Friday, October 2, 2015

Pilot Reviews: Grandfathered & The Grinder

It's two-for-one night on Fox Tuesdays with 1980s heartthrobs!

Grandfathered (Tuesdays at 8:00 on Fox)

I'm surprised to report, after what was probably the worst and least comedic previews of the all the season's sitcoms, that Grandfathered is not an out-and-out disaster. It's not all that great either, especially next to its near-genius timeslot partner, but the John Stamos vehicle is far from the trainwreck I'd anticipated (and secretly hoped for).

The sappy, eyeroll-worthy premise involves America's favorite television uncle discovering he not only fathered a son twenty-six years ago, but that son now has an infant child. Jimmy Martino is a fifty year-old restaurateur who's dealing with his own mortality in multiple ways. His hair is starting to slowly grey; attendance at his once-happening L.A. bistro is slipping as younger, hipper places open; and faced with a life of womanizing and working, Jimmy contemplates if he made a mistake never starting a family.

Enter Gerald (Josh Peck), the result of a brief relationship Jimmy had with Sara Kingsley (Criminal Minds' Paget Brewster) in the late 80s, and his daughter, Edie. It's the second chance Jimmy's been waiting for to prove there's more to him than one night stands and endless schmoozing. It's schmaltzy, Hallmark Channel stuff, but Stamos is winning and sweet enough to make the concept a bit more palatable. His scenes with Peck as they spend their first day together as father and son are genuinely funny, particularly when Jimmy attempts to explain to Gerald, a tech-nerd who only has one outfit (because not worrying about what to wear frees up time to focus on work, of which he has none), where the G-spot is: "Nope, don't wanna know......... okay, where is it?"

There's a lot of comedy to be mined from the relationship between Jimmy and Gerald, much more, I think, than from the desperately boring scenes of Jimmy babysitting his granddaughter as she runs amok through his restaurant. Edie is completely unnecessary, actually, for the show to be funny. She's a fine plot point for Gerald, who is in love with the friend he impregnated (singer and The Voice commentator Christina Milian) but can't get her to see him as someone worth truly being with, but the more important relationship for Jimmy is with his son. If Grandfathered concentrates more on that dynamic, it will be better off. Seeing Stamos change a diaper, or read bedtime stories, or awkwardly hold a baby isn't all that funny; it's almost childish, lowest common-denominator comedy. Stamos and Peck are better than that kind of material.

The Grinder (Tuesdays at 8:30 on Fox)

Where Grandfathered tries to be a sweet, familial sitcom with its heart on its sleeve, The Grinder has no such desire: it's a crazy, campy parody of both those exact warm-fuzzy family shows and the legal procedurals America loves so much. And almost every moment of it is brilliant.

Lowe is Dean Sanderson, Jr., an actor who's returned home after the cancellation of his show The Grinder. After eight years playing a litigator, Dean returns home to Boise, Idaho to find himself and plan a future. He moves in with his little brother Stewart (Fred Savage), an actual attorney, though not a very good or charismatic one, and Stewart's wife Debbie (Mary Elizabeth Ellis, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and two kids. Everyone is completely enamored by Dean's stardom, including Dean Sr. (TV legend William Devane), except for Stewart. With Dean back in the picture, Stewart is invisible, especially since Dean now wants to become a real-life lawyer.

The great thing about The Grinder is how many levels and sources of comedy creators Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel (writers of the short-lived animated comedy Allen Gregory and the Jim Carrey film Yes Man) have worked into the pilot: there's parody, physical comedy, repartee, and that's saying nothing of the funny-as-hell performances and scoring. The laughs come frequently and sometimes subtly: a triumphant swell of music under a meaningless line of dialogue, an overly serious look from Lowe, a camera shot angled "just so" so that it looks like Dean is cheating to an imaginary audience. Looking for something more direct? One of my favorite (and one of the silliest) scenes is between Savage and Lowe early in the pilot. Stewart comes downstairs to get a glass of water and finds Dean sitting on the counter, sipping a beer. "Can't sleep," he whisper-growls. "It's 8:30," Stewart answers. The scene ends with a long, uncomfortable hug between the estranged brothers, water sloshing out of Stewart's glasses as Dean squeezes him: "We don't do this enough... hug for a really long time." The final scene of Dean attempting to bring what he learned on his show into a real courtroom is also a highlight as the small-town crowd cheers on their favorite fictional character, not realizing or caring that this is Dean and not The Grinder, and Dean delivers a rousing, absurd speech we've seen a hundred times on The Practice, Law & Order, Damages, Boston Legal, and a host of other shows, and from movies like The Firm (and it's Tom Cruise's performance in that film I felt Lowe most sending up). Dean pauses his examination to ask a jury member for her glasses, all so he has something to forcefully point at the witness. It's insane, especially since everybody is so rapt as if watching a live version of their favorite drama, but it works so well as a parody of those exact shows. Guest star Kumail Nanjiani (Franklin & Bash) then gets to break up the fun with a dash of reality: "I have about a million objections."

The Grinder is a really satisfying, really smart pilot. Whether the show will continue on this comedic path remains to be seen, especially since so much of the subtle parody (camera angles, backlighting, etc) are because of the perfect direction from Jake Kasdan (New Girl). But even if The Grinder can keep a third of its jokes, the chemistry between Lowe and Savage, and Lowe's pitch-perfect, self-serious performance, should be enough to keep it near the top of anyone's watch list.

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