Grace and Frankie

2015. 25-35 minutes. unrated.

Grace and Frankie is a huge hit on Netflix, currently in its fourth season. I started watching it after repeatedly seeing the show’s thumbnail picture which features nothing but a giant purple vibrator. Since the most risque thing I’ve ever watched in my life was the movie Chocolat (starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp), I was perplexed as to why this bulbous lilac monster remained in my recommended shows every time I logged in. Imagining it to be a weird kinky sex show, I ignored it. Weeks later, the Netflix picture changed to a candid of stars Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda. Now intrigued by what in the world the actresses from 9 to 5 had to do with vibrators, I clicked on the show. The opening scene sets the stage.

Grace (Fonda) and Frankie (Tomlin) are reluctant acquaintances. They are polar opposites–Grace is dignified, refined and an unapologetic snob. She’s well dressed in fine tailored clothing and a sensible but feminine short hair cut. Frankie’s long wavy hair, loose flowing clothing and oversized pendant necklace identify her as a well off, but aging former flower child. Their husbands are long-time business partners, who have invited their wives to dinner at a nice restaurant, presumably to announce their retirement from their law firm. As Frankie and Grace wait at the dinner table for their husbands to arrive, they bicker over the dinner rolls, and make a strained attempt to make small talk.

Finally, Robert (Martin Sheen) and Sol (Sam Waterston) enter. Each clearly shares a temperament similar to their spouse. Grace’s husband Robert is formal and reserved. Sol, like his wife Frankie, is a bit goofy, and he greets her warmly before sitting next to her.

Dinner arrives and Sol begins the announcement. He starts off confidently, explaining that they are about to enter the next chapter in their lives. Wanting to remain positive, he soon begins floundering, having lost his resolve to share the news. Pragmatic and confident Robert dives in.
“What Sol is trying to say is,” Robert looks at Grace, “I’m leaving you.” After a slight pause, he looks at Frankie, and tells her without malice, “And he’s leaving you.”
The women assume that both men are sleeping with other women, but Robert tells her it’s not what she thinks–Robert and Sol are lovers, and have been in love for over twenty years.

Stunned, Grace and Frankie rapidly (and believably) enter the stages of grief – beginning with numbness, which quickly turns to denial before settling into red hot anger. Frankie begins hyperventilating while Grace launches a food fight in the middle of the restaurant, flinging seafood at a confused and disappointed Robert.
“This is why you brought us here. You didn’t want me to make a scene!” she screams at her soon to be ex-husband while other diners watch with a mixture of horror and amusement.
(Before I am accused of spoilers, let me remind you that all of this occurs within the first five minutes of the show. I watch it, wondering what in the world could be left to tell in this story, after such a stunning reveal.) This first episode is titled: “The End.” As it turns out, the 90s band Semisonic was right–every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end. What follows is four spectacular seasons filled with stories about aging, sexuality, personal power, and complex family relationships.

In an interview with Jimmy Fallon earlier this year, Tomlin and Fonda talk about the phenomenon of Grace and Frankie. They’re surprised that millennials enjoy watching the show with their grandparents. Are folks really ready to watch a show with their parents (or grandparents) about boomers on the dating scene? For all the frank talk about sex and sexuality, the show remains mostly PG, and for most families who would be comfortable watching something like Meet the Parents together, Grace and Frankie won’t make anyone blush for more than a moment.

For the 20 and 30 something crowd, Grace and Frankie’s adult children offer a familiar perspective. As supporting cast members, the “kids” get a good amount of screen time, initially offering the viewer insight into how Grace and Frankie approached parenting, and later in the series each of their stories develops in interesting ways. June Diane Raphael plays the brash and ballsy Brianna Hanson, who revels in others’ emotional discomfort, but cares about her family and has her own share of insecurities. Brooklyn Decker plays her sister Mallory, and is the only one of the four who is married with children.
Ethan Embry and Baron Vaughn play brothers Coyote and Nwabudike “Bud” Bergstein, who share their parent’s disposition for being in touch with their feelings and being just a bit (endearingly) nutty. The dynamic between the two families offers the viewer an interesting look at how different families relate, deal with problems, and cope with change and it does it in a way that is insightful, at times heartbreaking, and always hilarious.

This show has an amazing cast, fantastic writing, and a playful soundtrack. The only downside is that it is so fast-paced that there’s not enough time to explore all of the relationships fully. Particularly short changed are Robert and Sol, whose new life as an openly gay couple shares less than half of the screen time with the titular Grace and Frankie. The show is first and foremost about women’s lives. There are vibrators and frequent mentions of lady parts (one particularly memorable moment Frankie wakes up after spending the night on the shore by the ocean and declares, “I must have half the beach in my vagina!”). And though other television shows have explored female sexuality before (notably: Sex in the City and Girls) this is likely the first show to explore the sexuality of women who are old enough to have an AARP membership since Golden Girls.

I imagine some viewers were disappointed that the story didn’t delve more deeply into the men’s lives in the first season. Later seasons do cover more ground in Robert and Sol’s relationship and how they relate to the social world around them. Ultimately though, Grace and Frankie is the story of two women. Despite their differences, they know each other better than anyone else. Both feel betrayed by the most important person in their lives. Both face living in an aging body, and giving up youth and beauty. Both must live with the reality that as older adults, every time the phone rings, there is a strong possibility it could be someone calling with news that another friend has become ill, or died. They are forced to cope with change they can’t control–and that’s part of the universal human experience. Young or old; gay or straight; man, woman, or non-gender conforming; we can all relate to the experience of having to march on through life when things have turned out to be much different than we expected.

And that weird dildo sex show I kept scrolling past on Netflix? It turned out to be so much better than I ever could have expected.

Author: Jen F.

COO for The Big Brown Chair. Works in a building with thousands of books; still gets excited when new ones arrive.

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