So, farewell, The Grinder. We hardly knew ye. (also considered; Alas, poor Grinder. I watched it, Horatio…) Canceled after just one season, The Grinder was a sitcom that many defined as a ‘meta-comedy’. That particular term is one that’s bandied around a lot these days, but seems quite apt in this case. While seeming to be a simple spoof of American legal dramas (such as Suits, which has been reviewed on this website), The Grinder uses that conceit to comment on itself and American TV shows in general while maintaining the facade of a solid family sitcom about the relationship of two brothers.
Even without its ‘meta’ flavourings, The Grinder would still be a good show, although perhaps not quite as memorable. The key thing that needed to work for the show to be a success is that the chemistry between the shows leads, played by Rob Lowe and Fred Savage, needed to be good. Luckily, it most certainly is, but what elevates this dynamic is how it’s supported by Lowe’s and Savage’s relationships with their co-stars, a wonderful ensemble cast that includes the likes of Mary Elizabeth Ellis and Natalie Morales. The banter between the characters is sometimes unrealistic (no one I know is that fast with the witty dialogue, even on a good day), but always entertaining to watch. Sitcoms don’t need realistic dialogue to work; in fact, unless you’re The Office (UK), it’s much harder to get a laugh while maintaining an air that these people are like people you know on more than a superficial level. As a result, the lightning fast back and forth (especially between Fred Savage and Mary Elizabeth Ellis) is simply enjoyable.
The Grinder is a ‘meta’ show, however, and a lot of that comes from its premise, which I will now belatedly explain. The Grinder centers around Stewart (Fred Savage), a lawyer, whose brother Dean (Rob Lowe), a successful TV lawyer (think Harvey Specter), comes to live with him and work at their father’s firm Sanderson and Yao in Boise, Indiana. Each episode starts with the family watching an episode of The Grinder, the show in which Dean used to star, and the plot of that episode reflects the plot of the episode of The Grinder (wait, I’m confused). It’s a really clever technique that starts off with simple foreshadowing that also allows us to look into the hilarious world of The Grinder (the fictional one). As the series progresses, this only gets better; one episode that stands out is ‘A System on Trial’, that, while slightly heavy-handed with its ‘meta’ (never Community levels, but still), provides a fun look into the critical reception of The Grinder (the real one). The Grinder is a show that plays with its self-referential knowledge in a really nice way. It’s too easy for a show to become complacent when it has a ‘meta’ theme. The Grinder understands that it needs to do something clever, but it also has the solid foundation of the character dynamics underneath to back it all up.
As always, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows, but my list of criticisms for The Grinder is surprisingly low. One of the most common criticisms I’ve heard is that The Grinder puts clever before funny, a cardinal sin in comedy. I can’t bring myself to agree with this, however. The Grinder just made me laugh too much for me to justify saying it wasn’t funny. Some shows, like Friends, survive on simple jokes alone. Others, such as Arrested Development, Better off Ted and The Grinder use their smartness to complement and add to the comedy. None of these shows are laugh a minute like Friends, but that isn’t necessarily a criticism; they’re funny in a different way (boy, what a cop out). A criticism I can agree with is that Natalie Morales was criminally underused. This happened in Parks and Recreation too, but that show had plenty of funny female leads. The worst thing is that the writers were clearly aware (there’s a joke about it), but did nothing. Now that’s what I mean by lazy meta. I’m also unsure if the show was sustainable. I had little qualms with one season, but I’m not sure if the central gag wouldn’t wear out after two. I realise that this is why they bought in plot-lines like Dean’s house, but they seemed to have already forgotten about that by the end. This, however, is simply conjecture; the series ended on a high, so for that, I can’t complain.
There are a few things I wanted to fit in, but was too lazy to write about; the hilarious children, just Todd in general and how brilliantly Kumail Nanjiani was used. To sum it all up though, The Grinder is a fantastic show.
But what if it wasn’t?
But it is.