Rob Lowe’s newest character, Dean Sanderson, is the living embodiment of the “I’m not a lawyer, but I play one on TV” joke. And while that’s terrible news for his licensed attorney brother Stewart (Fred Savage), it’s one of myriad amusements to be found in Fox’s new comedy The Grinder.
Dean, you see, is a big-time TV actor whose starring turn as “The Grinder” has just concluded after nine successful seasons — and now he’s back visiting his family in Idaho and indulging in extended metaphors about “pulling the car over” and trying to figure out the next step in his life. The only relative not riveted by Dean’s existential crisis is Stewart — whose sweet wife Debbie (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) wonders if the Hollywood player’s return has left her husband feeling like “a side character” in his own life.
When Dean begins to meddle in Stewart’s humdrum eviction case — and starts referencing lessons from his old TV plots, such as “Season 4, Episode 9’s” mantra that “The Grinder never settles!” — everyone from the judge to the plantiff gets starstruck, and it gives Dean the idea to go back to law school and try to capture the “meaningful life” Stewart already has.
In the best scene in the pilot, Lowe taps into his charming (and smarter than he seems) idiot persona and gets Stewart to admit that his time playing The Grinder makes him more qualified to practice law than any average person on the street. His logic? Wouldn’t you rather have a heart attack sitting next to long-running E.R. cast member Noah Wylie than someone without any medical knowledge whatsoever?
Stewart finally snaps, though, when Dean negotiates a deal involving his son, his daughter and his daughter’s secret high-school football player boyfriend. “This kid was using Ethan to get with my daughter, and your solution was to leverage her for his junior high-school popularity?” he asks incredulously. Dean ultimately finds Stewart’s cue cards asking him to leave town and go back to California — and so, crestfallen, he promises to pack up his car and go “at first light.” (Boy loves drama!)
In the last act of the pilot episode, however, Dean catches his brother’s crumbling case on the local news — prompting his dramatic (and probably illegal) return to the courtroom to interrogate the opposition and save the day. After Dean tricks the crooked landlord to admit he’d torn up Stewart’s clients’ rent check — he’d claimed they didn’t pay — he makes the man reach into an envelope and pull out a two-word message: “Grinder rests.” I’m not sure there’s been a moment on a freshman comedy this season more worthy of a simultaneous LOL and a “Woo-hoo!” With some actual legal maneuvering from a suddenly not-tongue-tied Stewart, the brothers win the case — and a possibly great comedy series is set into motion.