Every year, there's a bunch of "funniest shows you're not watching," and Fox's The Grinder (no relation to the gay dating app Grindr), which hasn't exactly been pulling in Empire season 1-type numbers but has been devastatingly hilarious, definitely falls under that category this season. Rob Lowe and the showrunning duo of Jarrad Paul, who's best remembered for his role as the struggling screenwriter of the wonderfully titled Beverly Hills Gun Club on the 1999 Fox cult favorite Action, and Andrew Mogel have somehow come up with a character who's even funnier and stranger than Chris Traeger, Lowe's fitness-obsessed, touchy-feely character from the beloved and similarly underwatched Parks and Recreation (although this new show's shtick of Lowe giving other men intense, head-rubbing "man hugs"--"Everyone should get hugs from Rob. It's like a massage," said Fred Savage about his Grinder co-star in New York magazine--initially felt like a rehash of Chris kissing a typically flustered Ron Swanson on the lips on Ron's birthday or Chris weeping in Ben Wyatt's arms).
On The Grinder, the former Brat Packer stars as Dean Sanderson Jr., a pampered Hollywood actor who grew tired of the network TV, uh, grind. After quitting his role as Mitchard "The Grinder" Grinder, a super-brilliant maverick lawyer, on The Grinder, a long-running Fox legal drama that's as popular overseas as Baywatch was in countries where nobody speaks English but they all speak in worshipful tones about C.J. Parker as if she were a bottle of Coca-Cola, Dean Jr. has returned to his hometown of Boise, Idaho to check in on his younger brother Stewart (Savage) and their close-to-retirement father Dean Sr., who are both actual lawyers (as Dean Sr., William Devane doesn't really get to do much, but Devane does enough with his character to make us realize where Dean Jr. inherited all of his weirdness and sunny optimism, and like everyone else in the Grinder cast, Devane's able to do a lot with just one or two lines).
But Dean's stopover in Boise turns into a permanent stay when he realizes he wants a more normal life like Stewart's--Stew is happily married to Debbie (Mary Elizabeth Ellis), and they have two kids, Lizzie (Hana Hayes) and Ethan (Connor Kalopsis)--and he wants to be the Grinder in real life, and his delusions of taking the most absurd TV tropes from his old show and bringing them into the much more mundane reality of practicing law continually irritate Stew. Unlike Dean, who believes he doesn't need to pass the bar to practice law, Stew went through years of law school and hard work to get to where he's at today at Dad's law firm (Stew has also gotten the chance to blossom far away from his celebrity brother's shadow, so he resents having to go back to being the Sanderson brother who's not the center of attention in Boise).
Dean's favorite response to any person's admission that a goal or strategy is impossible is "But what if it wasn't?," a line his character used to frequently say on the old show. As Todd VanDerWerff notes over at Vox, "Dean doesn't know how our 'real' reality works; nearly everyone he encounters is so excited to get a taste of Dean's version that they go along with whatever he says should happen." However, there are two lone holdouts in Boise who object to whatever he says, and they are Stew and Claire (Natalie Morales, another Parks and Rec alum), the Sanderson & Yao firm's attractive new hire.
Claire is the only character other than Stew who has always found the plot twists on Dean's old show to be ridiculous. Dean is under the impression that Claire's dislike of both his vanity and his cluelessness about legal procedure in the real world is actually that old network TV cliché of masked sexual tension and that she's his love interest on this new show called real life, just like all the equally hot female second-chair characters he got to make out with when he played Mitch (Emmanuelle Chriqui and Arielle Kebbel are among the sultry "Grinder girls," and it's remarkable how they're able to not corpse whenever Lowe overdramatically slides office supplies off his desk before each of his love scenes with them for the show-within-the-show). But Claire is genuinely not interested in Dean (she prefers Dean's nemesis Timothy Olyphant, who nicely plays a very Zen--as well as douchey and childish--version of himself), and feminist viewers have interestingly found Dean's pursuit of Claire to be The Grinder's weakest element and way too reminiscent of the "Boyle wants to date Diaz and won't take no for an answer" storyline that Brooklyn Nine-Nine thankfully abandoned early on in its run.
