Early on in Grace And Frankie’s second season, a medical crisis sends the show’s four leads to the emergency room. As the doctor tries to sort out which spouse belongs to her patient, someone finally announces, “We’re all family here.” It’s a familiar sitcom line that nonetheless speaks volumes about how Grace And Frankie has evolved. The show’s first season was built on conflict: Oil-and-water frenemies Grace Hanson (Jane Fonda) and Frankie Bergstein (Lily Tomlin) move in together after learning their respective husbands—Robert (Martin Sheen) and Sol (Sam Waterston)—have been having an affair together for decades. One season later, however, it’s love, not conflict, which has come to define the messy Hanson/Bergstein family unit.
Grace and Frankie are no longer begrudging roommates thrown together by circumstance but loving best friends supporting one another by choice. When they do squabble over Grace’s desire to be more social or Frankie’s immaturity, they’re never in danger of destroying their bond. Lesser showrunners might hit the reset button and return to the familiar prickly beats of their initial premise. But creators Marta Kauffman and Howard J. Morris—who worked together on Dream On and separately on Friends (which Kauffman created), Home Improvement, and According To Jim—know a thing or two about mining conflict and comedy from stable relationships. Even the darkest cloud looming over the new episodes—the fact that Sol slept with Frankie in the first season finale—is played more for humanity and heart than awkward tension. Sol’s affair has a ripple effect throughout the season, but in ways that are poignant rather than unpleasant.
Last season, Kauffman and Morris struggled to mesh their more lighthearted comedic sensibilities with the inherent tragedy of Grace And Frankie’s premise. But with less animosity at its core, the creators have a firmer grasp on the second season’s tone. Though the first few episodes seem to indicate Grace And Frankie has crossed over into full-on sitcom territory, the latter half of the season introduces surprisingly weighty dramatic material as well. There are still some hiccups as the show tries to marry its single-camera dramedy vibe with multi-camera sitcom gags, but overall it does so with more skill and finesse than the first season did. For instance, one early episode introduces a hackneyed sitcom miscommunication plot only to immediately subvert it with a dose of real-world logic.
But what the show does best is apply an unflinchingly honest comedic and dramatic eye to the realities of aging. As in the first season, Grace and Frankie’s dating lives remain a major focus (allowing for some welcome guest turns from Ernie Hudson and Sam Elliot as potential suitors) and some frank discussions of sex after 70. But the show also explores aging from other angles too, including the complex emotional realities of being a mother and grandmother and the social/professional prejudice the elderly often face. In its slightly more somber second half, the season explores topics as serious as the effects of degenerative diseases and the right to die.
While aging has been discussed on TV before, it’s often through the eyes of a younger protagonist spending time with an elderly guest star (like Lynn Cohen on Master Of None or June Squibb on Girls). Here the septuagenarians are the protagonists, with younger characters serving supporting roles in their stories. That lends both weight and dignity to the exploration of aging that few shows have been able to match. On Grace And Frankie, getting old isn’t a punchline, it’s the set-up for a more universal joke.
Which is not to say the show has no place for its younger characters, who are more naturally woven into the season this year. With the awkward pseudo-romance between Coyote (Ethan Embry) and Mallory (Brooklyn Decker) mercifully excised, Grace and Frankie’s adult kids now feel like they’re part of one big dysfunctional family. That allows for some interesting character pairings like Coyote looking up to Robert as a father figure, Sol playing kindly grandpa to Mallory’s kids, Brianna (June Diane Raphael, still a massive scene-stealer) going into business with Frankie, and Bud (Baron Vaughn) desperately trying to make peace between everyone. Though it doesn’t shy away from the sting of its two failed marriages, Grace And Frankie argues this new familial rearrangement has actually changed everyone for the better by melding the Bergsteins’ emotional openness with the Hansons’ practicality.
That’s most apparent in the show’s two central relationships. Influenced by Sol’s kindness, Robert gets a much-needed dose of heart this season, which allows Sheen to bring more of the warmth he used to such great effect on The West Wing. Waterston, meanwhile, has fun finding the neurosis of a man who previously defined himself as a kindly caretaker but has now committed adultery with/against the same two people in two different combinations.
Yet Fonda and Tomlin remain the show’s biggest draw, and, thankfully, earn most of its screen time. Though they are unquestioningly loyal to one another, Grace and Frankie are still trying to figure out who they are as newly single seventysomethings. Grace, in particular, has changed dramatically since we first met her, thanks mostly to Frankie’s influence. Throughout the season, she wrestles with the self-awareness of just how cold she used to be. Grace’s newfound empathy allows Fonda to play more notes than just “uptight,” and she also gets some meaty dramatic material to sink her teeth into in the second half of the season.
Tomlin’s Frankie, meanwhile, remains a tremendous comic creation; there doesn’t seem to be a line of dialogue from which Tomlin can’t wring a laugh with Frankie’s whimsical yet aggressive delivery. As always, she’s a little less grounded than Grace, but Frankie’s attempts to break into the cosmetics industry with her yam-based lube gives Tomlin plenty of rigid professional setups to bounce off of. And it highlights that Grace and Frankie’s relationship really is a two-way street: Grace’s drive and professionalism has influenced Frankie as much as Frankie’s openheartedness has influenced Grace. Fonda and Tomlin are strong enough to hold their own storylines, but it’s when they’re together that the show really soars.
In almost every way Grace And Frankie steps up its game for its second season. Though many of the changes are subtle, they result in a season far more worthy of Tomlin and Fonda’s considerable talents. And while most of the time that means serving up charming comedic comfort food, occasionally Grace And Frankie even succeeds at being something more profound.
Reviews by Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya will run daily from Friday, May 6 through May 18.