The Fox series is one of the funniest shows on TV and, unfortunately, follows a long line of underappreciated and under-watched meta-comedies. Rob Lowe stars as Dean Sanderson, a self-absorbed actor who returns home to Boise, Idaho, after his legal procedural "The Grinder" (on which he played Mitchard Grinder) ends, and is confident he has enough legal know-how to practice law with his brother, real-life lawyer Stewart (Fred Savage). Every episode begins with a scene from the fake show and gets more patently ridiculous and self-referential from there.
It's absurd, hilarious, and it's high time everyone starts grinding. Here are six reasons why you need to watch The Grinder.
1. It's made for TV fans
The Grinder might be too clever for its own good, or at least for mass appeal. It's so weird and meta, you have to decide right away if you're in or not, and even then, you'll need even more time to appreciate all its layers. But if you're a TV obsessive, you will thoroughly love and cackle at its smart, winking send-ups of and commentary about the biz. Some of the series' funniest and sharpest moments are when it mocks tired TV tropes. You know the ones. A case is cracked open when the protagonist dramatically asks "What did you just say?" to an ostensibly throwaway remark. A long-lost child is introduced to "save the series." Or, as Stewart tells Dean: "Just because you walk away after you say something, it doesn't mean you've made a point." Yes, this could get wearisome after a while, but The Grinder tackles its parodies with such deft self-deprecating awareness, rather than holier-than-thou 'tude, that they feel fresh each time. Besides, you can never run out of tropes to spoof.
2. It subverts expectations
Mocking tropes is one thing, but The Grinder goes the extra mile and turns things on their heads. Sure, there are some inevitable beats the show hits, like Timothy Olyphant, playing a wonderfully dim version of himself, betraying Dean by signing on to "The Grinder" spin-off, "The Grinder: New Orleans," after basically encouraging Dean to leave the original, and then hooking up with Dean's crush Claire (Natalie Morales). After the hysterical spin-off reveal, the arc ended (for now) not with Dean still put off by Tim or Tim still unaware of Dean's distaste for him, but with them unexpectedly hugging it out and bonding during a mock trial. Similarly, rival firm Rozz & Landy used Dean's celebrity to wine and dine clients when he temporarily worked for them, but the name partners actually stuck to their word and found a way for Dean to speak in court (and going forward) as a certified legal intern. And, just when you thought Dean Sr. (William Devane) would be devastated to learn that his ex-wife cheated on him with his law partner, the truth turned out to be much kinkier. The Grinder has a way of keeping you on your toes, where even if you think you know what's next, you're still a twist or a character reaction off of the real thing.
3. The chemistry
Not enough can be said about Lowe and Savage's chemistry. It's so effortless and magical, it breathes new life into the favored older brother vs. overlooked little brother dynamic. But the naturalism extends beyond them. Savage and Mary Elizabeth Ellis's breezy charm makes them the most un-sitcom-y married couple in ages, while the rest of the supporting cast — Morales, Devane, Hana Hayes, Connor Kalopsis and the ultimate Sixth Man Steve Little — peppers the background as realistic oddballs.
4. This is Peak Rob Lowe
Lowe, who probably has the most underrated sense of humor in Hollywood, has never been afraid of lampooning his image (see: Wayne's World, his DirecTV ads, Parks and Recreation), but he takes it to the next level with Dean. You can tell he has a blast hamming it up as a delusional TV star who name-drops ER every chance he gets to prove a point and makes random portmanteaus as if they were 'shipper names ("That coward Yao. That Yaoward. Is that something?") The real genius of his performance, though, is when he subtly recalibrates Dean's absurdity into sincerity. This is usually opposite Savage, but Dean's advice to and interest in the lives of his niece and nephew are just as sneakily moving. Lowe's ability to play these moments and show that Dean is not a vapid, clueless idiot allows the series to swing seamlessly between over-the-top surrealism and grounded realism. Celebrity, after all, is a warped sense of reality.
5. Fred Savage's face
You know how they say "acting is reacting"? Savage could teach a class on that (sorry, Dean). As the straight man/Shadow Boy, Savage is tasked with responding to Dean's melodrama with baffled irritation. His line readings are great and all, but they pale in comparison to the awesomeness of his facial expressions.
6. Scenes from "The Grinder"
These are amazing. Truly inspired and brilliant. There's scenery-chewing for days, cresting dramatic scores, meaningful looks that'd make 30 Rock proud, and so much asinine, self-important dialogue that you wonder how you can watch any run-of-the-mill procedural seriously. Give them all Emmys.
The Grinder airs Tuesdays at 9:30/8:30c on Fox.
VIDEO: The lesson The West Wing taught The Grinder's Rob Lowe