May 1, 2018
Grace and Frankie: Going Through The Change
Situation comedies by definition involve a “situation.” In the ones that work best, the “comedy” arises from character, and the characters transcend type and become iconic. Mary Richards isn’t just a single career gal. She’s Mary, and all she has to do to turn the world on with a smile is say the words “Mr. Grant,” which she can do a hundred different ways. The Odd Couple isn’t only about two divorced men sharing an apartment. It’s about Felix and Oscar.
With two powerhouses in the title roles, Grace and Frankie may succeed if the writers can rise to the level of their leads.
Here’s the setup. In episode one, two couples of a certain age are having dinner at a restaurant. The wives get there first. We’re immediately aware of the tension between them. Jane Fonda is Grace. Like her name, she’s all about dignity and appearance. Well dressed, well coifed, she’s an aging professional beauty, still keeping up appearances, but tastefully and not in a Hyacinth Bucket way. In contrast, Lily Tomlin’s Frankie has frizzy, graying hair and is an eccentrically dressed font of too much information. Unlike Grace, who only consumes grain in its alcoholic liquid form, Frankie immediately goes for the bread in front of her. She’s not one to deny her appetites.
The husbands have told them there will be a big announcement at dinner. The wives expect it will be retirement plans. The gents, both lawyers, are business partners and friends. If television has taught us that the workplace is a family (an idea explicitly stated on The Mary Tyler Moore Show), then Grace and Frankie are each other’s in-laws, forced together by their respective marriages. Retirement will loosen their bonds, something both women would welcome.
If we’ve seen the promos, we won’t be surprised when Robert (Mr. Grace) and Sol (Mr. Frankie) arrive, tell their spouses they are “homosexual lovers,” have been for twenty years, and are planning to leave the two of them and get married to each other because they can do that now.
“I know. I hosted that fundraiser,” Frankie replies, infusing the too-on-the-nose line with the perfect combination of anger, bitterness, shock, and frustration, while maintaining killer comic timing.
The quip works because of Tomlin, not the words, which may be the core of the show’s problem. Traditional sitcoms get close to authentic emotion, and then pull back with a joke. Dumping someone in a restaurant so as not to create a scene has been done for comic effect so many times that people panic if asked out for dinner. Is it plausible that Robert and Sol would break up forty-year marriages together and not in their own homes? Or is it contrived and fake? Does their ploy work? Of course not, which leads to the inevitable comic food-throwing scene—another trope.
The men move in with each other, which makes sense, and the women both wind up living in the two families’ shared beach house—which is a bit of a stretch. The “unlikely roommates thrown together” thing is a crutch, and the show only finds its legs away from it—when it least resembles a knockoff of classic television shows like The Odd Couple and The Golden Girls. It’s fresher and better when it takes us places we haven’t been. Jane and Lily aren’t just icons; they are also comedians, which means they don’t only say funny things, they say things funny. The best scenes, the ones everyone talks about, are the ones where the actors find the funny and where, as Homer Simpson might say, “It’s funny ’cause it’s true.”
Some stuff that works:
- Frankie, when reviewing her marriage for clues to her husband’s orientation, mentions that time he wanted her to use a dildo. The punch line isn’t a septuagenarian meandering into Broad City territory. The joke is that the otherwise sharp Frankie missed what was right in front of her. It’s funny because it happened to her, and not to you.
- Grace and Frankie go to a convenience store where they are ignored by the clerk because they are estrogen-deprived old ladies and he is busy flirting with a sweet young thing of childbearing age with large, firm mammary glands. The situation is one that’s been a staple for female standups, but their reactions sell it. Grace, a woman who is not used to not being seen, is shocked and outraged. Frankie uses it as an opportunity to take advantage of the super-power of invisibility. She steals a pack of cigarettes.
