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TV Sitcom Reflects Our Fascination with Celebrity

A new television sitcom, “The Grinder,” holds up a mirror that should make us ashamed or at least embarrassed.

I watch a lot of television because it helps me keep in touch with popular culture and my students. Knowing what’s on TV helps 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 “The Grinder,” a new comedy series starring William Devane, Rob Lowe and Fred Savage.

The theme of the show, the overarching plot, is the ironies of America’s fascination, or obsession, with celebrities.

Rob Lowe plays an actor who played the part of an aggressive lawyer in a fictional TV series.

Fred Savage plays his brother who is a real lawyer. William Devane plays their father, a retired lawyer who decides to return to the practice with Savage and Lowe.

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 characters in each episode are ordinary people who themselves, with Lowe’s character, temporarily forget he is not a real lawyer because they watched his television series.

When they are reminded that 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.

For example, in one episode the news media are crowded outside the house where Lowe’s character is staying with his brother and his family, because both brothers are involved in a notorious legal case.

A car drives up to the house and the media 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, while 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 “googly 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.

I confess; I’m somewhat guilty myself. But I think I’m a bit more “choosy” about the celebrities that 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. 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. 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., and I only talked to him because he 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 (from the movie, “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 W. 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.

Why do we think a football player’s recommendation of insurance, for example, carries any weight?

But we do. That’s the point.

Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Against Calvinism” and “The Story of Christian Theology.” This article is edited from a longer version that first appeared on his blog. It is used with permission.