The premise of Grace and Frankie, the new Netflix series starring feminist icons Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, is fairly simple: Grace and Frankie are two senior citizens whose husbands, longtime law partners, have announced that they are gay, in love, and getting married to each other. The series focuses on the women’s attempts to gain their equilibrium in the wake of complete upheaval.
I’ve seen a handful of episodes thus far, and although the series doesn’t completely avoid the indignities faced by women in their position, it doesn’t get anywhere near as real as it might be. For a show on this subject matter, it’s safe. Yes, we see the pain and anger, but it involves things like Grace being uninvited from a wedding because it would be awkward, or the heroines finding out that their credit cards have been preemptively canceled by their husbands, who are both divorce lawyers.
The show’s unwillingness to get down and dirty is its great weakness, because it lacks the edge that turns a run-of-the-mill show into something that provokes even as it amuses. Amazon’s flawed series Transparent is an example of a show on modern lives that has managed to transcend the everyday. For example, in Transparent, the children are unlikeable train wrecks who handle their father’s new life with remarkably poor grace. In Grace and Frankie, the kids are wealthy, healthy, and conventionally good looking. Yes, the children have problems, but they are all manageable. Their reaction to their parents’ news is, for the most part, very supportive.
Viewers are presented with familiar conflict, such as the personality clashes between Fonda’s icy, perfect Grace, and Tomlin’s earthy, but now extremely angry, Frankie. The plotlines are less familiar, such as when Fonda takes a fall in a frozen yogurt shop and breaks her hip. In that case, Grace’s dismay at being (in her mind) officially an old woman is only matched by her horror when her husband shows up in the hospital. It’s hard to maintain your pride when you are helpless, and Grace is less suited for humility than most. Frankie, though, is invaluable in such situations, as Grace quickly realizes.
Despite its decorousness, the show is still well worth watching. The cast members, which include Martin Sheen (as Grace’s ex, Robert) and Sam Waterston (as Frankie’s ex, Sol), do wonders with every line they are given. They give depth and poignancy to very simple scenes: for example, a leisurely-paced episode where the four main characters attend a wake gives Sheen and Fonda both some opportunities to show the immense pain and loss experienced on the part of both the cheating spouses and the cheated-upon.
The supporting cast is very solid, too, including June Diane Raphael as Fonda’s sharp-edged daughter Brianna, and Ethan Embry as Tomlin’s son, Coyote, who is fresh out of rehab and very vulnerable, as everyone keeps reminding him. Raphael has a mischievous energy and intelligence as an actress — you can’t wait to hear what she says next. As Coyote, Embry is sweet and vulnerable and puppy-doggish, but he infuses the character with the underlying sadness of a man who has disappointed everyone and knows that he doesn’t have much to show for his life.
When considering whether to watch this show, there is also the bigger picture: senior women are extremely underrepresented in television, and they still remain caricatures. Grace and Frankie would be worth viewing even if only for the reason that the characters aren’t sassy nymphomaniacs or senile truthtellers or meddling authors who seem to always be around when murder is afoot. (Also, why wasn’t Jessica Fletcher ever suspected for those crimes? It’s kind of sexist that she didn’t commit at least one of them, when you think about it.) Grace and Frankie are next-generation characters, and attention must be paid.