Timed to coincide with Mother’s Day Weekend, Netflix just debuted its latest original series Grace and Frankie on Friday. It stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin teaming up together for the first time since the ’70s. The 13-episode season sees Fonda’s poised and composed Grace finding her footing with the eccentric Frankie after their husbands leave them for each other. To say this series is chock full of mega talents is an understatement. Grace and Frankie was co-created by Marta Kaufman, who also co-created the super popular NBC series Friends (also now on Netflix.) Grace’s husband Robert is played by Martin Sheen, and Frankie’s husband Sol, short for Solomon, is portrayed by Sam Waterson. Waterson and Fonda most recently starred and sparred together in Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom for HBO. Sheen and Tomlin also share a Sorkin connection, having appeared in The West Wing together.
The series is ostensibly a comedy, but the narrative does not shy away from delving deeper into themes of perseverance, loneliness, broken relationships, and rediscovering sexual agency after age 70. There are classic comedic situations of course–involving but not limited to hallucinogenics, penis-shaped mechanical rodeos, and awkward romantic encounters–but as Lily and Jane stated in their interview with Clark Wolfe they’re playing the material for reality. They want the comedy to feel funny, but they want the pain of losing their marriages to feel real and grounded. There are minor spoilers ahead, but I’ve tried to keep them at a minimum so you get the most laughs and tears possible during your own viewing.
At the center of the series are two families, Grace’s and Frankie’s. Grace and Robert have two daughters, and Frankie and Sol have two sons, both adopted. Though she is by no means shallow, Grace personifies the phrase “keeping up appearances.” She has recently retired, having handed the CEO reins of her beauty product company over to her sharp-tounged but brilliant daughter Briana (June Diane Raphael.) Other daughter Mallory is busy with a family of her own with husband Mitch (Geoff Stults.) Sol and Frankie’s son Coyote (Ethan Embry) has a history of substance abuse and rehab, but while he means so well his social aptitude is lacking. Nwabudike, AKA Bud, (Baron Vaughn) followed in his dad’s legal footsteps and has recently joined the firm where Robert and Sol are business partners.
In the opening scene of the series, Sol and Robert are having dinner with their wives at a restaurant and decide to drop the bomb that they’re both ending their marriages… for each other. While a network sitcom might play up the novelty of two men leaving their wives for each other for cheap laughs, Kaufman & Co. are able to fully explore the real issues that arise in the situation. After all, these are two men who have each been married to their wives for 40 years. They didn’t come to the decision lightly, because they both love their families, but living a lie is a heavy burden to bear. The comedy comes from the differences in personalities between the four central characters. Robert and Grace are both alpha personalities. Sol and Frankie are both hippie-dippy spirits. While Sol and Robert begin a new life together out in the open, their jilted wives find that they have to rely on each other as well.
Due to the two families’ professional and personal history, they joint-purchased a beach house. It’s the perfect refuge for Grace after she decides to move out of her and Robert’s house. Or, it would have been, but Frankie had the same idea and is already performing a sage burning dance (again, hippie-dippy spirit) when Grace arrives. Initially Grace’s uptight nature leaves her with more feelings of annoyance toward Frankie than kinship, but the sands of time erode all obstacles. Frankie’s presence eventually softens Grace’s focused exterior and Grace comes to see Frankie as a confidant despite their wildly different philosophies on life.
The course of the season sees Grace re-entering the dating pool thanks to some online dating guidance from daughter Briana. Frankie too explores the possibility of a new date for the first time in 40 years with her “yam man” Jacob. Where some people might find and stick with their favorite butchers, Frankie has a long-trusted produce guy (Ernie Hudson) who specializes in, yes, yams. A series of online misfires results in Grace being at the right place at the right time to reconnect with old friend Guy (Craig T. Nelson) who was Robert’s college roommate. While relationships with men (or the lack thereof) are catalysts for much of the series’ story, the central burgeoning friendship between Grace and Frankie is the real focus. The two women have always been in each other’s peripheral fields, but they’ve never been close. Their new station in life gives them more than just similar circumstances, it gives them a fresh start together.
Clarke Wolfe’s previously mentioned interview is a great primer for getting into the series. Seeing Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin together on screen again is a real treat after the iconic 9 to 5. This is certainly not the same kind of comedy, so comparisons between the two vehicles are moot, but I was still holding out the tiniest sliver of hope for a Dolly cameo. What can I say? I’m a sucker for big hair and nostalgia. Here’s the interview:
While you’re at it don’t forget to check out the episode of the Nerdist podcast wherein Supreme Leader Hardwick interviews Lily Tomlin. While younger audiences may not be familiar with her early comedy, it’s something that should be seen. The next best thing is hearing her discuss her iconic career ranging from Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In to appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson to her own comedy specials. Nerdist Episode 336 – Lily Tomlin.
I’d like to give an extra special shoutout to the theme song, a “Stuck In The Middle With You” cover by Grace Potter. It’s a great cover and sets the perfect tone for the series.
Photo: Melissa Moseley for Netflix