The Case For The Grinder
Based on its ratings, Rob Lowe’s hyper-meta actor-turned-lawyer sitcom should definitely not be renewed…or, in other words, should it? Renewal…New Al…”Weird Al” Yankovic…parody songs…hits from a bong…Cypress Hill…The Hills…a hill of beans…Thoreau…Walden pond…bond…family bonds…FAMILY BONDS. The Grinder hits every self-aware beat with rhythmic jazz precision — no melodramatic note uncommented upon, no tv trope left unquestioned — and the jokes hit far more than they miss. It admittedly can be exhausting at times, but then the show will even admit that. Rob Lowe’s over-the-top and mostly oblivious Dean “The Grinder” Sanderson is so near-impossible to tune out, his act so effective, I’ve literally forgotten he was Chris Traeger, the most genuine man in Pawnee.
However, as with Parks & Recreation, what drives The Grinder derives from the honest warmth between the families, both the extended six-person Sanderson clan and the assembled nucleus of lawyers (and one law talking guy) at Sanderson & Yao. While the meta is tight, the constant questioning of every cliched moment, albeit hilarious, could easily become cynical and cold. However, when Dean’s brother Stewart (Fred Savage) and Stew’s wife Debbie (Perfect Couples’ scene-stealer Mary Elizabeth Ellis team up to question the holes in the tv series (“so The Grinder is just abandoning his son who just came back from the war?” “and what war?”), it’s the coordinated attack of a long-time affectionate couple, and the barbs are a bemused sort of needling that betrays how much they both care for Dean.
Also, as with similarly too-clever-to-live…at-first comedy Arrested Development in its ill-fated third season (“Well, I don’t think the Home Builders Organization is gonna be supporting us.” “Yeah, the HBO’s not gonna want us. What do we do now?” “I guess it’s show time for us now”), as it gets more desperate, it becomes more unapologetically self-referential, and in the process even more wicked fun. In the third-to-last episode of the season, the usual clip from show-within-a-show mentions simplifying a case (yes, a case), and that in desperation they need to present a “case” so simple one merely “has to be awake” to understand. Smash-cut to…three Sandersons (Dean, Stew, and Stew’s son Ethan) watching said episode and debating whether people want to think about what they see on television or have it spoonfed to them. Cue The Grinder logo card and open on a scene that in rapid succession bring in a forgotten aniversary, a visit from a disapproving Sanderson mom (played to grand dame perfection by Anne Archer), and a fake girlfriend for Dean. Oh, and the kids find an internet date for Dean’s father (William Devane) and tell him what to say through walkie-talkies. Of course, they all wind up at the same restaurant, and let the farce begin, and it all unravels and re-ravels and is funny on its own merit, but also works as a genius satire of something like seven TV tropes, and they return to their usual commentary in the coda.
This all sets up tonight’s finale and the “big case” where they will surely swoop in with the solution set up at the stilted dramatic ending of last week’s episode. And the fact that I’m counting down the hours to 9:30pm tonight, shows that it’s become that rare thing for me (and for many) of appointment television. I don’t want to lose this crazy story with all its in jokes and affable people with chemistry rarely seen outside of the aforementioned Pawnee. And we already lost James van der Beek playing himself way too soon, it would be a shame to lose The Grinder‘s sweetly buffoonish version of Timothy Olyphant (who of course is the lead in The Grinder: New Orleans). Give this show a chance and maybe you too will hope we don’t have to give up this appointment.