Superficially, it’s a twist on The Odd Couple: Rob Lowe plays Dean Sanderson, an actor who starred as a TV lawyer in a hit legal drama (also) called The Grinder. Dean quits the show and decides to get back to his roots, so he returns to Boise, where his younger brother, Stu (played by Fred Savage) is now running the family law firm. Believing that his eight seasons as a TV lawyer have taught him about the law, Dean inserts himself into the practice, and into his little brother’s perfect nuclear family. Hilarity ensues.
If the premise underwhelms you, that’s okay. It’s ridiculous. Worse than being ridiculous, it sounds like the kind of network sitcom that would have been on television back in the early ‘90s. And it kind of is! Yet The Grinder has figured out how to reinvent the classic situation comedy in a way that’s very satisfying.
Remember Seinfeld? Of course you do. Everyone watched Seinfeld. And the show was great—the greatest TV comedy ever. Full stop. Case closed.
But the problem with Seinfeld is that it killed the entire sitcom genre. Before Seinfeld, sitcoms had a formula: Take an oddball premise with an ensemble cast, add a quirky character, throw in one joke per script page, and conclude each episode with a Golden Moment (otherwise known as the MoS) where the characters hug and learn some sort of lesson. Whether the show was Friends or Diff’rent Strokes or Caroline in the City or Mork and Mindy, this was the formula.
Seinfeld torched this recipe, dispensing not just with the joke cadences, but also with the hugging and learning, and instead succeeded as a comedy of manners. Go back and look at Seinfeld episodes and you’ll see that the jokes are rarely about contrived situations or cultural references. Instead, there’s the occasional bit of physical comedy mixed with the vaudevillian humor of language and timing. But the bulk of the show’s humor was about people and society. Seinfeld had more in common with Anthony Trollope than Alf.
Which is why Seinfeld—which first went on the air in 1989—holds up so beautifully today.
But Seinfeld didn’t just abandon the sitcom formula; it made it obsolete. And so the end of Seinfeld in 1998 triggered what became known in Hollywood as the nuclear winter of the situation comedy. The number of sitcoms on TV dwindled and the ones that did make it to air were weak tea. (No one in America will ever seek out a re-run of Everybody Loves Raymond.)
The first sitcom to succeed creatively post-Seinfeld was Arrested Development. Mitch Hurwitz’s absurdist show about a corrupt and dissolute SoCal family was a brilliant reinvention of the genre. Instead of three cameras and a set, there was one camera and it frequently filmed on location. Instead of self-contained episodes, there were season-long, as well as intra-season, narrative arcs. It somehow did bawdiness at such a high level that the dirtiest jokes were the least accessible ones.
Arrested Development kicked off a renaissance in sitcoms, with quality shows such as How I Met Your Mother, Veep, Community, and, more recently, Silicon Valley, all finding different ways to do half-hour comedy in the post-Seinfeld world.
Which brings us, finally, to The Grinder. What’s so striking about The Grinder is that it isn’t a creative trailblazer, like Arrested Development. Rather, it’s a throwback to the pre-Seinfeld era sitcoms. It has all the markers—a high-concept premise, an ensemble of characters with one quirky standout, a MoS at the end of each episode. Yet The Grinder has figured out how to make the old formula work again using two tricks. The first is that the show is smarter than it has any right to be. The writers almost always stretch past the obvious joke and find the funny that’s harder to reach. The second trick is that it has married its traditional sitcom framework with a broader satire about television in general—and TV legal dramas in particular.
Each episode begins with the characters lounging on the couch watching an old episode of the fictional Grinder. (One of the recurring jokes is that Mitch’s vanity is so towering that he loves watching himself onscreen—except for when his romantic partners request having his show on in the background while they’re in flagrante.) All of the absurdities of TV law—the lawyer as investigator; the dramatic courtroom showdowns; the knowing “But what it wasn’t?” questions—are skewered and then used as vehicles for more traditional sitcom beats about family life.
It’s unclear how sustainable The Grinder will be over the long haul—at some point you’ve killed The Practice dead and picked its carcass clean. But the show was recently picked up for a second season. And with luck, it will have the opportunity to create its own mini-legacy within the genre.