The promos for Grace & Frankie made the Netflix series look like a laugh-out-loud situation comedy, making light of the demise of two women’s marriages to their fresh-out-of-the-closet husbands. But the series is more dramedy than comedy, with a slow burn that leaves its leading ladies floundering like fish out of the aquarium.
If you weren’t ready for the G&F premise, the opening credits give it all away. Two bride-and-groom couples are on a cake and evolve through the years, adding kids and other challenges, before the two grooms join hands. (Personally, I would have appreciated a cold open of the “coming out” at dinner followed by the cutesy credits, but maybe that’s just me.)
Instead, the credits precede the big reveal at dinner, which makes the subsequent exchange seem redundant. In the opening scene, the two husbands Robert and Sol (Martin Sheen, Sam Waterston) call their wives for a meeting over dinner. Grace (Jane Fonda) suspects that the men are finally going to retire, but not so: They’re in love with each other and want to get married(because they can now). While Grace is angry, Frankie (Lily Tomlin) is heartbroken, despite being the ever-tolerant, mother-of-Earth type who goes on vision quests and meditates.
In the first episode titled “The End,” Grace and Frankie fight over the beach house from the Nancy Meyers’ collection, which appears to be setting up the real thread of the show: Two women learning to get along after sharing the same traumatic event. Think of all the high-jinks they can get into! After all, the episode ends with them drinking Peyo-tea on the beach.
But that’s not necessarily what the show is about. G&F heads into more Transparent territory by including Grace and Frankie’s adult children into the mix and how they are affected by their fathers’ new lives. Unlike the Amazon series, though, their problems are not as interesting, especially Mallory’s (Brooklyn Decker) forbidden relationship with addict Coyote (Ethan Embry). Although in episode 3 titled “The Dinner,” the series addresses complications of the two men still being cheaters, despite being champions for the LGBT community.
When Frankie’s son Nwabudike (Baron Vaughn) brings cake to dinner at the dads’ house, Grace’s daughter Brianna (June Diane Raphael) questions whether they’d still be eating cake if they had discovered their fathers had been cheating on their mothers with other women for the past 20 years.
Even though there aren’t as many laughs as one would expect (given that this series comes from Friends co-creator Marta Kauffman), the series does deal with real issues that would come up in such a situation and doesn’t make these characters as resilient as typical sitcom figures. Frankie is especially having problems with this life change because she’s still in love with her best friend. Plus, she’s in her 70s and resents him for finding the love of his life and leaving her to die alone (although in episode four titled “The Funeral,” the woman of a deceased friend tells her: “What are you going to do? I’m going to be dead soon, but you can live another 20 years!). On the reverse, Sol, too, is having issues letting go of his best friend.
If either Fonda or Tomlin is going to get nominated for an Emmy, it’s going to be Tomlin since Frankie is the more vulnerable of the two and also gets more laughs. One of her strongest comedic scenes is when she applies for an art instructor position at a nursing home and is horrified to discover that the interview isn’t for the job, but for a room there as a resident.
It isn’t until episode five titled “The Fall” that the series starts to find its footing, ironically, when Grace loses hers at a frozen yogurt store. It becomes more about its two title characters, when during the first four episodes, it was mostly an ensemble piece that could have justifiably been called Robert and Sol. Frankie takes care of Grace in the hospital, and we learn more about Grace, specifically her claustrophobia and fear of being alone. Unfortunately, the twist at the end of the episode is that the fall never took place; Grace had only Patrick Duffy-ed the whole thing, seeing her life flash before her eyes at the fro-yoshop before Frankie pulled her to safety. So just when the series takes one step forward in finding independence, it takes another step back, reverting to hackneyed storytelling devices.