Rob Lowe has this infuriating habit of being really good in really fun projects. Look at a sampling of his résumé. He was really good on The West Wing as Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn. He was really good as the evil TV executive in Wayne’s World, and really good as the younger version of Robert Wagner in the Austin Powers movies. And, most recently, he was really good as the hyper-positive Chris Traeger on Parks and Recreation. Couple all that with the fact that he’s charming and still impossibly handsome at age 51 and sometimes pops up on the news flying around with a dang jet pack, and it’s almost all too much. It’s not his fault, either. He’s great. It’s just that sometimes it almost gets to the point where you want to grab him by the shoulders and shout “Hey! Let the rest of us have something, Rob Lowe!” You know, like a crazy person.
And there’s more bad news: That string of being really good shows no sign of ending, as his new Fox series, The Grinder, as well as his performance in it, is delightful — at least based on the pilot airing tonight.
The facts: The Grinder focuses on Lowe’s character, Dean Sanderson, a pompous and dimwitted (but very sweet and well-meaning) television actor who has just ended his run as a lawyer nicknamed “The Grinder” on hit lawyer show also called The Grinder. Through a series of events that involves soul-searching and a rambling, possibly stolen highway metaphor, he ends up working with his brother, Stewart Sanderson (Fred Savage), a real lawyer in Idaho who has none of the qualities Dean possesses in bulk: confidence, charisma, style, etc. And now the two of them are
If that premise sounds maybe a little hokey, allow me to bring the following two points to your attention: One, yes, fine, that premise sounds a little hokey, especially laid out in its barest form like that. But two, and this is the biggie, it is much, much more than that. For example, rather than settle into the typical lawyer procedural grooves, the show mines them for humor using Lowe’s character and his Hollywood-only reference points — big closing arguments, refusing to settle, etc. — and plopping them into a real courtroom. (Or at least a “real” courtroom.) Picture Franklin and Bash handling a case in an actual small claims court. It’s like that. (And in a fun little twist that no one but me cares about, the opposing lawyer in the pilot is played by Silicon Valley star Kumail Nanjiani, who played Pindar on Franklin & Bash, so it is very like that.) The result of all of this meta jiggery-pokery, to borrow a legal term, is something between a love letter to stereotypical over-the-top lawyer shows and a total deconstruction of them.
But okay, maybe you’re not me. Maybe you haven’t spent something like 30-40 percent of your life — a rough but fair estimate — watching reruns of lawyer shows on basic cable. Even without that frame of reference, the pilot of The Grinder works. The biggest reason for this is the relationship between Lowe and Savage. Lowe, as we discussed, is totally in his wheelhouse, and a constant source of laughs in a role that is basically one giant handsome wink at the audience. Note him in the seasonally-confusing Hollywood actor uniform of a T-shirt and beanie in warm weather, and him breaking out a “literally” for old time’s sake (even if he does pronounce it differently — a very deliberate “lit-er-a-lly” as opposed to the Traeger special “LITCH-rully”). Again, he’s great. Again, it’s maddening.
It’s Savage who grounds the whole thing, though, as he gets more and more exasperated by Lowe’s character’s shenanigans and hijinks. Like Liz Lemon (but a man, and an attorney, in Idaho instead of Manhattan, played by Fred Savage instead of Tina Fey), he provides the center for the show’s chaos to revolve around. In the pilot, this revolving chaos develops mighty quickly, as the community starts getting starstruck by The Grinder himself setting up shop in their little town, including the judge, who seems like she might be ready to “allow” “anything,” if you catch my drift. (I’m talking about sex. Which she would like to do with him. Hope I’m making this clear enough.)
Will The Grinder be able to take its inventive premise and charismatic leads and turn it into a successful, consistent sitcom over a 22-episode season (and hopefully seasons, plural)? Well, that’s the trick, isn’t it? There are plenty of places this could all end up going sideways, as there are with any pilot. The fun part of the show now is the Community-style self-awareness combined with a surprising amount of heart. It’s a tricky little two-step to pull off. But if the pilot is any indication, they’re off to a really solid start. Score another win for Rob Lowe, even if it tears your jealous heart in two.