern family sitcom paterfamilias, straight man or screw-up, silly prig or silly rebel. He was funny when suffering Dean, he was even funnier trying to subvert his brother’s chaos-causing subversions. He and Lowe had amazing bromantic chemistry and spoke the show’s high concept, fast-paced banter language very well. If TV loses their relationship, I’d feel their absence: They’re a terrific team.

The supporting cast was very good, each playing a finely honed role within the show’s comedy dynamic with great precision and good cheer. As Claire, a newcomer to Sanderson family business, Natalie Morales played the ultra-reasonable shade-caster, tasked with rolling her eyes at Dean’s nonsense, including his insistence on viewing her as an inevitable love interest. She executed the function with delightful dry wit. As the star-struck fanboy and Dean’s enabler, Steve Little rocked the goofiness. William Devane had a difficult chore as the Sanderson paterfamilias, Dean Sr. The slightly cracked character’s enthusiastic support and indulgence of Dean routinely demeaned Stewart and made no sense, since it risked destroying the business he built. Somehow, Devane made it work. Mary Elizabeth Ellis brought tireless energy to role of Stewart’s wife, and even more as the writers have let Deb become something more than just the advice-giving, ball-busting spouse.

From the start, Dean seemed at least a tiny bit interested in becoming a more authentic human being in a culture of increasing unreality, a theme common to many recent, media-minded shows (Mr. Robot, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, UnREAL) and one I find compelling and relevant to our times. This quality never vanished from The Grinder, but it could be difficult to see as the comedy gave itself over to the meta. Some early episodes found Dean trying to resist the temptation of abusing his celebrity or resenting Stewart’s occasional want to exploit Dean for personal gain.

Dean clearly adored the family that he beleaguered; they grounded him, even though his insistence on living as a metafictional entity disrupts their own reality. He showered Stewart’s kids with his attention, wisdom, and Hollywood awesomeness. Their evening ritual of watching old eps of The Grinder together cultivated a situation where Stewart’s kids were more loyal to Dean than their father, a subversion of authority that was somewhat deserved: Stewart was a workaholic.

Dean — and the season — took a significant tonal turn when Justified’s Timothy Olyphant began showing up as… Justified’s Timothy Olyphant, rankling Dean’s pride and threatening his legacy by romancing Claire and taking a job starring in a reboot/spin-off of The Grinder. It was here that the show crawled completely up its own butt and proudly planted a flag. The second half of the season saw Dean try to purge The Grinder from his system and “get real” — a send-up of the self-questioning hero that served the inevitable turn in which Dean picked up The Grinder persona and embraced his constructed self with abandon.

This regression-as-rebirth led into two fantastic episodes that didn’t so much spoof TV storytelling as they did wink at the business of TV storytelling, and by extension, the declining business of The Grinder. The first episode used the practice of focus group testing to create a layered allegory about identity, the cost of people-pleasing, and the importance of recognizing and accepting quality criticism. Almost every line made you wonder if the writers were drawing upon a fraught relationship with Fox, or show business in general, or both. The next episode, a thematic companion piece, was framed by a scene from The Grinder in which Dean’s lawyer character appeared to be losing the support of a jury — and his firm — because his arguments were too convoluted. Things were “desperate.” People were “walking out,” he’s told. “Would it kill us to simplify it a little bit?” What followed was an episode of The Grinder that tried to simplify with a “focus on the family” (a choice of words that suggests a sly jab at James Dobson’s Christian advocacy and media watchdog group) and aping familiar, traditional sitcom plots, including The One Where Disapproving Mom Comes To Visit and The One Were The Husband (and/or Wife) Forgets His (or Her) Anniversary.

But these story lines gradually became ornate and knotted together, and wonderfully so, turning the episode into a rousing affirmation of The Grinder’s convoluted nature. It culminated, per convention, with each character confessing deception and being honest with one another. But the conclusion took on additional meanings in light of the show’s ratings health, everything from its appeal among older and conservative viewers to its current bubble status. Discussing whether or not they should give marriage another chance, Dean Sr. told his ex-wife, Lenore (Anne Archer): “We know this doesn’t work. Too complicated.” “I like complicated,” she said. “I like simple,” he replied. They kissed, and later had sex, but ultimately, Mom left with nothing resolved. Dean pestered his mom for affirmation. Wasn’t his mom proud of him? Stewart directed mom to throw him a bone. She sighed and said, “Sure, Dean.” The Grinder beamed. “I knew it,” he said, and then looked to the camera, i.e., us. The episode, “For The People,” earned The Grinder its worst numbers of the season.

The Grinder’s predicament isn’t unusual. Show improvement doesn’t always lead to audience enlargement. This is particularly true with high concept, complexity-skewing series that got better by accepting and pushing, not fighting, their crazy, convoluted nature. See: Arrested Development, Fringe, and Community. ”That’s So Meta!” might be having a moment, but it remains an acquired taste, one that requires an abundance of other flavors and factors for maximum appeal. Deadpool grossed $762 million by being a Marvel-branded, chaos cinema action flick starring Ryan Reynolds with a rabid, built-in audience, not by shattering genre tropes and breaking the fourth wall with extraordinary wit and outrageous language.

