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The new Netflix comedy series Grace and Frankie has the odd distinction of seeming like it doesn’t belong on Netflix but also paling in comparison to a show on Netflix’s main streaming rival, Amazon.
You might find yourself asking why it exists at all.
For starters, the Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin vehicle feels a lot more like a network show than something trying to stand out in the modern streaming world. That doesn’t necessarily mean that either Netflix or Amazon are distancing themselves from “regular television,” but there’s a familiarity to Grace and Frankie that seems rather dated.
The series is about how Grace (Fonda) and Frankie (Tomlin), two diametrically opposed women, find out that their husbands are leaving them — for each other. Robert (Martin Sheen) and Sol (Sam Waterston) are partners at a law firm and, secretly for the past 20 years, in life. Now in their 70s, they decide they want to marry each other instead of staying married to Grace and Frankie.
Part of the problem with this series, created by Marta Kauffman (Friends, Dream On) and Howard J. Morris (Home Improvement, According to Jim), is that you can’t blame the husbands at all. Both Grace and Frankie come off, in the service of comedy, as women best fled from. Fonda’s Grace is prickly, entitled and nagging. Robert believes leaving her will make her happy — that’s how disinterested she seems in the marriage. Tomlin’s Frankie is less overtly annoying, and Sol, who in turn comes off as more outwardly sensitive than Robert, loves and cares for Frankie — just not in that way. But Frankie is also a very earthy-crunchy type whose feel-good vibes and self-improvement mantra get tested after the surprise announcement, as bitterness washes over her.
When Sol tries to explain the difficulty in both coming out and telling the woman he loves how he’s feeling about the next chapter in his life, Frankie says he should have just kept it to himself. “Ride out the clock. Stay miserable. I’ve got news for you — the next chapter is not that long.”
Perhaps that’s easier to take than Grace telling Robert that it would have been easier had he just died.
Can you feel the goodwill these women are generating?
Granted, Kauffman set up Grace and Frankie to be a show about two women who don’t like each other becoming friends after this late-life shocker, and part of getting through that shock is anger, which makes their characters act in ways that might not make them immediately likable. But what happens is that Robert and Sol quickly becomes a more interesting potential show.
We want to see what happens to those two.
Beyond that, what will hurt Grace and Frankie will be comparisons to Amazon’s Transparent, a series with a lot more gravitas and humor. In that show, a family takes stock when the father, played so wonderfully by Jeffrey Tambor, decides to become a woman. Transparent won this year’s Golden Globe for best comedy series, and Tambor won for best comedic actor. And the reason that happened was because creator Jill Soloway found real heart in the story and, with it, real comedy. It never felt forced. Like a superior indie movie played out in short spurts, Transparent fully examined the repercussions of the decision Tambor’s character made on the family members surrounding him.
One of the parts that doesn’t ring true in Grace and Frankie is how resistant the grown children are to the idea that their fathers are gay. This isn’t some closeted community we’re talking about here — the series is set in socially progressive Los Angeles. And yet Grace’s two (grown-up) daughters do everything but yell “Ewwww!” when they’re told the news, and Frankie’s sons are also unreceptive. This doesn’t seem realistic, much less enlightened, at all. That’s because Grace and Frankie is, first and foremost, going for laughs over truth — like the network sitcoms both Kauffman and Morris are so well-versed in.
One of Grace’s daughters even asks what she’s supposed to tell her kids — as if someone has died. But the scene gets worse when the other daughter replies: “Why don’t you start with, ‘Do you know where poop comes from?’ ”
Again, beyond feeling like it’s a flippant NBC comedy, Grace and Frankie also feels very 1999. If this is what Netflix wants for its series development, fine, but the last time anyone checked, there wasn’t a big retro-broadcast-TV movement afoot.
The broadness of Grace and Frankie can’t be overlooked here. Part of it seems to be that Kauffman and Morris really want to see Fonda and Tomlin playing that legends-of-the-screen shtick in a comedy. But making them seem like grumpy old women probably isn’t the answer. In one scene, Frankie goes to a convenience store and stocks up on sugary items, booze she doesn’t know anything about and cigarettes, which she previously didn’t smoke. This is the older-lady version of binge-eating young women in rom-coms. Frankie gets home, lights the cigarette and disgustedly puts it out. She doles out a bowl of ice cream and then pours Jameson all over it — and spits it out.
Is that supposed to be funny?
Later, she takes peyote and goes on a “vision quest” that Grace thinks is a “vision test” and — oh my, sitcom silliness — the whole thing ends up in a lengthy beach scene where both veteran actresses pretend to be superhigh after Grace “accidentally” drinks some of the peyote tea. They drop a lot of “motherf—ers” because it’s Netflix, and one of them sees Jesus, and they yell at sea birds to be careful of the male birds who might turn gay, and then, as they walk home, Frankie says, “I must have half the beach in my vagina.”
And no, there is no laugh track here. This is a single-camera series shot as a dramedy but played almost entirely for laughs that seem as forced as they sound.
And it’s a shame, really. This is a pretty great cast — plus there’s Joe Morton, Mary Kay Place and Geoff Stults. Maybe future episodes are a lot better. Getting through two of them (both written by Kauffman and Morris) seemed like a lot of work. And it brought up the bigger issue that Grace and Frankie faces, no matter whether Netflix reports ratings or not: In a supercompetitive television landscape, will people stream a show that seems like it should have been made more than a decade before streaming existed?
There are at least two scenes where Frankie doesn’t know how to work her iPhone — including one where she tries to hang it up by slamming it down on a table, as if it were a rotary phone and she was getting used to the silent-film-to-talkie thing.
But see, that’s Grace and Frankie going for sitcom laughs and not actually trying to address the bigger issues at play here, which are rich with dramatic potential: getting old and what that means for everybody, but specifically women; coming out as gay when you’re 70-something because you’re tired of pretending, and the world has evolved to the point where you actually can get legally married; what it means to change — because changing is the X factor in everybody’s life — and how that change affects those around you (like your children or a woman you’ve lived with for decades). Grace and Frankie has the kind of material that rocketed Transparent to critical success and allowed Amazon to very impressively plant its flag. But instead of exploring that, Grace and Frankie is basically a network sitcom, dolled up with great actors, trying to pretend it belongs in the same room as Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards.
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