A prestigious cast and a good sitcom pedigree make this Netflix comedy worth spending some quality time with.
The original Netflix output for 2015 could not be more different so far, from the powder-keg tension of Bloodline, to the gritty action-drama of Marvel’s Daredevil, the sci-fi of Between or the surrealist laughs of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Throw into the mix the off-beat GRACE & FRANKIE, ostensibly a new comedy from Friends co-creator Marta Kauffman and Howard J. Morris (According to Jim). Yet right off the bat it distinguishes itself from the broad comedy of their previous worlds, forgoing support from a laugh track in favour of a gentler observational sitcom.
Of course, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was going to follow network sitcom formulas from the initial set-up. It begins with a Grace (Jane Fonda), a super-organized and retired cosmetics mogul, and Frankie (Lily Tomlin), a hippie art teacher, waiting for their husbands in a restaurant. The two can barely stand each other, but for the long-standing friendship of their spouses Robert (Martin Sheen) and Sol (Sam Waterston). Expecting them to announce their retirements, Grace and Frankie are bowled over when Robert and Sol announce they are in love and are leaving their wives to get married. Forced to live together, the titular duo have to work out how to start over in their mid-seventies.
The “odd couple” set-up aside, GRACE & FRANKIE is a very easy show to like. Indeed, “very easy” is an apt way to not only describe its accessibility, but its overall pace as well. The impeccable casting begins with the leads, and our familiarity with Fonda and Tomlin’s on-screen personas (coming off the back of Newsroom and Grandma respectively), and Fonda’s often mannered way of delivery is definitely working in her favour here. It’s a reunion to a team that’s over thirty years in the making, with the pair (minus Dolly Parton) previously starring together in 9 to 5 (1980). The show immediately addresses their propensity to clash, but one of the simple joys of the run is that when they do often come into conflict, the drama is almost immediately resolved. There are few screaming matches, comedic storm-outs (save for a wonderful moment in a corner store with a frustrated Grace in “The Dinner”) or all-too-obvious comedy-of-error-clashes. When there are, they are solved with an essence of (dare we say) grace.
Case in point is “The Elevator,” a late season episode that sees the four main cast members stuck in a lift. It’s a classic sitcom staple, up there with the boss coming over for a party that goes wrong (which they also kind of cover in “The Bachelor Party”). While it plays up on Grace’s claustrophobia and Frankie’s endless supply of drugs, it also gives us time to explore the characters a little deeper, taking us back several years to a place where all the secrets remained that. While some may argue that this was a random insertion of flashbacks that didn’t gel with the rest of the show, it makes perfect sense when you consider GRACE & FRANKIE a show that goes out of its way to take the non-confrontational approach to drama. It’s refreshing to see a show willing to take the chance to stop and reflect just before its first “ending.”
Despite the massive shadow cast by the leads, the supporting cast are also impeccable. Sisters Briana (June Diane Raphael) and Mallory (Brooklyn Decker), the children of Robert and Grace, could not be more different and yet work as a convincing family unit. Briana literally has to contend with her mother’s shadow, after taking over the cosmetics company, and provides much of the broader romantic comedy. Mallory also finds herself divided, having moved on with a new family and partner, only to find former flame and recovering alcoholic Coyote (Ethan Embry) back in her life. One of Sol and Frankie’s adopted sons, along with Nwabudike or “Bud” (Baron Vaughn), the two make a pleasing comedy team. At the same time, Coyote’s remorse for actions he can’t remember, the result of his alcoholism, also form part of the drama underlying many of the gatherings. Robert and Sol’s relationship almost takes a backseat to all of this, which in itself is pleasing: their “coming out” is initially awkward, but soon slips into being simply part of the show’s fabric, just as Sheen and Waterston begin to be more comfortable with their on-screen affection.
GRACE & FRANKIE will return for a second season, and we are not left with a cliffhanger, but rather a sense of resolute calm. Dealing with dating and sex after seventy, and finding that resolution after a long-term relationship ends in divorce, don’t necessarily make for a wide appeal on paper, but remain charming thanks to the simple truths behind all relationships. It’s a slow grower, and many viewers may find themselves drifting off in the first few episodes, but it’s more than rewarding just to watch these amazing actors effortlessly bring this incredibly dysfunctional family to life.
All 13 episodes of GRACE & FRANKIE: Season 1 are now available for streaming via Netflix.