Something really special is happening in Netflix’s new baby Grace & Frankie. The series aired in it’s entirety a few weeks ago with relatively little promotion or advertisement, considering the impressive cast involved. Grace & Frankie marks the return of Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin to comedy television. Not that either of them ever really left the comedy world, though the last time we saw them together was in the 80s sitcom 9 to 5. Although (please don’t kill me) I have never actually seen 9 to 5, it is by all accounts wonderfully funny and female centric. Ergo, I should definitely watch it. Tomlin and Fonda both starred in 9 to 5 and have been reportedly BFF’s ever since. In a way, following their 2015 Golden Globes presentation, they are almost a pre cursor to the female comedy duos of today. Think Tina & Amy, Ilana & Abbi and Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph. If anyone set the standard for the hybrid hilarious BFF’s/comedy duo, it’s Tomlin and Fonda. The showrunner is also none other than Friends veteran, Marta Kauffman. So, does Grace & Frankie live up to the hype?
Tomlin and Fonda play Frankie and Grace respectively, two women who are shocked to discover that their business partner husbands have been having a secret affair for the past twenty years. They have decided to divorce their wives and marry each other, after the law changes so ‘we can do that now’. Sol (Sam Waterston) and Robert (Martin Sheen) begin to make a life with each other, whilst Grace and Frankie are left to pick up the pieces. The first episode, aptly titled ‘The End’, begins with the moment that Robert and Sol break the news to their wives – over dinner at an expensive restaurant (oh the middle-class!). Grace and Frankie are only friends because of their husband’s partnership-turned-relationship, and the only thing they both have in common is that they are both belong to a group of women who are white, mature, middle-class and are generally ladies of leisure. As in, they don’t work and rely on their husbands income. Grace is your typical vodka-infused, uptight, emotionless Lucille Bluth type, and Frankie embodies new-age hippy culture and is more at home smoking a joint than ‘doing lunch’. The set-up of the show is nothing new; we expect the laughs to come from either tired stereotypes surrounding homosexuality or from Grace and Frankie bickering. It’s a pleasant surprise to find that Grace & Frankie doesn’t rely on old and unfunny cliches to make us laugh (or cry).
Whilst Grace & Frankie could easily have tailed off into a comedy about the title character’s love/hate relationship, the main focus of the series is actually two women supporting each other and pulling one another through an incredibly painful time. The theme of age and the fear of growing old alone is prevalent through the series, mixed with an absurd theme of grief. No one has actually died, but as Grace says to Robert ‘It would be easier if you had’. Television often has little time for older women, but Grace & Frankie explores the heartbreak and isolation that comes with going through a divorce after 40+ years. Whilst Grace and Robert seem to hate each other (and have done for some time), the saddest story is that of Frankie and Sol. At times gut-wrenching, we see two people who have formed a relationship on the best of a friendships, having to learn to live without it. Tomlin pulls of a phenomenal performance, and epitomizes the highs and lows of such a life changing event. There is a moment in ‘The Funeral’ (Episode 4) where Frankie accidentally gets into Sol’s car, forgetting for a moment that they won’t be going home together. It’s a small action, but so significant and Tomlin handles it with perfection.
With all the seriousness, I promise that Grace & Frankie is actually a comedy at heart. There are some wickedly funny lines (that mostly come from Tomlin’s Frankie) and provide plenty of occasions to laugh out loud. The gags don’t come thick and fast, unlike so many comedies these days, but Kauffman is clearly happy to let the punchlines linger. It works superbly well because it allows the show to be incredibly funny without having to instantaneously move on to the next joke. At times it almost feels that there should be a laugh track within those pauses, but the absence of one actually helps to cement the reality of Grace and Frankie’s newfound situation. We are laughing because it’s the only way we can deal with this. Who hasn’t been there? There are also some hilarious recurring themes; Frankie’s relationship with technology, Grace’s exploration into sexuality and home-made lube and the constant quips that the women throw at each other. Tomlin and Fonda’s onscreen chemistry is absolutely spot on, giving life to moments that may otherwise have fallen flat.
The supporting cast are also fantastic, in fact it’s hard to see any character which isn’t at least likeable. Grace’s daughter Brianna (June Diane Raphael) is my personal favourite out of the four children, often delivering the best lines of the series – especially in ‘The Spelling Bee’ when she buys herself a dog to combat singledom. The ensemble cast work incredibly well together, providing a neat backdrop for Tomlin and Fonda. I only have a few issues with the series, and they are few and far between. Firstly, the story line with Coyote (Frankie’s son) and Mallory (Grace’s daughter) seemed unnecessary and didn’t add much to the main narrative. I’m all for sub plots, but neither Coyote or Mallory are particularly engaging characters hence their ‘affair’ seemed incredibly uninteresting, especially in comparison to the main plot with Grace and Frankie. Also, I felt the show could have spent more time with its title characters. The show is about them, but a monumental amount of scenes were dedicated to Robert and Sol – and the blossoming of their relationship. Whilst it was great to see a gay couple (especially an older gay couple) transcend camp cliches, I couldn’t help thinking that the show isn’t supposed to be about them. Certainly, the series feels more at ease when Tomlin and Fonda are onscreen and I just wished we had seen more of that, instead of the men. One of the most refreshing things about Grace & Frankie is its attitude to female sexuality in older women. Life (moreover, sex) doesn’t have to stop because you’re getting older. The series illustrates this with frankness and honesty, and we don’t shy away from seeing the woman in that light. They aren’t just mothers, grandmothers or wives. They are women, with desires and emotions. It would have been great to see more of this, and more of Jane Fonda looking fucking amazing in lingerie!
Grace & Frankie is successful because it doesn’t use its gay characters as a trope or a way to increase viewership. It’s not a selling point. There is more to Robert and Sol than just their relationship, and there is far more to Grace and Frankie than just jilted middle-class ex-wives. It’s a sweet, easy to watch series which not only makes us laugh out loud but also gives us an insight into characters that are usually simply tired stereotypes. It’s probably not going to push boundaries or make a statement but it’s well written, enjoyable and I for one can’t wait for Season 2.