Maybe it’s the show’s by-the-books execution of its somewhat unique set-up that stings the most. It transitions ungraciously from The Grinder’s preternatural case-closing charisma to Stewart’s bumbling, nerve-blasted oafishness in a real-life courtroom, smacking you in the face with the two’s diametrically opposed personalities. There’s something to be said for sticking to formula and making it work, but The Grinder just doesn’t give you anything worth latching on to or sticking around for: Stewart will gain confidence and stature (within 21 minutes of the entire series, actually) and Dean will learn real tricks of the trade and how to live like a normal, non TV-star person. Roll credits.
It’s a cute, odd-couple set-up, and the pilot wrings some good scenes out of Dean’s self-confidence at fake lawyering (particularly with how he handles a dispute between Stewart’s kids). Still, there’s one glaring flaw I’ve yet to touch on with Fox’s new series: it’s just not funny enough. I laughed aloud exactly zero times in the pilot, chuckled twice and smiled four or five times. The humor here is just so blandly presented and has a sort of day-old milquetoast quality that makes me question constantly if the show’s writers are attempting to be meta by pointing out the cheesiness of Dean’s TV-inspired antics, or simply don’t know how to write compelling jokes.
Also questionable is the apparent ease with which the series assimilates Dean into the real world of being a lawyer, with a finale that has him (spoiler, if you care) winning a case his brother has been hard at work on for months. Multiple characters barge in and point out the ridiculousness of the situation, but he proceeds on anyway thanks to the acquiescence of a judge (Rose Abdoo) who’s a big fan of his show. Maybe it’s creators Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel’s meta commentary on television serving as the ultimate portal into which we live our lives, or something pretentious like that. Maybe it’s just a dumb TV show. Maybe I’m thinking about it too much. All I know is this: if I’d laughed and had a good time, I wouldn’t be dismantling the show’s grasp of the legal system in the first place.
There’s nothing particularly awful or cruel about The Grinder, which may in the end be its big win. It’s sweet, in spots, and clever, sporadically, but it ultimately resigns itself to being absolutely nothing more than the crazy family sitcom where everything is nice and normal until [insert family member here] comes back home to raise hell! And though it’s ham-fisted and overdone, the show that the show is spoofing, “The Grinder” itself, provides the series’ most endearing sequences, if for no reason other than that it lets you imagine Chris Traeger would have been like as a lawyer. In the end, the ultimate punctuation mark of The Grinder is that you may end up wishing you were watching the fake “Grinder” instead of the real one.
There's just no jokes here, no characters worth spending time with and nothing beyond one iota of a clever hook that becomes as disappointingly protracted - before the pilot is even done - as the worst cutaway gags in Family Guy.