Tuesday, September 29, 2015

REVIEW: 'The Grinder' - Dean Returns Home to Join His Father and Brother at Their Law Firm in 'Pilot'

FOX's The Grinder - Episode 1.01 "Pilot"

When his long-running hit series comes to an end, Dean finds himself at a crossroads in life and decides to move back to his small home town thinking he has the experience to take over his family's law firm, where he butts heads with his brother, Stewart.

The Grinder has a very distinctive comedic voice and sensibility. It's a refreshing change of pace from the rest of the new comedies debuting on the broadcast networks this fall. Pairing it with Grandfathered makes for one interesting hour of TV on FOX. This entire premiere is largely just establishing the premise for the show. And yet, it has a lot of fun doing so. It's not abundantly clear how the show will function moving forward - will it embrace legal hijinks, inside showbiz humor or family comedy based humor? That's uncertain. But this first episode does enough to guarantee watching a handful of episodes as it sorts itself out.

There is a very complicated premise at the heart of The Grinder. Dean Sanderson is undergoing an existential crisis after his long-running procedural ends its TV run. He is reconnecting with his family. His father and brother both happen to be lawyers in "real life." He watches them at work and realizes that he can continue embracing the spirit of his show even though it's no longer producing episodes. He fully believes he knows enough about the law in order to work as a real lawyer. His brother, Stuart, is incredulous by the idea. He thinks this is just Dean's latest fascination and he'll move onto something different after a little while. And yet, it's not. Dean is very serious and Stuart has to learn how to embrace the help that only his brother can provide.

It's a ridiculous set up for the show. Dean is allowed to get away with a ton of things because the people of Boise are so star struck by this actor using his time to fight an eviction case. He fully puts the opposition on the defense by attacking their character in court. He makes this case a public spectacle. No one cares about this case when it's just Stuart arguing in front of the judge. It suddenly takes on new meaning when Dean comes on board and gets the cameras in his face to talk about the injustice happening here. It's a simple eviction case. Something that Stuart doesn't believe should be taken to trial. And yet, he's at the mercy of his brother's whims. Everyone is so caught up in the appeal of "The Grinder" taking over this case.

It is a little peculiar that Dean calls Stuart a great lawyer even though he clearly is not. The show never really wants to address that. Sure, Stuart knows all about legal precedents. He can name check a case whenever the trial needs it. But that doesn't allow him to operate without his precious note cards. The first time he is seen in court, he mumbles to the point where everyone in the courtroom and the audience can barely understand what he's trying to say. It's a crutch for Stuart. He feels confident when he has everything he needs to say written down. It's not just something he does in court. He uses it in every confrontation he has. When he wants Dean out of his life, he writes it all down on note cards. That's a hilarious prospect. But it also can't realistically be the thing that defines him as a character for multiple episodes.

But of course, the grand set piece of this premiere is Dean's rousing return to the courtroom in order to finish what he had started. Stuart didn't do the best job arguing his case. Dean was able to confidently expose the truth and help his brother overcome his fears of speaking. It's an elaborate scene where Dean pulls the truth out of the landlord. He shows the court that his brother's clients did pay their rent on time and the landlord destroyed the check in order to raise the rent. It's all fantastic to behold. It's a very specific performance by Rob Lowe. He approaches it the same way that his character did on the TV show. He needs his costume and his props. Then, he is able to get into the head of character and win this battle. But things work differently in this courtroom. Stuart needs to convince the judge that all of this has legal standing. As enjoyable as it is watching Dean do his best to win this case, it's up to Stuart to actually bring him the win for the clients.

Even though Stuart is reluctant to admit it, he and Dean did make a good team. Perhaps this idea isn't as ludicrous as it initially sounded. Only time will tell if that's true or not. But Dean is staying in Boise with his brother's support. Yes, Dean is overly enthusiastic about doing more good things with his brother. Stuart just wants to get out of that hand lock as soon as possible. Dean has the potential to completely disrupt every good thing Stuart has going for him in his life. But he also has the potential to make things so much better.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Pilot" was written by Andrew Mogel & Jarrad Paul and directed by Jake Kasdan.
  • William Devane and Mary Elizabeth Ellis are both great actors who don't do a whole lot here. The episode's main conflict revolves around Dean and Stuart. Their father and Stuart's wife largely just exist to support them. That will have to change moving forward.
  • Dean also does his best to make sure Stuart's son Ethan gets a good deal when the friend he invites over just wants to spend all of his time with Stuart's daughter, Lizzie. It's amazing how frequently these characters get into the art of negotiating.
  • Kumail Nanjiani is hilarious as the lawyer representing the landlord in the case. He's fantastic but it's unlikely the show will use him again anytime soon.
  • Apparently, it took Dean's show "The Grinder" four seasons to tell its audience that the Grinder never settles. How that show was as successful as it was is part of the appeal of those bits of humor.
  • Stuart on the legal accuracy of "The Grinder": "It felt as real as all the other ones."
  • Stuart on his son: "Coming into his own, kinda like a douchebag."
  • Leonard: "I have a question. Have you ever talked before?"
  • Dean: "Well, you can't take the Idaho bar in California."
  • Dean: "What part of #TeenLife do you not understand?"
  • Dean: "It turns out you didn't need the cards. You were able to hurt me right to my face."
  • Leonard: "Objection." Dean: "Sustained." Leonard: "That's her thing." Dean: "I'll allow it."
  • Dean: "Sometimes you find exactly what you're looking for and you're not allowed to pursue it. For literally no reason."