Meanwhile, Debbie stands by her man Stew, but we get a slight inkling from the body language of Ellis' rather underwritten character (I'm enjoying how Ellis handles Deb's incredulous reactions to anything, particularly whenever junior-high-age Ethan emulates his Uncle Dean, but what the hell does Deb do for a living at her office?) that Deb's secretly enjoying the intrusion of TV reality into our reality a lot more than her husband is. She appears to be as fascinated by that intrusion as she is by the old show's implausible writing (whenever she and the other Sandersons are seen watching The Grinder or The Grinder: New Orleans, a spinoff starring Olyphant as Mitch's brother Rake, Deb's curling up with a relaxing glass of wine, as if the Grinder franchise is some trashy yet highly entertaining paperback, which it essentially is). Deb has the look of someone who sees Dean's weirdness not as an embarrassment but as an advantage for Stew and a welcome challenge to push Stew out of complacency and make him the best lawyer (and Sanderson) in any reality. Maybe the recapper community should start calling her Lady Macdeb.
The Grinder is a great mismatched sibling/business partner/buddy comedy in the vein of The Odd Couple--the Jack Klugman/Tony Randall one, not the Matthew Perry/Thomas Lennon one--and Savage is a terrific and relatable everyman foil to the bizarre Lowe in his first regular series role since 2006 (Savage had taken a quasi-Dean-style break from acting to become a prolific TV comedy director, working for shows like the one that introduced his current TV wife to comedy nerds as "the Waitress," It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia). But the things that make The Grinder really stand out as a mismatched sibling comedy are the way that, as VanDerWerff puts it, the collision between TV reality and our reality borders on becoming a horror movie and, of course, the show's extra doses of Community-style meta-humor.
Dean, who's quick to recall storylines or tropes from his old show as if he were Manhattan E.A.D.A. Jack McCoy rattling off the names or outcomes of past trials from other courts, is basically Abed with abs. He's constantly talking about the rules of either TV logic or the TV industry like Abed--who, in my favorite moment of Abedness on Community, drove the super-pretentious professor at a Who's the Boss? studies course crazy over his elaborate theory that Who's the Boss? ruled in favor of Angela as the boss--used to do. For instance, Dean brings up the difficulties many showrunners experience whenever they have to follow up the pilot with the second episode while he's playing back his old show's second episode for Stew's family during, of course, The Grinder's second episode.
As clever as those bits of dialogue about TV logic are, the juicy little clips of the show-within-the-show, which foreshadow the themes of the A-plot during each of the cold opens, are actually more enjoyable as moments of meta-humor on The Grinder. In those clips, The Grinder astutely makes fun of a certain kind of early '00s network TV show that, due to changing tastes and the popularity of anti-hero dramas on both streaming services and cable, doesn't really get made anymore, except by CBS or TNT: the procedural as glitzy wish-fulfillment fantasy, anchored by the noble and hyper-competent cop or attorney who can do no wrong and always gets his man (or woman). On the show-within-the-show, the Grinder never settles and never loses a case. This gives him a better win record than that of Perry Mason, who was allowed to lose only once on CBS.
The show-within-the-show contains some nods to the soapy writing from one of Lowe's own post-West Wing attempts at wish-fulfillment TV, the 2003 NBC flop The Lyon's Den, in which he starred as the most idealistic and virtuous attorney in a law firm full of sharks. Mitch's scenes are even lit to look exactly like The Lyon's Den. In the name of justice, Mitch frequently pulls unlawyerly stunts that, in the real world, would either get him disbarred or cause evidence that could have benefited his clients to get thrown out of court, like disguising himself as another litigator with the help of a mask straight out of Mission: Impossible. Every episode of the show-within-the-show also finds him pulling some unbelievable skill out of what the ambiguously gay Craig Robinson thug character from Pineapple Express would have referred to as his little sexy ass, like the ability to canvass a crime scene more effectively than any other homicide detective in the city. All that's missing from Mitch is a cape.
