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.