Critic's Notebook: 'The Grinder,' 'Grandfathered' End Promising, Low-Rated Debut Seasons

Rob Lowe's Fox comedy has more creative highs, but John Stamos' comedy has become steady.
Ray Mickshaw/FOX
Rob Lowe of 'The Grinder'

[This article contains spoilers for the season finales of The Grinder and Grandfathered.]

With network upfronts less than a week away, we've reached the point in the spring at which critics and advocates make impassioned pleas on behalf of various bubble shows, explaining that Show X or Show Y has "earned" another season or "deserves" another shot.

I'd love to sit here and write a column about how Grandfathered and The Grinder have proven themselves the titans of a historically weak season for network comedies and thus have "earned" or "deserve" a second season.

I can't.

Looking at numbers for last week's penultimate episodes, even with live-plus-3 DVR data included, Grandfathered drew only 2.28 million viewers and a 0.9 rating among adults 18-49, while The Grinder made it to only 1.96 million viewers and a 0.7 rating in the key demo. Give The Grinder a little extra boost because it's an in-house 20th Century Fox TV production, while Grandfathered is a co-production with ABC Studios, and maybe you could say that they're on equal footing, except that it's verging on absurd to claim that either show has even a feeble case to make for renewal. The TV landscape is changing when it comes to what constitutes success, but The Grinder and Grandfathered don't meet that bar no matter where it might rest.

Sorry.

Though they may be ahead of Superstore and on par with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend among new shows classified as comedies, that's not the same as pronouncing that The Grinder and Grandfathered have reached a level of creative excellence that would let me say, "These are shows of such obvious superior quality that Fox would be foolish to go into next season without them."

I can't do that either.

Here's what I can say: Grandfathered and The Grinder capped off good first seasons on Tuesday night with finales that showcased both show's strengths and struggles, struggles which aren't unusual or out of proportion for a first-year show. Both shows have elements, in front of and behind the camera, that give them potential to develop and improve if they were given more episodes. I can't say that either show deserves or has earned a second season, but I would happily watch a second season of both shows. Maybe with a summer letting audiences discover them, both shows could grow their viewership in a second season. Sure, leaving aside oft-quoted exceptions like Seinfeld or Cheers, that hardly ever happens, but could they perform worse? I'd say, with only minimal hesitation, "Probably not!"

When their seasons started, I was in the minority that preferred Grandfathered to The Grinder — they stand at 62 percent and 71 percent, respectively, on Metacritic — and after a full season … that's still where I stand.

The Grinder makes me laugh more. I'm a good target audience for inside Hollywood gags, and, pre-credit scenes in particular, The Grinder has done a super job of diving into its meta gimmickry, whether exposing the insidious stupidity of focus groups or various structural conventions of the network TV drama.

Titled "Full Circle," The Grinder finale was lucky to arrive just days after The Good Wife offered a series capper that could have also taken that name. The team behind The Good Wife twisted the show into knots and abandoned nearly all of its characters and plotlines in order to make sure that we returned to Alicia and Peter standing together at a press conference, hand-in-hand once again. The writers on The Grinder didn't work that hard. They just brought back Kumail Nanjiani's Leonard Velance, and it was easy for two reasons: First, Nanjiani was one of the best parts of the pilot, and although he's extremely busy, the writers deserve some credit for showing restraint in not bringing him back before now. And second, I didn't really understand or care about the show's big-picture narrative, so I wasn't going to quibble on issues of logic or continuity — just bring back Nanjiani and I'll be amused.

Following the contrivances that left Rob Lowe's Dean defending his father in whatever trial related to whatever case that the show has been nattering about all season, Dean gave an opening statement about justice or family or society or something.

Velance responded to the opening by asking the jury, "Could any of you recap it? Or just give me the gist of it?"

I couldn't recap or give you the gist of what was happening involving Dean Senior this season on The Grinder, nor really what it had to do with the focus group or B-story episode, nor why it was supposed to be sad if Dean Senior could no longer practice law. I know that the season's climactic twist revolved around the shocking revelation that Cory Manler was a twin, which we already basically knew because he was played by Kenneth Lucas and you don't get one Lucas brother without the other.

In Grinder style, the season closed with the family sitting around discussing the first season.

"I'm sure it threw a lot of people at first. 'How're they gonna make this work? How're they gonna keep that up?'" Dean pondered.

"Well, we showed them," Fred Savage's Stewart replied with trademark skepticism.

Dean closed with the declaration, "Now we know that this works. This has legs. For as long as we want it to."

I'm still not convinced, even after a full season.

