TV Review: Netflix’s ‘Grace and Frankie’

Grace and Frankie TV Review Netflix
Melissa Moseley for Netflix

The combination of demographic audacity (female protagonists … in their 70s?) and nostalgia (reuniting “9 to 5” co-stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin) is more interesting than anything else in “Grace and Frankie,” a Netflix comedy that puts a (relatively) modern wrinkle on “The First Wives Club.” Here, the jilted spouses are very different women, thrown uncomfortably together when their husbands, longtime business partners, profess their love for each other. Stellar casting, however, goes only so far in masking a jokey approach and uneven tone that alternates between the women’s understandable hurt and betrayal, and stoned granny or old-queen gags.

Created by “Friends’” Marta Kauffman and fellow sitcom veteran Howard J. Morris, “Grace and Frankie” (Fonda and Tomlin, respectively) doesn’t waste any time before setting up the premise, as the pair’s husbands Robert (Martin Sheen) and Sol (Sam Waterston) break the news to their wives over dinner: We’ve been in love for 20 years, and we’re leaving you.

Not surprisingly, this unleashes plenty of righteous fury, as well as awkward exchanges with the couples’ grown children and friends. “You’re gay, and this is who you’re gay with?” Frankie asks Sol, incredulously.

While Amazon’s “Transparent” explored facing such a difficult realization and braving a change from the perspective of the person experiencing it, this show doesn’t quite give the guys equal time, due as much to marketing, one suspects, as servicing the plot. And that’s too bad, frankly, because while Grace and Frankie ingest peyote and lash out together, the men offer some quieter moments, ranging from giddiness over being honest about their long-deferred affection to weariness dealing with the fallout. “I’m never not going to be coming out, am I?” Robert says in a later episode of the six previewed.

In part, the series feels handcuffed by its format, having chosen to work at being funny and still address the sense of loss the women face. So the narrative keeps playing off the disconnection between Frankie as the meditating Earth goddess and Grace as the buttoned-up WASP, with the familiar and emotional theme of two disparate people united through grief offset by predictable one-liners and showier interludes, such as having Grace break down in a fit of rage in response to a rude food-market employee.

Fonda and Tomlin are certainly game, and their longstanding rapport shines through. The show is also augmented by a glittering array of guest performers of a certain age, including Mary Kay Place and Christine Lahti as a friend and Robert’s sister, respectively.

The kids, however, barely register, and there’s too much time spent on Frankie and Sol’s son Coyote (Ethan Embry), a recovering junkie. Watched in close proximity, the episodes also display a repetitive quality, marginally advancing the story while offering new permutations on the indignities associated with having lives uprooted in this fashion.

Because Netflix is playing a different sort of game, though, a series like “Grace and Frankie” yields benefits that go beyond its individual merit, both in terms of the ample publicity its stars will generate and its consciousness-raising potential within a quadrant of consumers less likely to be bingeing “Orange Is the New Black” or “Hemlock Grove.” For a subscriber-based service, there’s also considerable logic in catering to viewers who might be shunned by media buyers but whose money is as green as that of their kids and grandkids — and frequently a whole lot more plentiful.

From that perspective, a show featuring septuagenarians beyond the ad-free confines of PBS is, conceptually speaking, an intriguing patch on the streaming service’s programming quilt. It’s only too bad, given the talent involved, that the design looks so conspicuously factory-made.

TV Review: Netflix's 'Grace and Frankie'

(Series; Netflix, May 8)

Production

Filmed in Los Angeles by Okay Good Night! and Skydance Television.

Crew

Executive producers, Marta Kauffman, Howard J. Morris, Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Paula Weinstein, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Marcy Ross; co-executive producer, Alexa Junge; producers, Jeff Freilich, Robbie Tollin, Jacquelyn Reingold; director, Tate Taylor; writers, Kauffman, Morris; camera, Gale Tattersall; production designer, Devorah Herbert; editor, Lisa Zeno Churgin; music, Michael Skloff, Sam KS; casting, Tracy Lilienfield. 35 MIN.

Cast

Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen, Sam Waterston, Brooklyn Decker, Ethan Embry, Baron Vaughn, June Diane Raphael

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  1. Very mainstream criticism…it’s cleverer than the “observers” note. lolol In one fell swoop, the show stands mundanity on its head, misses the depth behind the fury, glosses over the attempt to go within using (not heroin or pharma meds which kill), but shaministic peyote which leadS into spirit metamorphosis…pits the materialistic/business entity vs.the expansive, authentic spirit recalling the strains between the the liberal and conservativism divisiveness of the early 1970s, something which is as everpresent as the day is long in this current election cycle and casting Fonda as the uptight business woman in light of her past demonstrations, and evolution as a person from Barbarella to being slimed as Hanoi Jane and beyond is sheer brillance, on top of the fact that Tomlin IS GAY. The ironies and sardonic humor in the premise is great. Hello…open your eyes and look for depth, not the same old repetitious commentary that SAYS NOTHING AND DOESN’T EVEN GUIDE THE READERS TO UNDERSTAND the nuances that are going on. I could go on… if you dare…look at it again with different eyes, if possible.

