‘The Grinder’ Review: Rob Lowe and Fred Savage Are Perfectly Paired in Fox Comedy

Single-camera series about Hollywood star who returns to his hometown shows big promise

grinder review

“The Grinder,” Fox’s coyly titled and very funny new sitcom, lets its audience know that the proceedings take place in a world of heightened reality by positing that Rob Lowe and Fred Savage are siblings.

In this topsy-turvy world, Lowe’s Dean Sanderson is the star of long-running courtroom drama “The Grinder,” about the titular lawyer for whom “there’s no one he can’t get off.” With the series at an end, he turns a visit home in Boise with his actual lawyer brother, Stewart (Savage), and father (William DeVane) into a potential new law career. Stewart may have the degree, but Dean has the bravado; besides, he played a lawyer for seven years. How hard can it be?

Not as hard, it turns out, as making a place for himself in Stewart’s life. Stewart’s wife Debbie (Mary Elizabeth Ellis), being a human person with sight, has a tendency to turn girlish and giggly around Dean, while their children worship Dean as only the nephews and nieces of a famous uncle who doesn’t often visit can. And the whole town is obsessed with the presence of a celebrity in their midst — even at the cost of all courtroom decorum.

Lowe and his continued dissection of middle-aged Adonis narcissism may be the main draws for the series, but Savage and Ellis help matters immeasurably by serving up a tasty variation on sitcom marriage. Debbie remains the voice of reason and Stewart is prone to bouts of intense self-doubt, but Ellis and Savage have such a lovely chemistry that the relationship feels fresh; these are two people with whom you want to be friends. And in an era in which parenting is treated as a hook on which to hang easy humor (“Modern Family,” “Life in Pieces”), Stewart and Debbie’s matter-of-fact relationship with their daughter (Hana Hayes) — barely a character in the first episode — and requisite dorky son (Connor Kalopsis) is refreshing.

All of that is background, however, to the Sanderson men. And Lowe and Savage have a crackling energy together. Savage is all nerves and note cards, while Lowe is blithe affectation. Watching them work at cross-purposes, Savage becoming increasingly frantic as Lowe’s Dean barrels ahead without pausing to doubt himself, is to watch two professionals nail every comedic beat and simultaneously witness the benefits of shooting a sitcom as a single cam. Cutting back and forth from one to the other is a fantastic visual joke courtesy of director Jake Kasdan — one so sweaty, the other so matinee idol gorgeous.

“The Grinder” was one of several freshman series to change showrunners in the middle of production  this year, so it will be interesting to see which of the several paths the series could take will be the one upon which the powers that be land. Will the emphasis be on Lowe’s fish-out-of-water finding a place for himself in small-town Boise? Or will “The Grinder” be more of an office comedy, in which the Sanderson brothers battle each other in and out of the courtroom before understanding that together they make the perfect team? With a cast this great, either approach could work like gangbusters — let’s just hope the writers stay out of their own way and keep giving Lowe and Savage every opportunity to play against one another.