And as much as I enjoy The Grinder, its practice of self-awareness and other metafictional techniques isn’t nearly as interesting or substantial as Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt or Mr. Robot, which use the devices to direct us outward, toward political, real-world concerns. The satire of The Grinder pretty much stops at the surface of your TV screen.

But The Grinder might have been undermined by other factors. Perhaps audiences were put off by the whiff of mean-spiritedness toward Stewart via the constant undermining by the Deans and his own kids. It’s also possible that the show’s kind of cleverness just didn’t mean that much to people. It’s not like the show is playing games to make provocative cultural statements or direct the audience to real-world concerns. Is it really all that impressive to be so smart-alecky about TV? When stories that ultimately wallow in the very clichés they’re mocking, isn’t that just a fancy way of being… well, cliché?

But when I talk to people about why they stopped watching The Grinder, the comment I hear the most isn’t “too complicated” or “too smug” — it’s “too repetitive.” It’s a fair point. For a comedy about spoofing TV formulas, The Grinder could be formulaic itself. The stories and the satire changed from week to week, but the underlying narrative remained the same and became blatantly transparent: A Grinder prologue frames a problem exacerbated by Dean’s insanity (cue Claire eye roll) and complicated by Stewart’s flawed, reactionary response (undertaken after Stewart and Deb process the sitch while getting ready for bed) and reaches a gonzo peak (aided and abetted by enablers Dean Sr. and Todd), then resolves with wacky catharsis, reconciliation, and reversion to status quo. Some of this might have been due to wanting to perfect a winning strategy after working so hard to find one. Fear might have been a factor, too. It was as if The Grinder was trying to guard against alienating people with crazy by compensating with familiar structure and grounding motifs. The supporting players were effective and charming, but their functionality contributed to the repetitiveness; they were often one-joke, one-note characters. You can even pick on Dean. While he went through various phases, they were all stages in a well-worn hero’s journey, one ultimately designed to affirm his Deanishness. Moreover, The Grinder letting Dean dominate as much as he did have tendency to squelch the possibilities of other characters — a dynamic that the show itself seemed to recognize, and for now, at least, shrug off. Dean: “I’m a big personality. I suck a lot of air out the room.” Dean Sr.: “I think you suck the perfect amount of air, son.”

The Grinder’s season finale demonstrated many of its well-cultivated strengths while suggesting ways it can grow and improve, should Fox gift them with a future. The episode, entitled “Full Circle,” was a spoof of vengeance plots and full-circle saga-making. It revealed that the lawyer humiliated by Dean in the premiere, played by Silicon Valley’s Kumail Nanjiani, was the mastermind behind a conspiracy to destroy the Sanderson men. (He got his ideas, of course, from bingeing The Grinder.) Dean: “It’s the only thing that makes sense!” Claire: “Does it make sense?” It didn’t, but it was fun all the same. It brought a multi-ep, season-ending story line to close, but also allowed The Grinder to re-do its pilot with the storytelling voice it developed.

The opening act checked down on some TV metanarratives about diversity and representation. Stewart, suspended from practicing law for a Dean-esque crime committed a couple episodes earlier, tapped Claire with the job of defending their father in court. Yay Claire and Natalie Morales! Getting more to do than just role eyes! But Dean had mixed feelings about Stewart’s choice. “I love seeing a diverse woman have a shot in the workplace. I feel good about that. I think a lot of people do.” And on the other hand? “It should be me,” he said, before turning his back on Claire and drifting off into self-mythologizing reverie. “Defending my father with my brother. Surrounded by my extended family while I —” He turns to see Claire has long left the room. He finished the thought, deflated: “— fight for justice.”

“Full Circle” lightly mocked “Great (White) Man” narrative and legacy anxiety. But it was more about celebrating the creative “instinct” that got the show through a winning season. Dean Sr. vetoed Stewart and appointed his favorite son to represent him, punting Claire back to the margins. Maybe next year, Natalie will get more love, and the other members of the cast, more dimension and variation. “Full Circle” opted to entertain with Dean being Dean, the act that got them there, going against Nanjiani being Nanjiani, one more stellar guest-actor turn in a season full of them, and it succeeded. (Among others: Jason Alexander as the creator of The Grinder and Maya Rudolph as Dean’s therapist/lover.) Stewart got a little rehab. Emasculated by the Deans all season long, the story allowed him, not Dean, to pull the dramatic, ridiculous courtroom theatrics that saved the day. Dean was proud of his little bro, as well as their year together. “It’s an unusual approach, this tag-team thing we got,” he said during the living room epilogue. “I’m sure it threw a lot of people at first. How are they going to make this work? How are they going to keep that up?” Dean was speaking to the critics that wondered if The Grinder was sustainable (present company included). With his closing comment, though, Dean spoke to the show’s uncertain future. “And that’s just the beginning,” he said. “Because now we know that this works. This has legs. For as long as we want it to.”

It’s not up to them, of course. The show’s fate is now in the hands of the Fox jury. Hopefully, The Grinder will get a chance to make a second, even stronger set of arguments for its brand of comedy. If not, The Grinder will rest having proven anew that meta has its limits. We love TV that makes us laugh. TV laughing at itself? That’s a tougher grind.

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A 2015 Fox comedy series starring Rob Lowe as a TV lawyer and Fred Savage as his real-life lawyer brother.
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  • 09/29/15
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