If all this reminds you of Horatio Caine, the Miami-Dade police lieutenant who was written like a superhero and played by David Caruso as if he were auditioning to be Hyperion in a Marvel Studios screen version of Squadron Supreme (Hyperion's the only orange-haired male superhero I could think of), that's exactly who The Grinder is spoofing. Mitch even punctuates a courtroom scene with the Horatio-style donning of shades at one point. There's also a great little jab at Caruso's well-documented ego when Cliff Bemis (Jason Alexander), the creator/showrunner of both Dean's show and its spinoff, plans to kill off Mitch on The Grinder: New Orleans, and Stew reminds Cliff that Dean has a clause in his contract that says only Dean has authority over Mitch's fate--a deal that's similar to the one that was demanded by Caruso, who, in the universe of Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel's show, became so convinced that he was Horatio in real life that he asked for a clause stipulating that Horatio can't be killed without his permission.
Paul and Mogel clearly must have hate-watched a lot of CSI: Miami back when it peaked at number 7 on the end-of-the-season network ratings charts 11 years ago, just like I did for half of CSI: Miami's first season in 2002. I quit hate-watching it after sitting through the episode where Horatio gets a confession out of a murderer who incinerated his ex-girlfriend, who was pregnant with their baby when he murdered her, by presenting the perp with an age-enhanced photo of their dead kid that was made by Horatio's crime lab (that moment with the age-enhanced photo is the type of overblown scene Paul Scheer would love to make fun of on either his now-defunct procedural parody NTSF:SD:SUV:: or his current podcast How Did This Get Made?). I just couldn't take any more preposterous bullshit from this show casual TV watchers enjoyed as they folded laundry and TV nerds with more discerning tastes either hate-watched, ridiculed or turned into an inescapable meme (I was less patient with CSI: Miami than even Stew and Claire are with Dean's old show whenever they have to sit through its reruns).
When you first glimpse the clips of Dean's show, you're like, "It's 2016, and network TV is still riffing on both a hit procedural that's no longer on the air and a meme that's so 2006?" Fortunately, the gags Paul and Mogel have kept in their back pockets about CSI: Miami's ludicrousness are on the timeless side (as long as Horatio-ish network TV protagonists like Gibbs over on NCIS continue to cheat death, deflect bullets and cure cancer just like Horatio used to do, these gags will never be dated) and are mainly about that show's various plot holes and implausible moments, a part of CSI: Miami that hasn't been parodied enough, instead of the corny cold open one-liners and Caruso sunglasses that have been spoofed to death by everything from The Soup to Forgetting Sarah Marshall, aside from Mitch's one moment with a pair of shades. And it's no coincidence that in the laugh-out-loud funny clip during the cold open of "The Olyphant in the Room," the bald cop Mitch is man-hugging for an uncomfortably prolonged time resembles Frank, the bald homicide detective from all those CSI: Miami cold opens.
During Stew's puzzled or appalled reactions to all these over-the-top tropes from the screen that have invaded Boise since his brother's return, Savage's comic timing perfectly sells Stew's mild horror over the two worlds colliding. His timing also perfectly sells Stew's gradual adjustment to Dean's world, which has taken place during my favorite Savage acting moments on The Grinder, and that would be any time Stew stops fighting his brother's loony adherence to TV logic and tries on TV logic--awkwardly, of course, partly because Stew's a terrible public speaker--to help out Dean whenever he's in a pinch. But there's one other player on the show who has done an equally noteworthy job at handling the encroachment of Dean/Mitch's TV universe on Stew's universe, and he hasn't really been noticed for his work. That would be composer Jeff Cardoni, who gets to play along with Lowe and Paul (who cameos as Pincus, a dweeby, by-the-book straw man antagonist who keeps standing in the way of Mitch's heroics on the show-within-the-show) as they each poke fun at their own past TV work. And what was one of the shows Cardoni cut his musical teeth on? None other than CSI: Miami.
