As the summer months approach, some of the best shows on network television (I assure you some good ones still exist) are wrapping up their seasons. Among them is one of the most underrated gems of this 2015-16 season: The Grinder.
What started the season as a fairly conventional family comedy about two brothers — one a lawyer and another who played one on TV — has morphed into a show that successfully evokes some of the more daring efforts of NBC's cancelled cult hit Community.
As with most great television comedies, The Grinder took some time to find its footing and carve out its niche on the television landscape. At the beginning of the season, it focused on the family hijinks created by the tension between Dean and Stewart Sanderson.
Dean, played by a perfectly cast Rob Lowe, had just finished his time as the star of a long-running law procedural that gives The Grinder its title. Unsatisfied by the world of acting and entertainment, he returns to his hometown of Boise, Idaho, and begins working at the family law firm with his lawyer brother Stewart, played in a triumphant return in front of the camera by Fred Savage. The early episodes focused on Dean and Stuart as foils for one another while dabbling slightly in Dean's tenuous grasp on reality caused by being the star of a hit television show.
However, as the season progressed, the show began to detach itself from reality altogether. At this point, The Grinder is less a show about family and law than it is about the television medium itself. While it's never explicitly stated, the characters on The Grinder tend to act as though they know they are characters on a TV show.
In one episode, Dean faces off against his television nemesis Timothy Olyphant in an attempt to prove that he makes the better lawyer due to his greater TV law experience. It’s a silly concept but one the show nails it with humor and a firm understanding of the television medium. Dean treats his existence as though his real life is an extension of his television character self, and the show and the other regular characters are along for the ride. The Grinder has transformed from traditional family comedy fare into a brilliant meta send-up of television tropes.
Every week, The Grinder and its characters take TV writers to task for using the same overwrought stories time and again. It's a concept that should get old but the strong writing and fantastic performances from Lowe and Savage along with great supporting performances keep it fresh on a weekly basis. Even the kids on the show, played by Hannah Hays and Connor Kalopsis, bring the perfect energy level for what's happening on screen.
Natalie Morales and Mary Elizabeth Ellis, in particular, shine as regular supporting characters on the show. Morales is a delight as a no-nonsense lawyer at the firm who can't help but roll her eyes at the ridiculousness around her while consistently rejecting Dean's notion that they are the will-they-won't-they couple in the narrative. Ellis, meanwhile, shows excellent chemistry with Savage as Stewart’s wife Debbie. She wavers effectively between playing a sane observer of Dean's fractured reality and a willing participant depending on what the story needs.
Even office dolt Todd, played by Steve Little, gets plenty of laughs in his quest to be Dean's sidekick throughout the season's run.
Unlike Community, there is no Abed to make connections between the show and pop culture classics like Cheers and The Breakfast Club. Instead, The Grinder relies on not-so-subtle subtext and the expectation that the audience will recognize the tropes it’s trying to lampoon.
The Grinder does have its own device for letting the audience in on the joke more explicitly. Every episode begins with a scene from an episode of the show within a show version of The Grinder. Sometimes those scenes will be one-off jokes pointing out some absurd situation you might see on a network drama while other times those scenes frame the entire episode to come.
In last week's episode, for example, things start off with a scene from the fictional Grinder in which Dean's character, Mitch Grinder, meets up with his estranged son and is able to solve a case with the help of their conversation and the name of the boat next to him in the shot.
The characters in the real world of The Grinder point out how ridiculous this is and how oddly specific the name of the boat had to be to even make the revelation possible. But for Dean, it was exactly the type of plot device he felt the show needs in the “real world” to help solve the malpractice case surrounding his and Stewart’s father that has been at the forefront of the narrative for the last few episodes.
Dean sets off on a side story with Stewart’s daughter Lizzy and her ex-boyfriend as a diversion he hopes will crack the case open. It's exactly the kind of dumb storyline you used to see on procedurals like House or Numb3rs all the time, but The Grinder was telling the story with its tongue planted firmly in its cheek while letting Lowe inject a ton of humor in it along the way.
With Veep and Silicon Valley back on HBO, it would be ambitious to call The Grinder the funniest show on television right now, but it's certainly one that's worth the time. And unfortunately audiences have largely ignored it. Hopefully it's a case where Fox can ignore the small ratings and recognize it for the great performances and clever writing and bring it back next season. In the meantime, check out the season finale this Tuesday at 9:30 p.m. (EST).