  2. Ellen C. says:

    Just seeing the ad for this show is frustrating — Really, Martin Sheen? Sitting at the dinner table saying you are leaving your wife cause you and Sam Waterston are in love? I don’t have an issue with that subject — but Oh My God — those lines could have been delivered by a robot, and I would be hard-pressed to tell the difference. I hope they don’t pay you too much for that.

  3. Judy Noah says:

    Not the reality I have witnessed with the several friends of mine going through this life changing event. I think choosing to use comedy is simply an attempt to down-play the heart ache and truths that have been stripped bear and made raw.

    I would like a remake where we truly address some issues. I want to feel value-added for my time spent in front of the tube. For example, I would like to know which type of gay guy each husband is before exploring the emotions, values and beliefs that come into play with each and also between the couples.
    For example, the making of the gay child is a good start to exploring the character of the men.

    NOTE: For the two types of gay guys, I am referring to #1. the male baby who identified with the wrong parent ( the mom instead of the dad) or #2. the young child (usually) who’s love object (the mother) is made so disgusting the child, for survival, must move his love to the same gendered parent (the dad). Thus, when the male child whos love object is dad grows up, his love object will be another male. (paraphrased from Freud, translated by Joan Revere: who is the only one who translated Freud’s works verbatim with notes on words that would not translated straight across).

  4. R in Seattle says:

    I really have grown to love this series. I wasnt sure in the first three or four episodes but by the fifth or sixth I had grown fond of the characters and the writing really firmed up. (Wow, imagine if network tv could give series more than two weeks to find an audience what might happen) I am glad that there will be a second season and I have been telling friends and family to give it a look..though I do tell them to stay with it beyond the first few episodes.

    • Van Fan says:

      Absolutley agree. I could see things starting to fall into place at about the same point. Characters and storylines are developing nicely, imo. I have laughed out loud many times and I know it was because something struck me as fresh and perceptive. It’s great that the series juggles laughs and pathos. Just like real life!

      I also want to note that we all make self-deprecating jokes about ourselves as we age—and that this show does not do it in the same as the stale, stereotypical way in which Hollywood usually does.

      I’m really enjoying seeing these older, seasoned actors doing their star turns, again. It’s about time.

  5. gettingandspending says:

    We just finished the entire series. Yes the shows are bumpy; much of what the reviewer says is true. But the writing does seem to improve after the first few episodes. And yes they cram too much into each show, in a way. On the other hand, the episodes sure don’t drag! And how can you not love Lily Tomlin? Ms Fonda is pretty darn good too. We have grown to like the characters, and the patent absurdities that are sometimes truly absurd and sometimes so damn close to real life it’s uncanny. I do think that younger people may not get or appreciate some of the humour. All my pals, and we are all just about to be seniors, love it!

  6. Kay Beason says:

    I find this show to be entertaining and such a relief from the crime shows I also like!!

    My neighborhood got together to watch and we love it!

  7. Vernon Borchert says:

    show sucks…shallow characters and poorly written…it should go straight to the oxygen/estrogen channel…or we could all agree to kill it with fire

  8. Kate Workman says:

    Would love if they would bring Dolly Parton on for an episode…;)

  9. Allan Pierce says:

    I allowed myself to become totally involved in the insanity and “magical realism” of the series. When one character was being somewhat realistic, another was being absurd. Together it all worked for me. I would have liked some more specific reference of what is was actually like in the professional world of the two lawyers but on the whole it was a healthy exploration and was a wonderful escape from the mundane fiction of television.

  10. thomas says:

    I have watched 4 episodes and can”t believe such a waste of talent. Reminds me of a high school play. Is it the writing, the directing,etc.. It can’t be the actors!!

  11. The different personalities of the two title characters, are typical of the difference in those who can and can not enjoy the simple things in life. The writer of this review, is definitely more like Jane Fonda’s character.😉 God bless the curmudgeons in life.

  12. Gale Tattersall says:

    A reviewer that can’t even spell? “weariness”… ??? Desn’t lend for much crediblity!!!

  13. Ivan says:

    Netflix is still a little too corporate to allow such programs to shine. In many ways, it seems to be tv that’s created in a boardroom. Meanwhile other stations are making really groundbreaking shows (I’m sure you have your favourites).

    Note sure if they will ever become the next HBO, but kudos for at least trying something different for a different market.

    • nerdrage says:

      No, it’s TV created by algorithm, which sometimes results in great stuff but certainly not always. Netflix is in the same boat as everyone else, it doesn’t really know what works. Just because for example I love space opera dramas doesn’t mean I’m going to like whatever they shove at me in this genre.

  14. Bill B. says:

    Was looking forward to this. Love the cast. Hope I like it better than he does.

  15. Atomic Fury says:

    And here we are, three years after cancelling my Netflix account, and I’m still declining offers to renew.

    • Richard says:

      Lowry nailed it. We gave the show two episodes and were very disappointed. The cast is impressive, the writing sucks. It’s a collection of stale skits.

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