Review: New Fox sitcoms ‘The Grinder’ and ‘Grandfathered’ are warmhearted and safe for families
With the Tuesday premieres of “The Grinder,” starring Rob Lowe, and “Grandfathered,” with John Stamos, Fox proffers a brace of genial, even family-friendly sitcoms of a sort not usually associated with the network of “Married With Children” and, recently, “The Last Man on Earth,” in which Will Forte fills a swimming pool with his own human waste.
There is a lot of nostalgic energy generated from the get-go. Each series stars an actor not much over 50 whose youthful pinup prettiness hasn’t reached its half-life — indeed has been remarkably slow to decay, supporting and underscoring their characters’ substantial but not unwavering self-regard. And each of them has been partnered with a younger, former child star: Fred Savage of “The Wonder Years” for Lowe and Josh Peck of “Drake & Josh” for Stamos.
Both are well-made, well-cast series about finding purpose and untangling what you really want from what you only think you want and what you want from what you need, and specifically about discovering this all in (still-foxy) middle age. Splitting the difference between hectic and gentle, they’re warmhearted without being terribly sentimental — that is, they point to their own warmheartedness and make a little face.
In “The Grinder,” created by Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul (co-writers and directors of the recent Jack Black film “The D Train”), Lowe plays Dean Sanderson, the son and brother of lawyers. Dean only plays one on TV, or did — after nine years, his series, also called “The Grinder,” is airing its last episode and he has come home to Boise, Idaho, to watch it with his family: kid brother Stewart (Savage), father Dean Sr. (William Devane), sister-in-law Debbie (Mary Elizabeth Ellis from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”), his niece and nephew.
The conceit of the show is that Stewart, though a real lawyer, lacks the confidence to be a great one — he is dependent on note cards, mumbles his way through arguments and, when the going gets tough, he stops — and that Dean, whose divorce from his TV character is causing him some existential distress (“Right now I’m just driving on the highway of What the Hell Is My Life, looking for an offramp,” he says with typical drama), has the stuff to be one, though his knowledge of the law consists entirely of things picked up from TV scripts.
They will have much to teach each other.
Little of what happens in the pilot would make much sense outside the borders of popular fiction. Or perhaps that’s just how things work in Boise, you are free to believe.
But it has emotional truth, let’s call it, and it plays well. Like the judge and jury who are happy to let Dean have his way in and with the courtroom, we are inclined to overlook troublesome details for the sake of entertainment.
“Grandfathered,” created by Daniel Chun, formerly a head writer on “The Office,” takes a well-worn trope — the confirmed, usually swinging bachelor whose life is turned upside down by the arrival of a child or children — and adds an extra generation. Stamos plays restaurateur Jimmy Martino, an energetic, somewhat fretful human tornado who, when we meet him, is plucking a gray hair from his head as though it were a tick. Soon enough, after a brief bit of establishing this and that, we see him meet his unsuspected son, the woolly-headed Gerald (Peck), who has a child of his own, a baby daughter.
Gerald’s mother is played, happily, by the great Paget Brewster, whom we have seen this year also as a regular on “Community” and “Another Period” and who at 46 seems to be coming into her own — 127 episodes of “Criminal Minds,” 126 of which I never saw, notwithstanding. Brewster is an actress who can simultaneously seem capable and eccentric, calm and unpredictable: “If you hurt my son or his daughter,” she tells Jimmy, “I will choke you to death with your own overly moisturized hand.”
What’s nice about the series is that, after the required moment of shock, confusion and temperamental if not factual denial, Jimmy moves on quickly to acceptance and interest. Though the pilot hits some of the expected beats — don’t muss my pants, baby with dirty hands — it doesn’t revel in the comedy of discomfiture common to such stories. It doesn’t artificially harden Jimmy’s heart just to melt it.
Still, it’s no accident that we see him early on in his skyscraper apartment, with its floor-to-ceiling views of the city below, eating breakfast for one, his only company a voice-activated music system — not lonely, necessarily, but visibly alone — and that by the end it is filled with his new extended family. Though everyone in “Grandfathered” is single — meaning there will be “love interests” or “sex objects” passing through —the main business will be with the community they all define.
They will have much to teach each other.
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