Netflix’s new Grace And Frankie has a decidedly network-ready premise. It’s an Odd Couple redux: An uptight retired cosmetics executive and a kaftan-wearing wildcard are forced together by circumstances out of their control. The conventional sitcom setup shouldn’t come as a surprise given the background of its co-creators. Grace And Frankie marks Friends co-creator Marta Kauffman’s return to television, and Howard J. Morris wrote on Home Improvement and According To Jim. They bring multi-cam sensibilities to a single-cam series, which can, at times, feel awkward in the pilot, as the show tries to figure out its voice. But already, the series demonstrates a lot more intelligence and specificity when it comes to its handling of age and sexuality than any of Kauffman and Morris’s past work.
Of course, the conventional premise’s saving grace is that the odd couple are played by Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. Grace (Fonda) and Frankie (Tomlin) are larger-than-life sitcom characters, but they’re played with more nuance and grounded emotion than the average sitcom character and with exponentially more depth than the average older woman in a sitcom. Women over 60 are usually just quirky neighbors (Carol Kane’s Lillian on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) or otherwise secondary characters, but Grace And Frankie is about these women, giving a voice to characters not often found in TV comedies. And their age isn’t a punchline. It’s just a fact that influences the characters’ experiences and decisions in the same way any other part of their identities would.
The story begins with Grace and Frankie feigning niceness over lunch as they wait for their husbands—whose closeness is the only reason the women put up with each other in the first place—to tell them what they expect is news of their retirement. As it turns out, the big news isn’t professional but rather deeply personal: Sol (Sam Waterston) and Robert (Martin Sheen) are in love with each other and have been for 20 years, and now that they can legally get married in California, they’re ready to leave Grace and Frankie and live openly as a couple.
The revelation leads to a rollercoaster emotions for Grace and Frankie, and Fonda and Tomlin nail the more dramatic scenes. The two women react very differently, with Grace boiling over with anger at Robert and Frankie feeling instantly heartbroken at the thought of losing her best friend. Grace tries to cope by escaping to the beach house the four bought together, and Frankie seeks solace from a bowl of Jameson and vanilla ice cream… and peyote tea, which Grace accidentally drinks in the pilot’s most typical sitcom move.
Though Grace and Frankie are together by episode’s end—bonded by their shared “light vomiting and life-altering hallucinations”—because the pilot has to set up their new relationship and doesn’t have a lot of time to start exploring it, Fonda and Tomlin end up spending more time with their male co-stars than with each other. Sol and Frankie’s relationship, in particular, is developed with rich detail in a very short amount of time. Waterston and Tomlin have chemistry on par with Fonda and Tomlin, and Frankie’s tearful confession to Grace that she’s heartbroken near the end of the episode is fully earned because of the character work done with Sol and Frankie early on. You can see that both love each other very much, and the guilt of hurting someone he loves weighs heavy on Sol.
And just like age isn’t used just for laughs, Sol and Robert’s queerness isn’t a punchline. Maybe because of how queerness was only ever used for jokes on Friends, I was nervous about how the pilot would treat the whole “coming out” story. But to my surprise, there were specific and real emotions unearthed by Robert and Sol’s confession, and even though they’re the focus, the pilot doesn’t only prioritize Grace and Frankie’s feelings about the whole thing. We get emotional beats from Sol and Robert in their scene together, and Waterston and Sheen, so far, haven’t slipped into stereotypes in their performances. It helps that they aren’t written as stereotypes.
As with most comedy pilots, there’s some clunky dialogue that tells what could have easily been shown. Near the end, Grace literally says “this is why I hate being around you” and proceeds to list the reasons she dislikes Frankie—reasons we probably could have gathered without the handholding just by seeing how different the two are throughout the episode. But heavy-handed exposition aside, it’s a solid script, one that is both funny and emotionally honest. It reminds, at times, of Transparent, especially when Grace and Frankie’s children channel the Pfefferman siblings, making their fathers’ coming out processes completely about them. And it’s shot with the same cinematic quality as a lot of drama-infused cable and streaming comedies like Transparent, Girls, and Togetherness. But there’s still a sense that Grace And Frankie is more old-fashioned with its comedy than any of those. With exposition out of the way though, the show can focus in on establishing its point of view.
- Welcome to TV Club coverage of Grace And Frankie! It’s me, your friendly neighborhood Netflix binge reviewer. Just like Bloodline and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt coverage, these will go up once a day (noon on weekends and 6 p.m. during the week) for the next 13 days. As everyone will be watching at different paces, try to keep your comments limited to the episode being reviewed or episodes that came before. This is less important for a show like this than it was for Bloodline, but hey, there are some real spoilerphobes, so let’s try to be accomodating.
- “I’m sorry, why don’t we have a therapist here? We did when the dog died.”
- “If anybody’s gonna sit on Ryan Gosling’s face, it’s gonna be me.”
- “I’m in the desert. But there is water here.”
- “Your anger is frightening the sand.”
- June Diane Raphael plays one of Grace’s daughters! We don’t get to see her do a whole lot other than offer Fonda Valium (two), but I’m always happy to see June Diane Raphael!