Season 1, Episode 1
AIR DATE: September 29, 2015
Dean Sanderson, Jr. is an actor. Known to TV land as “Grinder”, a take-no-prisoners, rabid pit bull of a lawyer, his character is your typical television lawyer: over-dramatic, cocky and tends to yell things to an audibly-shocked courtroom. “SHE WASN’T! ON! THE ROOFTOP!” Grinder declares in defense of a weeping client as the show-runners add a big, thumping beat between each of his stops for style points. Tonight, however, is his show’s big Series Finale — and Dean, Jr. (Rob Lowe) is having a personal little viewing party with his family which includes two real lawyers: his brother, Stewart (Fred Savage) and his dad, Dean, Sr. (William Devane). After the show’s conclusion, Dean seems a bit insecure and wants his family’s thoughts. They all eat it up with a spoon, praising him in sycophantic fashion and fawning all over him when he metaphorically describes his life after television. They all agree — except for Stewart who eye-rolls so hard at his brother’s bullshit, he might be able to see inside his own skull.
Even with a successful career practicing law and a wonderful family in his beautiful wife (and his brother’s ex) Debbie (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) and his two kids, Lizzie (Hana Hayes) and Ethan (Connor Klopsis), Stewart feels some discontent. He denies that it’s jealousy — even though his wife has no problem dubbing it as such. Between his annoyance at Dean for mouthing the dialogue to his own show during the viewing and describing his life as a “highway” he needs to “take the off-ramp from”, Stewart’s fed up with Dean making everything about himself. Their meeting in the kitchen later that evening just solidifies his point about the unnecessary theatricality:
“I couldn’t sleep,” says Dean in a hushed voice while nursing a beer and staring at the wall.
“It’s only 8:30,” Stewart replies, incredulously.
It’s here that we learn that, for all his fame, Dean’s empty. He doesn’t have a family life. He and Debbie were once an item but they split and Debbie married Stewart. He has children and a great career. Dean wants it — but just can’t have that…because…reasons. The two hug it out and, since Stewart was a great sport watching the finale, Dean opts to go see his little brother in action in the courtroom.
This is where the series gets truly meta.
Stewart’s in the middle of your typical renter’s fraud suit. The problem is that he’s the exact opposite of Grinder: e has no presence in the courtroom (all his remarks and statements to the court are on index cards — which Dean promptly tosses because Stewart’s “an encyclopedia for this crap” and doesn’t need them) and speaks a million words a second because of his nerves. His lack of confidence bleeds into the case, itself: his clients have no real hard evidence to win their case but the defendant is offering a settlement.
Grinder never settles. Why should Stewart’s clients? Stewart’s partner buys Dean’s bullshit as do his clients and Dean, Sr. because “All we do is settle!” Soon, Dean’s back in action. While Stewart wants his brother out of the house, Dean’s not about to acquiesce. Besides helping out with Stewart’s kids and their problems, Dean’s busy wearing his brother’s suits and making media appearances to fire up the public in order to turn them against the man responsible for screwing “the good people of Boise” (the landlord still makes sure to get a Selfie because Dean loves his fans, for better or worse) and, soon, a simple small claims mess becomes the trial of the century. He’s even taking The Bar because that’s probably a good idea if you’re gonna be a lawyer, right?
The Grinder works on nearly every level, but most of its success comes from the notion that the cast knows the material and plays their parts with gusto. Rob Lowe is in a role he was tailor-made for and his charisma is infectious. More importantly, he doesn’t overplay it. That’s huge because the show has been blessed with a great supporting cast. Fred Savage is perfect in the role of Stewart, your prototypical family man who just wants what’s best and is willing to take his lumps even if it delays his goals. The best thing about his character is that he’s the other half of the show’s driving force: he’s a character who doesn’t seem to realize that he’s stuck in a TV series about the legal system and it’s brilliant.
Devane can play Dean, Sr. in his sleep and it’s nice to see him in a role where he’s not reprimanding or seducing somebody. Mary Ellis is Stewart’s wife who supports her husband through thick and thin — even if she’s a little overzealous with her “yes-woman” status. The show even gives the kids a cute little side plot: Ethan is happy when a jock from his school two grades ahead of him wants to hang at his house. Turns out he is only there to hang with his sister. Dean Jr. finds out about it and, unable to allow any injustice go unpunished, negotiates with the jock to put up photos of the two boys hanging out.
“You’ll use ‘#bestfriends’ and ‘#teenlife’,” Dean instructs the Jock.
“#teenlife?!” The kid can’t believe what he’s hearing.
“What part of ‘#teenlife’ don’t you understand?” Dean says.
It’s all done with such sincerity, which is part of the show’s charm and an important tool for its future success. So, it’s easy to forgive the liberties the show takes with the legal process and procedures. If you even need to forgive them, that is. The show’s not exactly aiming for accuracy and realism. It’s a play on courtroom drama sitcoms like Law & Order and its multiple off-shoots. Jason Kasdan is fresh off FOX’s New Girl and he and his merry band of producers would seem to have a huge hit on their hands. My only worry is that the show won’t be able to sustain what it’s built since the premise is, essentially, a gimmick that may cease to be amusing after the first couple of episodes.