Strictly as a reality concept, TV Land’s “Back to the Grind” is both misguided and a little sad, asking actors to try their hand at jobs they pretended to hold in classic series — from Marla Gibbs (“The Jeffersons”) working as a “housekeeping supervisor” to “Night Court’s” Harry Anderson sitting in as a judge. What, no Richard Chamberlain performing surgery? And isn’t the whole “doing something you don’t really do” proposition why they’re called “actors” in the first place?
Betty White, Mark Curry, Sherman Hemsley, Bea Arthur, Jimmie Walker and Ed Begley Jr. (yes, working at a hospital, a la “St. Elsewhere”) are among the TV talent participating in this five-week exercise, which relies on a heavy dose of kitsch as a come-on. That said, it’s a good bet most people capable of appreciating vintage TV would rather enjoy these performers in the reruns that made them famous than in this bizarre role-playing game, seemingly designed for those who can’t differentiate between fantasy and (really boring) reality.
As for the sad part, the fact that these former primetime titans are willing to play along with a format this inane suggests something about the lure of celebrity, especially when one’s primary income is reduced to residual checks. So in the premiere, Loni Anderson of “WKRP in Cincinnati” cheerily goes to work at a radio station, while “CHiPs” star Erik Estrada trains with the California Highway Patrol — a reprise, of sorts, since the actor already played at real-life cops and robbers in CBS’ short-lived unscripted series “Armed & Famous.”
The Anderson segment (instantly dated, by the way, since the Los Angeles country station where she begins her chores has already switched formats) follows her as she flits from assignment to assignment, whether it’s answering phones, making copies or sitting in on Dr. Drew Pinsky’s latenight advice show. Her good-natured demeanor notwithstanding, it all proves about as scintillating to watch as those tasks sound.
Estrada has the showier mock career, as he seeks to master riding a motorcycle, practices his marksmanship and learns to drive like a highway patrolman. Even that, however, proves relatively mundane, and when he says, “It’s much more dangerous to be a police officer than to be an actor,” it’s a pretty good summation of why “Back to the Grind” should have been sent back to the drawing board.