Even when the relationships they portray are dysfunctional, comedies, more often than not, are about togetherness. Workplace sitcoms show people working together; family sitcoms show people living together; hangout comedies show people hanging together. Even when there’s tension and conflict, there’s a sense that these characters belong together, for whatever reason, and get something out of their proximity to one another. All of this is to say that loneliness and isolation may be treated as the conflict of the week on a comedy, but I struggle to think of another comedy—even one similarly with dramatic leanings—that deals as explicitly with loneliness as Grace And Frankie does. And “The Spelling Bee” is the show’s loneliest episode yet.
Plenty of sitcoms begin with a breakup much like Grace And Frankie did. Recent examples include New Girl and Happy Endings (RIP). But usually that initial breakup is just used as a way to force the character into new surroundings and head down a new path. Grace and Frankie’s impending divorces certainly did that for them. They’re now living together in their beach house, without their husbands. And they’re both trying to make sense of how to proceed under these new circumstances.
But Grace And Frankie deviates from the typical breakup set-up by making the breakup a lot more than just set-up. The show dives deep into the emotional and psychological consequences of separating from someone you love, especially when it comes to Frankie and Sol. “The Spelling Bee” shows them cautiously navigating the world of post-breakup reshuffling. They used to watch the Scripps National Spelling Bee together as if it were a raucous sporting event, but they’re forced to watch alone because of their new situation. Sol eagerly attempts to convince Frankie that they can watch together like old times but as friends, but Frankie draws a clear line in the sand. “I’m gonna have to be strong and say no. For both of us,” she tells him, and Lily Tomlin uses small physical choices to convey how her character wants to say yes even as she’s saying no.
But post-breakup rules, like lines in sand, are not so rigid. Eventually, Frankie goes to Sol, because he’s familiar, because she has lost so much of her past life and watching the spelling bee with him feels like getting a small part of that back. It isn’t the healthy choice, but it’s the human one. Breakups are messy, y’all. It doesn’t matter if you’re a heartbroken teen or someone whose marriage of several decades just ended. Sometimes the natural instinct is just to try and be friends, even if that ends up hurting you more, as is the case for Frankie. And Grace And Frankie doesn’t rush through that process or romanticize it.
With Grace, it’s a little more complicated. Even though she was equally as blindside by Sol and Robert’s news, based on the little we know about her relationship with Robert, it seems like her marriage was over long before it was actually over. As a result, she doesn’t have the same kind of relationship negotiations to go through with Robert, which is why it can sometimes seem like Robert doesn’t have much to do other than be annoyed with Sol. But while her coping process is much different than Frankie’s, it’s just as emotionally honest and compelling. In “The Spelling Bee,” Grace finally realizes what we’ve already figured out about her: She denies herself pleasure. But by the end of the episode, she’s finally letting herself give into her desires.
Everyone feels lonely at some point in “The Spelling Bee.” And it’s all framed around a national telecast meant to supposedly bring people together. Grace has chosen to surround herself with potential suitors, embarking on a first-date marathon. She ends up reconnecting with an old friend (played by Craig T Nelson), who has lived his life as an adventure seeker but is ready to settle down because he’s never seen Breaking Bad and hasn’t had ice cream in nine years and wants companionship. Frankie tries to replace actual human contact with Twitter, joining “the conversation” as @suckitaynrand. But she also seeks companionship from Mike, the computer helpdesk guy whose advice about how to set up her new laptop somehow segues into her filling him in on everything about her life. Brianna attempts to medicate her loneliness with a dog, which leads to a connection with the dog’s former owner, only to be left alone after their time together.
By the end, Robert finally comes around to watching the spelling bee with Sol. Grace gets her romantic kiss at the door. Brianna has Spit the dog, and even though it’s not quite as satisfying as human connection, it’s something. Frankie, however, is still alone, suddenly disinterested in the spelling bee now that her viewing partner is gone again. Grace never comes for the second margarita, and when Frankie spies her kiss through the window, she gives up waiting and goes to bed. It’s a pretty bleak ending to a pretty sad episode (though one with its fair share of laughs, too). And while the idea that human connection can’t be replaced by dogs or the internet doesn’t take much reaching, “The Spelling Bee” unfolds those truths in a way that feels both natural and meaningful for these characters.
- Grace’s instructions for her margarita: “Real lime, no sour mix, light on the salt, rocks.”
- “It’s ugly…er than the profile picture I saw.” Brianna continues to be a damn delight.
- “You probably shouldn’t let your dog touch a grill.”
- I like that the show acknowledges that not all older people are helpless when it comes to new technology. Frankie doesn’t know how to turn a MacBook on, but Grace walks her through the initial steps with ease. That’s a lot more realistic than the blanket route most movies and shows take when showing older generations using computers.
- Wondering what Frankie’s first tweet was that had Mike asking if she was sure she wanted to say something that explicit? Thanks to the marketing folks at Netflix, twitter.com/suckitaynrand has come to life. Frankie’s first tweet reads “Hi Twitter it’s Frankie’s Twitter fuck shit cock bababooey bababooey haha.” Yep, sounds like Frankie.