By RODNEY HO/ firstname.lastname@example.org, originally filed Tuesday, October 20, 2015
One of my favorite shows of the new season is "The Grinder" on Fox starring Fred Savage ("The Wonder Years") and Rob Lowe ("Parks and Recreation").
Lowe plays an actor Dean who just finished up a legal drama and goes back to Boise and joins his brother Stewart at his law firm, thinking he could use his TV knowledge in the actual practice of law. It's a well-written, funny show with Lowe playing Dean as a charismatic, self-centered yet likable boor. Savage is the effective put-upon brother who is mortified and oddly jealous of his brother's fame and confidence.
But the "Grinder" has had to grind for viewers, getting beaten soundly by ABC's "Fresh Off the Boat." The fake "Grinder" show-within-the-show lasted seven seasons. It's hard to say if the actual show will even make it a full season though last Thursday, Fox did order six more scripts on top of the original 13 episodes. That's a good sign.
Ultimately, I am happy to have an excuse to write about "The Grinder" and extol its virtues. When Fox publicity informed me actress Mary Elizabeth Ellis was in town last week, I agreed to meet her at Starbucks not far from Fox 5, where she spent a few minutes on "Good Day Atlanta." Ellis plays Savage's very patient and supportive wife Debbie and was in Atlanta for a brief hiatus to check in on her husband Charlie Day, who is co-starring in a comedy film with Ice Cube "Fist Fight."
"I'm from Mississippi," she said. "It's nice to be in the South again."
She's been in show business a long time but wasn't seeking any roles during pilot season. But Ellis knew Savage personally. Plus, Fox liked her work on "New Girl," which shares some producers with "The Grinder." Her name came up and she was given a shot at the role. She and Savage clicked. She was in.
Ellis said she truly enjoys working on the show, name dropping all the regulars, including her character's upbeat father in law played by William DeVane.
"I hope that people start really watching it," she said, "You get to laugh at making fun of those legal dramas, which is fun. It's a family comedy as well. No one can drive you crazier than your siblings."
Dean, Lowe's character, is self involved but also seeking what his brother has: stability, a loving family, a meaningful job. He spent the first three episodes trying to help, not just at the law firm, but in parenting, which causes some amusing conflict. This past Tuesday, for instance, Dean teaches Debbie's 13-year-old son how to lie to reveal a mole over the silliest of conflicts: who erased "Ray Donovan" from the DVR?
As a character, Dean felt hemmed in by Hollywood, which is why he came back home. Ellis said "Seinfeld" star Jason Alexander will play Dean's agent, who will try to lure him back in a future episode. Timothy Olyphant ("Justified," "Deadwood") will guest as a Dean rival. And Christina Applegate ("Anchorman," "Married With Children") will play an ex-girlfriend from Boise.
Ellis' character mostly reacts to the protagonists, which means she is the one people can relate to: "I do like being the straight person. When I've seen the show with audience, they laugh at my lines because I'm calling out the insanity of everyone around me."
Ellis is probably best known as the unnamed Waitress on FX's "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," the longest-running scripted comedy on TV entering its 11 season.
"It just has its own voice," she said. "It's become so ridiculous in such a good way, it gets to do things a lot of shows don't get to do. When people say these guys are like their group of friends, I say, 'Man you need to get new friends!' "
And she is fine that her character only pops in occasionally. "My character is so specific to their world. I come in, drop a bomb on Charlie's character and step out. It's very fun to do that to your husband!"
"The Grinder," 8:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Fox