Of these first few episodes of Grace And Frankie, “The Dinner” seems to be the most confused about where it belongs on the comedy spectrum. The pilot had some of that tonal awkwardness, but that was nothing compared to the identity crisis of “The Dinner,” during which it’s easy to feel like you’re watching two different shows entirely. In the titular plot, Robert and Sol invite their children over for a dinner party for what again exists in the same comedic space as a show like Transparent, using more serious drama to unearth natural humor in unexpected places. Only Grace And Frankie’s dinner scene feels much more stilted than a Pfefferman gathering, and not because the characters are all pushed into uncomfortable emotional zones. The characters’ awkwardness is expected given the innate tension of the situation. It’s the writers’ awkward, clunky attempts to parse out all the messy parts of the central conflict that discomforts.

Grace and Frankie, meanwhile, seem stuck in a more multicam world. The theme of erasure is poignant, if a little heavy-handed. Grace’s face has literally been erased from the boxes of her beauty products, as Brianna decides to take the company in a new direction. There’s no longer a place for Grace at the company she built. In fact, she can’t even fit nicely into the new chairs. Again, it’s all very obvious writing, but it’s still stirs up more emotion than Frankie’s attempts to go back to work. She applies for an art teacher position at an assisted living home, and the staffer giving her a tour mistakes her for a potential resident. It’s a classic sitcom misunderstanding that yields threadbare jokes. Grace’s scene with Brianna, at least, has a personal touch and offers a little insight into both characters: Grace may fear disappearing, but Brianna knows that if her mom returns to the company, no one will see her. That doesn’t give us a ton of information about Brianna as a character, but it’s at least a little more than just her love of other people’s drama.

Then, when Grace and Frankie finally come together again for the shared mission of getting a pack of cigarettes, things dip a little too far into zany sitcom territory. I certainly believe that a store clerk would initially ignore and be rude to older customers, but there was an exaggeration to the scene that made it feel more New Girl than Serious Cable Comedy, which is what I think Grace And Frankie are trying to be? It’s hard to tell!

The dinner party scenes certainly seem to be striving for that dramatic comedy feel. And there are a lot more jokes to come from this plotline, mostly thanks to Brianna. I’ve decided that even though she’s mostly there to comment on other people’s problems, Brianna is my favorite character outside of Grace and Frankie. Maybe it’s because June Diane Raphael is just nailing her delivery, but Brianna’s lines make me laugh out loud more than anyone else’s (there’s nothing inherently funny about the line “Oh no, I look like shit. But thank you!” but her reading sells it).

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But in “The Dinner,” Brianna’s knack for commentary comes especially in handy, as she acts as a viewer stand-in of sorts, voicing some of the concerns I myself had as the dinner party unfolds. In Brianna’s words, everyone is acting like they’ve fast-forwarded five years into the future when everyone’s just fine with Robert and Sol instead of directly dealing with the consequences. She finally gets through to Bud, who explodes during dessert, pointing out that the only reason he can’t be mad is because their fathers are gay. If they had cheated on their mothers with women, no one would be sitting around having cake and talking about almond-crusted chicken. Robert and Sol cheated on their wives and lied to them for decades, and they shouldn’t use their identities to somehow erase all that and be the good guys. Bud’s call-out is completely warranted and one of the most honest moments to come from the episode. Grace and Frankie certainly hate their husbands, and the writers have finally put some specificity to that hatred, using Bud’s outburst as a way to show the double standard inherent in how the children reacted to news of the affair. Yes, it’s devastating that they felt like they had to hide their love for so many years. But they still very deliberately hurt two women in the process.

That’s some really complex stuff to untangle, and I don’t think Grace And Frankie can take on these larger issues that touch on social norms about sexuality and queerness—mainly because I don’t think the show wants to take on those issues with any kind of depth or sincerity. Bud speaks his mind, takes the cake, and the dinner party just sort of comes to an end without any real sense of catharsis or character growth for Robert and Sol. The writers can’t really seem to make up their minds about how the husbands fit into the narrative, so they’ve contained them in a completely different show from Grace and Frankie.

Stray observations:

  • Brooklyn Decker’s delivery of “I love you; you’re so pretty; I gotta go” is on point.
  • “I lost both my virginities in this house. It’s my house.”
  • “Oh no, I look like shit. But thank you!”
  • “A boyfriend who doesn’t talk?” - Brianna, on something she could really use. Love you, Bri.
  • According to Mal, chocolate and vodka go together as well as mac and cheese. No arguments here.
  • I’m falling in love with Sam Waterston all over again. Sol’s “let’s eat!” after collecting the phones was just so adorable.
  • I do not care about the drama between Mallory and Coyote, but the writers seem like they really want me to care. We’ll see. I’m waiting for them to be more than “pill popper” and “alcoholic.”

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