I don't think The Grinder ever established a rhythm, a repeatable episodic template. Structurally, I still don't think the show works at all, and even jokes about how structurally it doesn't work at all fall flat for me, because I feel like The Grinder is still only beginning to use its assets. Rob Lowe does what he does and does it well, especially in the flashbacks that let him show his insecurity. Ditto with the Timothy Olyphant arc, in which his jealously gave him something more believable to play. Savage is one of TV's best straight men, and once the show allowed Stewart to occasionally be smart and not look like the dilettante he seemed to be in the premiere, his weekly slow burn was one of my favorite parts of the show. Natalie Morales' Claire and her withering scorn for the entire situation was also one of my favorite parts of the show, but The Grinder didn't consistently give her enough to do or justify why a woman who found this all so justifiably ridiculous would stick around. Stewart's family shined whenever they were given strong arcs, but Mary Elizabeth Ellis, Hana Hayes and Connor Kalopsis either got B-stories or weren't even utilized on that minimal level.

On a show-by-show basis, the failures to build either an episodic or serialized arc could be the stuff of punchlines about how TV shows are forced to teach lessons and repeat formulaic frameworks, but all of the "We're too cool to make things build or flow or add up" posturing often felt like flailing to me, a ruse to cover up for an undercooked vision.

I liked The Grinder, but every week I wanted to like it more. But with Lowe, Savage, Morales, Ellis and the clever writers, I think The Grinder could and probably will get better. I'd also note that Fox could cancel The Grinder, order an hourlong version of Dean's Grinder procedural, work the supporting cast in as new characters, and there's absolutely zero chance it wouldn't improve on the quality and ratings of Rosewood.

In contrast, Grandfathered doesn't make me laugh nearly as much, but I really admire how clear and clean the show's execution has been almost since the pilot. John Stamos and Paget Brewster have great chemistry, and the timing that comes from decades working in different sitcom formats, while Josh Peck and Christina Milian proved to be surprisingly sweet together, contributing a different sort of energy.

Layla and Emelia Golfieri have proven to be an exemplary example of toddler versatility, becoming the rare pre-speech child actors to get more screentime and be used in more varied comedic contexts as episodes progressed. The normal arc is for writers to realize the limitations of their tikes and use them just for reactions or "Aww" cutaways, but you actually could believe that Stamos and company liked working with the Baby Edies and playing off of them.

The show's still figuring out what to do with Ravi Patel's Ravi and Kelly Jenrette's Annelise, but along with a few recurring faces in the kitchen of Jimmy's (Stamos) restaurant, they appeared in most episodes and made it feel like Grandfathered had a supporting universe.

It was inevitable that the show would steer Jimmy and Sara (Brewster), and Gerald (Peck) and Vanessa (Milian) together, but the Gerald/Vanessa coupling happened early on and with minimal extraneous incident, and while Jimmy and Sara circled each other, Andy Daly and Regina Hall got to have nice arcs as alternative love interests. Jimmy's Peter Pan Syndrome was at the core of the show, but after a handful of episodes, it became more natural and less a sitcom-y character trait. That left room for Grandfathered to quickly invest in warmth and heart, paying off in the season-closing arc in which Jimmy lost his father and attempted to rekindle romance with Sara, only to briefly backslide into Old Jimmy.

While I'd have to point to five or six isolated episodes or even isolated scenes to show The Grinder at its best, I'd suggest checking out Grandfathered from the episode "Catherine Sanders" to the end, particularly the time-jumping "Jimmy's 50th, Again." Those five episodes illustrate a show that maybe didn't have the swing-for-the-fences smarts of Grinder, but one that had a good sense of its voice, its characters and its bigger story, exhibiting a deft hand at delivering sentimentality that avoided mawkishness.

Even working in a single-cam format, Grandfathered always felt a bit old fashioned, but the finale showed its ability to tweak the rom-com conventions as well. The misadventures of Gerald's elaborate proposal plan came to a touching and reasonably earned conclusion. Edie's first words were telegraphed, but then cutely delivered. And Jimmy rushing to the airport to break up with Catherine before she got on a plane was a good reversal of cliche, complete with the crowd initially encouraging Jimmy, but eventually booing him. The "Will Sara Forgive Jimmy and Go to the Cure Concert?" cliffhanger was probably too flaccid to force Fox's hand on renewal, but I don't know what I would have advised instead as a tease for a second season. Probably a "Just as He Decides to Be With Sara, Catherine Is Pregnant and Jimmy Gets a Second Chance at Fatherhood" tease might have offered something more creatively fruitful for next season, but it also would have required the show to know that Hall was available.

The Grinder finale ended with a character saying, "Hey, we know how to do this now," but the Grandfathered finale was basically the creators showing Fox they know how to do it. And that's an encapsulation of how I saw their first seasons. Grinder had sparks of brilliance and long stretches of disorder. Grandfathered had no brilliance, but steady proficiency. Given the chance, I'd keep both comedies in my DVR rotation in a second season, but as much as I'd like to say they "deserve" or "earned" that shot, I can't tell Fox it would be wrong to aspire to beat The CW on Tuesday nights.

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