NEW YORK — If you look for it, there’s a lot of stuff packed into “The Grinder,” a funny if, at first glance, lightweight comedy starring Rob Lowe and Fred Savage.
There’s brotherly love. Sibling rivalry. A quest for authenticity by someone used to profiting from make-believe. A spoof of celebrity. And a not-implausible argument that effective jurisprudence is as much based on theatrics as the law.
Premiering at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday on Fox, “The Grinder” finds big-time TV star Dean Sander (Lowe) reaching the end of his successful run on a legal drama called “The Grinder,” which he headlined as the winningest fake lawyer since Perry Mason.
With his series now canceled, Dean decides to pay his family a visit in their all-American hometown of Boise, Idaho, where his dweebish younger brother Stewart (played by Savage) is a real-life lawyer who actually practices law, though not so heroically.
Pleased with what he finds there, Dean decides to ditch Hollywood and sign on to Boise-style real life, at least as he understands it. This includes horning in on the family’s law firm as a self-styled partner despite his lack of a law degree, license or courtroom experience beyond a Hollywood soundstage.
“Is he really in search of the authentic, or just taking on a new acting role?” poses Lowe, who is clearly eager for viewers not only to laugh at his new show but also ponder its unfolding subtext.
“The theater of the courtroom is a perfect place for him, or so he thinks,” says Lowe. “But the show raises the question: Is ACTING it as good as BEING it?”
Sometimes, yes. No wonder Dean clashes with his young brother, a good guy and devoted family man but someone clearly missing Dean’s pizazz.
“My character has substance,” says Savage, “but no excitement.”
Needless to say (since it is a comedy), the brothers will support and learn from each other. These sibling opposites attract even as the gung-ho, glamorous Dean drives Stewart crazy.
The show doesn’t mock ordinary life as much as the delusions of a celebrity trying to adapt to it. But maybe thanks to his brother, Stewart will find new excitement in his humdrum world as Dean celebrates it for its normalcy.
“Dean gets excited about breakfast!” laughs Lowe. “He gets excited about carpooling the kids to school! He’s like an alien from another planet, always amazed. He wants what the people in this town have, or at least THINKS he does.”
This might lead the viewer to wonder if the novelty of normality will eventually wear off for Dean, prompting him to make a break for Tinseltown (and dooming “The Grinder”). No, says Lowe with a shake of his head but no details other than a promise that there’s plenty of room for “The Grinder” to grow.
One thing is sure: Savage and Lowe make a great pair, both on-screen and in a recent joint interview.
Although they strike a stylistic contrast, they have plenty in common. For one thing, both are show-biz veterans.
The 39-year-old Savage first gained fame as a youngster in the beloved coming-of-age series “The Wonder Years,” then supplemented his acting career as a prolific TV comedy director.
Lowe, 51, was a child actor, too, who then became a cinematic heartthrob in his Brat Pack phase. He later found success on TV, including the respected drama “The West Wing.” And along the way, he had the smarts to make sport of his dashing good looks, expanding into comedy as far back as 1992’s “Wayne’s World,” and recently scoring laughs on “Parks and Recreation.”
Both actors readily admit to amazement at having crossed that youth-to-adulthood Rubicon in a business where young stars always grow up, then often flare out. Each shares childhood recollections of hoping that more roles would await him as a teen, only to hope as a teen that he would find more work as a grown-up.
Co-stars on “The Grinder” include the truly veteran star William Devane (who at 78 plays their dad), as well as Mary Elizabeth Ellis, Hana Hayes, Connor Kalopsis and Natalie Morales.
Already the cast has bonded, including Savage and Lowe, who before “The Grinder” had never met. The biggest hitch, they agree, to their burgeoning relationship: Rob Lowe’s legendary, age-defying, extreme good looks.
“Do you ever get tired of all the talk about your handsomeness?” his interviewer asks.
Lowe’s handsome face falls.
“Long ago, I was diagnosed as terminally handsome,” he jokes in an “Elephant Man” tone. “And I have had to live with it. But I’m a HUMAN BEING — I just want to be treated like anybody else!”
“And I have to work beside him,” Savage chimes in. “His handsomeness is like a solar eclipse: You must never look at him directly! And when the workday is over, you have to wind down by gazing at something a little less beautiful, like a flower or a kitten.”
It’s a hardship he seems happy to endure for years to come.