A Rare, Good Television “Sitcom”: “Grinder” (Fox TV) Holds Up a Mirror that Should Make Us Ashamed (Or at Least Embarrassed)
Yes, I know, someone will tell me I watch too much television. My only defenses? First, I still accomplish quite a lot! (Try arguing with me about that and I’ll show you my curriculum vitae.) Second, it helps me keep in touch with popular culture. Students watch television. Just the other evening, in a class on “modern theology,” a student was trying to remember the name of a television show. She described it very briefly and nobody could think of the name. I said “The Good Wife?” Yes! She said and was very pleased that I knew the show. Actually, I’ve never watched it. I guessed based on commercials for it! Knowing what’s on television does help me relate to students and understand American culture. Karl Barth is supposed to have said that a good theologian always has the Bible in one hand and the daily newspaper in the other. Well, maybe today he’d say “the Bible in one hand and the TV remote in the other.”
Somehow I stumbled on a new comedy series. I think I read about it in a television critic’s column in the newspaper. It sounded intriguing. The stars are people I like to watch: William Devane, Rob Lowe, Fred Savage—all favorite actors.
The theme of the show, the overarching plot, is the ironies of America’s fascination, obsession, with celebrities. Rob Lowe plays an actor who played the part of an aggressive lawyer in a fictional television series (“Grinder”). Fred Savage plays his somewhat Caspar Milquestoast brother who is a real lawyer. William Devane plays their father, a retired lawyer who decides to return to the practice with Fred Savage and…Rob Lowe. (Here I’m using the actors names because I can never remember television characters’ names!) Lowe’s character is narcissistic but winsome nevertheless…at least to some people. He’s not a bad person, just self-absorbed. And he cannot distinguish between entertainment and reality, so he thinks of himself as a real lawyer even though he never attended law school. By hook and by crook he manages to help his brother and father win some cases—partly by his celebrity status.
The show is a wonderful satire and parody of American fascination, even obsession, with celebrities. The characters in each episode are ordinary people who themselves, with Lowe’s character, temporarily forget he’s not a real lawyer because they watched his television series. When they are reminded he’s not a real lawyer many of them don’t care; they still want him to represent them—which he manages to do indirectly much to his brother’s chagrin (Lowe’s character overshadows him by deceit and trickery and sheer charm) and their father’s cheerful nonchalance about it all (he’s just glad to have his “boys” back together).
I love the scene where, in one episode, the news media are crowded outside the house where Lowe’s character is staying—with his brother and his family. They are both involved in a notorious legal case. A car drives up to the house and the media people crowd toward it eagerly with cameras “rolling” and microphones held out to whomever is going to get out of the car. When the brother (Fred Savage’s character) steps out they all groan and fall back. One says loudly “It’s just the brother!” Of course, “the brother” is the real lawyer who is doing most of the work; his actor brother, played by Lowe, is all flash and charm and trickery. By his celebrity status he gets away with things in court no real lawyer could. The judge and jury and even opposing attorneys are google-eyed over him and eager to have him there even if he isn’t a real lawyer, so they don’t object when he pulls stunts like he did on his television series (that aren’t really legal).
The whole show is a satire on and parody of American fascination and obsession with celebrities. Some celebrities are famous just for being famous. Who are the Kardashians, anyway? (Don’t bother answering; I don’t care.) Recently my teaching assistant, who works at a coffee shop frequented by a celebrity couple, was accosted at work by people who drove halfway across the continent to meet the celebrity couple who have a television show on cable TV. They insisted he was the husband of a couple whose house the celebrity couple renovated in one episode of their HGTV program. I don’t know if they got their desired “selfie” with him or not!
I confess; I’m somewhat guilty myself. But I think I’m a bit more “choosy” about the celebrities I’m a fan of than most. I was impressed with getting to sing a duet with Bill Gaither! But I wouldn’t walk across the street to meet most celebrities—especially those who are only famous for being famous and haven’t (in my opinion) really contributed anything constructive to culture or the church.
I love television shows, books and other artifacts that satirize cultural kitsch, fads, and obsessions.
My wife has a stock answer to people who act impressed when they meet me—which happens occasionally but rarely. (I was approached by a twenty-something man in the Mall of America once who recognized me and wanted my autograph.) She says “He puts his pants on one leg at a time just like everyone else.” How true. Most celebrities are really not that special. (And I’m not saying I’m a celebrity; if I am I’m the most minor one of all!) I’ve met a few and been near a few and they mostly just want to be left alone. I once sat next to George McGovern on a flight to Washington, D.C. I only talked to him because seemed open to conversation and he spoke at my high school when I was a student in his home state. And I apologized for not voting for him in the first presidential election in which I could vote. He was extremely nice. I met actor Richard Roundtree (“Shaft”) in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. He was nice, but I greeted him and left him alone as that seemed to be his desire. A couple years ago I sat very near former president George Bush and his wife Laura at a church concert. I didn’t bother them; I’m sure they just wanted to enjoy the concert.
So, what I’m saying is, I’m not innocent. But I recognize the irony of it all. In one episode of The Grinder Lowe’s character convinces his chagrined brother that, if he were having a heart attack, he’d prefer to have an actor who plays a doctor on a famous television show help him than not—assuming there was no real doctor around. “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on television….” Wasn’t that the theme of a commercial some years ago? Why do we think a football player’s recommendation of insurance (for example) carries any weight? But we do. That’s the point.