But instead of parodying his own Cuban percussion-influenced score music from CSI: Miami, Cardoni pokes fun at a grandiose style of orchestral leitmotif that was prominent during the heyday of The West Wing and makes a comeback on the broadcast networks every now and then (lately, it's kind of faded from network TV, along with the procedural about the cop or attorney who's a ridiculously immaculate human being). Cardoni's very first score cue in the Jake Kasdan-directed Grinder pilot is a noble-sounding diegetic cue on flute and clarinet, and it accompanies the network promo at the start of the broadcast of Dean's final Grinder episode. I'm going to call this West Wing-style flute-and-clarinet motif the "Grinder has an idea" motif (on Cardoni's site, it falls under the title "The Grinder Rests"). Or maybe it should be the "Grinder grinds" motif, like how Stewart Copeland would call his '80s Equalizer main theme "The Equalizer Busy Equalizing."
The "Grinder grinds" motif is all over the clips of the show-within-the-show, particularly whenever Mitch pulls another one of his melodramatic stunts in court or at his firm. There's also a reverbed chimes motif during the show-within-the-show that Paul and Mogel use as the score cue for the opening title card. The chimes motif evokes a gavel, just like how Mike Post's "doink-doink" sound effect for the intertitle cards on Law & Order and all its spinoffs evokes a gavel.
Now here's where the really fun part of Cardoni's score music begins: the encroachment of the TV universe on Stew's universe extends to the score music as well. So whenever Dean hatches a plan and drifts off into another one of his Mitch-style dramatic speeches or whenever, as his old character is so fond of saying, he simply grinds, Cardoni's ordinary-sounding and minimalist score, like the Thomas Newman-lite score he did with Freaks and Geeks composer Mike Andrews for the pilot, gets disrupted by the "Grinder grinds" motif from the show-within-the-show. It's an inspired musical gag that hasn't gotten old yet and probably never will, as long as Cardoni continues to find as many different variations on the motif as possible. Cardoni grinds, and when he grinds, he grinds hard.
It's a good thing that The Grinder is a single-camera comedy with no laugh track instead of a multi-cam shot in front of a studio audience. On Key & Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele and director Peter Atencio resisted Comedy Central's insistence on studio audience laughter during their sketches because, as Atencio once wrote, "having that laughter cut in during an action movie or sci-fi style opening was like pouring ice-water on the viewer." Atencio added that putting together a sound mix where the dialogue, music and sound FX, which all played a role in the comedy in their sketches, could still be heard over the audience "is almost an impossible task" (to which Dean would have probably replied, "But what if it wasn't?"). Such laughter would have made it similarly difficult for The Grinder's editors, particularly music editor Ryan Castle, to achieve my other favorite recurring musical gag on the show. That would be whenever they abruptly cut off Cardoni's "Grinder grinds" motif or his chimes motif with a line of dialogue from either Stew (like when Stew says to Dean, "No, this is a terrible idea"), a character who objects to Dean's tactics or even Dean himself (like when he stops himself from trying to envision a dramatic synopsis for a newspaper profile about Stew), an editing touch that cracks me up almost every time.
Cardoni's dead-on faux-procedural score music and the clever things Castle and the show's other editors do with that music are key to why The Grinder is one of the funniest overlooked comedies on network TV right now. It's not surprising that a sharply written and performed satire on hackneyed TV shows isn't conquering the network ratings right now; similarly sharp TV industry-related satires like 30 Rock and Community (yeah, it took place at a community college in the very Hollywood setting of suburban Colorado, but so many of its episodes picked apart or parodied TV clichés) were never network ratings hits either.
However, 30 Rock and Community ended up becoming beloved cult classics, and if it continues to play its cards right, The Grinder could be on its way to becoming a classic as well. There have been a million procedurals. The Grinder is the first one on a major network that's specifically about how the other 999,999 totally distort the jobs or professions they romanticize each week, and that premise is extremely funny--and somehow comforting--to me. The Grinder needs to keep on grinding.
The Grinder currently airs Tuesdays at 9:30pm on Fox, but who the fuck still watches TV shows live anymore? For those of us who prefer to time-shift, The Grinder is streamable on Hulu and Fox Now.