But the most amazing scenes were two solos by Fonda. Ironic, because Tomlin is best known for one-woman shows. Grace is alone in front of a mirror, taking off makeup. We begin to see some of the wrinkles previously covered by a good concealer. Then a hairpiece comes off the back of her head, followed by an elastic band pulling back her skin with strategically placed surgical tape. (And you thought that was just for movie stars! The greatest product placement ever!) She still looks amazing, especially when you realize that Jane Fonda is seven years older than Grace is supposed to be, but there’s more. In another scene we watch Grace prepare for sexytimes with her new beau. She practices posing in her negligee, bouncing on the bed like a much younger woman until she hurts her neck, and then comes the money shot. Grace notices the wobbly skin hanging from her provocatively raised arm. It’s not scored to the music from Jaws, but it should be. It’s possibly the most meta-moment in the series. Jane Fonda, Jane FUCKING Fonda, the woman who after age forty (which wasn’t the new 30 back then) reinvented herself as an aerobics guru! Hanoi Jane, the one time political activist who turned the “fitness tape” into a mega-industry, the woman who sold us on the idea that we could look great forever if we could just do enough leg lifts, yes, THAT Jane Fonda has upper arm-waddle. Reader, is there any hope for any of us? Did she say anything when she pulled at her loose skin? Who remembers? It’s an example of what the show could be if it didn’t feel obliged to end every scene with a laugh.
Sometimes Grace and Frankie seems like it’s about to take us on a strange trip, but then it steers us back to the happy place where yes-you-can reinvent yourself at any age (especially if you have a beautiful beach house) or it falls back into familiar territory like the idea that old ladies behaving badly is automatically hysterical. Instead of allowing Grace and Frankie to face the reality that most of the men in their demographic are dead, married, gay, or rich enough to attract women in their breeding years, both quickly find opportunities for love—or at least hookups—with attractive, age-appropriate men. Sexual problems for older women are brought up, but then solved by Frankie’s magical yam lube.
Not everything has to be dark, and a comedy of manners doesn’t have to be deep. The issue with Grace and Frankie is that it hasn’t made up its mind what it wants to be. Groundbreaking or safe? Maybe some of it is an attempt to broaden the audience. Possibly people in their twenties and thirties will be icked-out by septuagenarians of the female variety having or even wanting sex at all. Those too young to remember Jane Fonda at her firmest won’t find the jiggly arms jolting, but may be grossed out by them. Perhaps that’s why there are four adult-children as supporting characters (at least one of whom is more childish than adult). None of them seem especially angry with their fathers for the twenty-year deception or especially worried about their mothers. It’s not that the kids aren’t likeable. It’s like they’re in another show. In fact, we rarely even see them in scenes with their parents (to the point where it looks like something the writers needed to do to accommodate Fonda and Tomlin.)
A larger issue is the plausibility of the relationship between Robert and Sol. If they weren’t ongoing members of the ensemble, but a one-off in the premiere, that would be fine. It’s not that Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston can’t play the gay, but as written their characters are as mismatched as their wives. They don’t have the chemistry to play off each other. Waterston’s Sol is the more conflicted of the two. Frankie was, in every way but sexually, his soul mate, and their parting was difficult for both of them. Sol has a monologue in which he tells Frankie about the first time he kissed Robert and what a revelation it was. Waterston does a great job, but Robert and Sol are an odd couple—and not in a good “we complete each other” way. The show deals with their conflicts—the difference between having a secret relationship of stolen moments versus the reality of being with that person all the time. But many of their scenes together drag, and the writers might not have gotten the coming out late in life completely right.
Yet despite its faults, at the end of the season there was an unexpected twist that made sense, so maybe they’ll take more risks next season. And there are two great reasons to watch. It’s must see television for those who’ve followed Jane Fonda through her personal and professional incarnations and those who recognize Lily Tomlin’s influence on every comedian (and serious performance artist) who’s done multi-character comedy after her. But even if you only know Tomlin from The West Wing or Web Therapy and Fonda from her recent movie misfires, you should check out Grace and Frankie. They are absolutely fantastic together. It’s rare to see two actors obviously enjoying themselves and each other so much while never breaking character. Maybe it’s asking too much that the show live up to their performances.
And for those new to these two old-timers, you could do worse than check out Jane in Cat Ballou, Klute, 9 to 5 (with Tomlin) or just about anything else she’s been in except any movie that includes Jennifer Lopez (always a good rule of thumb). Lily Tomlin’s a tougher case. She’s been great as a supporting player on the small and large screen, but her true forte has been as a solo performer. Fonda brings out the best in her, and Frankie is a character big enough to play to her strengths.