'The Grinder' and 'Grandfathered': TV Review

They could be on different networks, but at least one has lots of potential.

Two new freshman series from Fox star Rob Lowe and John Stamos, aging studs of the small screen.

The Grinder and Grandfathered are two Fox shows that will be talked about and linked together because they air back-to-back on the same night, both have “G” names, both are single-camera comedies and both star long-term lotharios who are still very much getting it done in the looks and fitness departments.

Oh, but they are vastly different.

For starters, The Grinder — despite its unfortunate title — looks and mostly feels like a Fox show. It’s humorous and, at least in the pilot (which was the only episode sent to critics), seems to be sending up typical sitcom ideals of the 20th and 21st centuries: learning something valuable through humor, hugging, expressing joy when good things happen. Hell, we could find out in the second episode that it’s not actually spoofing those things, and it will become less funny because of that, but the working philosophy right now is that The Grinder — despite that title — is very self-aware.

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Grandfathered, on the other hand, feels very much like a CBS comedy that, in an effort not to appear like a CBS comedy, is not shot as a multicam sitcom. Oh, but you can tell. And when you see it, you automatically wonder if Fox is, once again, trying to be CBS Lite.

But let’s start with The Grinder — despite its ... fine, you get the point — where Rob Lowe not only is allowed to be like the Rob Lowe who was so wonderful on NBC’s Parks and Recreation, but he actually seems so like that other person that maybe a check needs to pass between one network and the other. For viewers, it’s a win (Lowe even gets to do a callback joke to his Parks days that completely and utterly works). For Lowe, it’s clearly a win. He’s a guy who has proven very adept at comedy and should just go that route until he needs to exercise his inner loving husband for Hallmark or his inner killer for Lifetime.

Created and written by Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul (The D Train), this is a series that has a blueprint for success.

Lowe plays Dean Sanderson Jr., the son of a lawyer who, instead of following in his father’s footsteps, goes to Hollywood as an actor and ends up playing a very successful lawyer on a very successful legal-drama series called The Grinder. Now that the show has ended, Dean heads back home to Boise, Idaho, to find some purpose with his family. His younger brother, Stewart (Fred Savage), is about to take over the family law firm from father Dean Sr. (William Devane).

You probably can guess the rest. But if not, well, Stewart is a real lawyer who is a bit beige and not very suave and forever has lived in the shadow of his big brother, the expert fake lawyer. Dad clearly loves Dean Jr. more — because this is a sitcom. Dean Jr. needs something to do and moves in with and meddles around in the life of Stewart, possibly getting a chance to work together with him as, well, a fake lawyer.

As comedy pilots go this season, the end result is a rarity in that there were laughs. And it’s great to see Mary Elizabeth Ellis (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) not only land a sitcom that uses her properly but allows her to generate some of those aforementioned laughs. And hey, Natalie Morales (Parks and Recreation) is here, too.

That’s a very strong cast. Savage is excellent as partly the straight man and partly the one getting laughs at the absurdity of his situation. (Kumail Nanjiani from HBO’s Silicon Valley has a cameo in the pilot that is gold from start to finish.)

The worrisome part is that there may not be anywhere else to go with this. How long can you be a fake lawyer tormenting your younger brother and skirting the law? Why does a wealthy and successful Hollywood star have to move in with his brother? Why does Mary Elizabeth Ellis have two teenage children? And, most worryingly, what if the cynical parts that seem to be spoofing feel-good sitcom tropes are not actually meant to be cynical?

But let’s worry about that in the second episode. The pilot, at least, is worth watching.

Grandfathered, on the other hand, feels as slick, predictable and manipulative as possible, dropping lots of punchlines about its premise — that 50-year-old bachelor and restaurant owner Jimmy (John Stamos) finds out on the same day and at the same time that not only is he a father, he’s a grandfather.

Think of every possible joke you can make about that, and it’s in the pilot, which makes the second episode — again, not sent to critics — something to worry a lot about.

Stamos is good, of course — he knows how to nail a traditional sitcom joke, even if maybe he’s not as meta-funny as Lowe is about, well, being Rob Lowe. (And Grandfathered is very much a star vehicle for Stamos, even if it features the lovely and talented Paget Brewster of Criminal Minds as the woman who had this lothario’s baby 25 years ago and Josh Peck of The Mindy Project and Drake & Josh as that grown-up baby with a baby of his own.)

Created and written by Daniel Chun (The Office) and executive produced by Dan Fogelman (Galavant) and Stamos, this is a series that puts a lot of faith in people wanting a show about babies. Granted, the baby in Grandfathered is adorable, but she’s also a baby. And shows about children and the people who don’t want them or accidentally had them always end up with the same jokes. That is to say, "Let’s all be hectic, we’ve got a kid!" is one of the most tired tropes out there.

Grandfathered hardly feels like a Fox show, but then again, maybe a very clearly defined brand isn’t that important anymore — people seek out stars and shows no matter the format, via DVR or online programming. Maybe that’s true, but there’s so much comedy you see coming in advance that Grandfathered should either be on CBS or part of a revamped TGIF-theme on ABC.

Put back-to-back, with the annoying and drab teens of Grinder and the precocious baby prattle of Grandfathered, and it’s enough to make you binge old Seinfeld episodes, where babies and hugging and learning were frowned upon, or current episodes of Louie, which gets the parenting and kids thing absolutely perfect.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine