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The drama game has been the bigger game on network TV in recent years, as networks have sought ways to twist procedurals into something bolder and even bring prestige TV to the major networks. ABC, CBS and Fox of course still have comedies launching on certain nights, but it’s been harder for newcomers to find a strong foothold. It’s a shame, as some of this season’s brightest comedies have some of the smallest audiences. As winter TV wraps up, let’s talk about why you should be watching Fox’s The Grinder.
If Rob Lowe didn’t charm your pants off on Parks & Recreation, he probably did work for you in those DirecTV commercials, at least. He’s bigger and bolder in Fox’s new sitcom, as he gets to play an absolutely outrageous character. Dean Sanderson, Jr. is a big name actor who led his own law drama, also called The Grinder, and who quit his gig and came home to Idaho to help his brother and his father run their real-life law firm. He believes he can practice law without a law degree. He believes reality can mimic dramatic TV programs. He believes that he can talk his way out of nearly any bad situation by taking on the persona of the Grinder, and generally he can. Delusional, vain and delightful, this is the role Rob Lowe was born for.
If Lowe playing an over-the-top individual isn’t quite enough to entice you to tune in, the extended cast works, too. Fred Savage mostly directs TV episodes now, but once every four or five years he signs on for a new TV project that ends up making it on the air. Which is great, because Savage is a gem as the straight man in this series. The sincerity that made him perfect on The Wonder Years is apparently also a boon in comedy, and Savage is a beast on The Grinder, playing the oft-annoyed but equally good-natured Stewart Sanderson.
I could go on an on about the equally exciting supporting cast, but I’ll try to keep it to one sentence. Mary Elizabeth Ellis plays one of the best working moms on TV right now, Natalie Morales keeps things balanced as a no-nonsense attorney who repeatedly fends off Dean’s charms and Eastbound and Down’s Steve Little brings much of the same nervous and downtrodden humor he brought to the HBO comedy. It’s good stuff and I didn’t even get into the goofy father-son relationships William Devane’s character, Dean Sanderson, Sr. gets into over the course of each episode.
Beyond differing from the average family comedy in that Dean Anderson is still dealing with the repercussions of fame in a small town, The Grinder--the fictional, law drama version—also plays a huge role on the series, and episodes of that show frequently influence the various shenanigans the Sanderson family is getting into. This has led to a ton of additional guest stints from people like Jason Alexander and Timothy Olyphant. The format of the show within the show adds a layer to the comedy that takes it up an extra notch.
It’s also a comedy that is willing to explore. “Giving Thanks, Getting Justice,” which aired a couple of weeks ago was half one of the weirdest Thanksgiving episodes of all time, and half a show filled with flashbacks finally explaining exactly why Dean decided to leave The Grinder and head home. Curveball endings aren’t always natural for comedies, but The Grinder has taken them on with fervor.
Clearly I’m a fan of the series, as are many others who have actually tuned in to try out the freshman comedy. However, it stresses me out that The Grinder--far superior to Fox’s charming other new comedy Grandfathered--hasn’t done particularly well in the ratings. Only a little over 2 million total viewers are turning in each week, and while that has translated to an okay 18-49 demographic rating, the numbers haven't looked particularly wonderful. Fox is attempting all sorts of scheduling shenanigans in the hopes that more eyeballs can be directed at The Grinder (and also Grandfathered). However, if things don't pick up after the holidays, The Grinder may rest in peace much sooner than we thought, and we would be left with yet another failed Fred Savage series.
Don't let that happen. Don't let The Grinder fall by the wayside as other comedies keep getting the opportunity to produce mediocrity season after season. Don't let The Grinder get cancelled just when it is starting to get into its groove and produce episodes that are as outside-the-box as they are delightful. And above all, don't force Rob Lowe back into commercial work. Because we all know he's better than that.
The Grinder is currently on midseason hiatus, but will return to the schedule on Tuesday, January 5 at 9:30 p.m. ET. Catch up on the whole series over at Fox's site. In addition, you can find out when the rest of your winter favorites are returning with our midseason TV premiere schedule.