What a Drag It Is Getting Old

Television Review – Grace and Frankie: Seasons 1 – 4

Created By – Marta Kauffman and Howard J. Morris

Starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen, and Sam Waterston

Season One of Grace and Frankie possessed the kind of outdated baby boomer mentality that probably thought its original premise was a fresh idea: Two 70-something lawyers with vastly different and differing wives, announce that they’re not just partners in law, but partners in the bedroom as well. Additionally, they intend to divorce the women and marry each other. Grace and Robert (Jane Fonda and Martin Sheen) are the neurotic WASPy ones, and Frankie and Saul (Lily Tomlin and Sam Waterston) the aged hippies. Their four children are thrown into confusion while Grace and Frankie, detesting each other, are forced by financial limitations to live in the same house. And thus the comedy ensued…

Except it didn’t. Save a clever title sequence, Season One was barely watchable. Bereft of laughs, and relying on tired sitcom storylines, Grace and Frankie was a weak addition to Netflix’s stable of often smart comedies. Its supporting characters were over-precious, pseudo hipsters, the kind you expect when old people attempt to write younger characters— Brianna (June Diane Raphael) and Mallory (Brooklyn Decker), the oh-so-ironic daughters of our WASP couple, one a successful businesswoman and the other an unhappy housewife with four children, and Bud (Baron Vaughn) and Coyote (Ethan Embry), the adopted sons of our hippies. The two sisters constantly whined and bickered that first season. And spoiled yuppies being spoiled yuppies, they hated their lives and, of course, their mother too. Bud, of course, was black, because, after all, old hippies are unfailingly open-minded liberals and, of course, adopting a black child proves it. Coyote (of course that’s his name), being the white one, was a recovering drug addict. Between the four of them, save the occasional bright spot from Raphael’s Brianna, there was nary a moment that wasn’t forced or clichéd. Of course.

So it was up to the four leads to make this turkey fly. And that they almost did. Fonda’s pill-popping alcoholic, Grace, had the kind of cold-fish detachment that has become her trademark. At her worst, Fonda has an overly mannered, artificial style that projects “acting” across the room. But she’s at her best when she plays the kind of neurotic characters that won her Oscars for Klute and Coming Home. As for Tomlin, it’s hard to think of a movie since Nashville, where she hasn’t played an over-the-hill hippie flake, most notably in David O. Russell’s uproarious Flirting with Disaster. These roles fit the two stars like gloves. But the real surprises of Season One were Sheen and especially Waterston as the emotional Saul.

The four leads were the only reason to justify checking out Season Two, but by then Grace and Frankie had begun to fine tune things a bit. The jokes were funnier, the chemistry of the four leads more magnetic and the situations slightly more interesting. As the “not nice” daughter, Brianna was now a razor-tongued bitch, a type-A in overdrive. Bud, Coyote and Mallory remained unfunny and annoying.

But the show hit its stride, as it were, in Season Three, with more entertaining storylines, a nice fleshing-out of those irritating supporting characters, and some genuinely big laughs. By then, Fonda and Tomlin’s easy rapport, clearly stemming from their real-life friendship, was even more relaxed and natural. The normally stiff Fonda had loosened up a bit and the tired Odd Couple trope softened. Their relationship had evolved into something real and believable… and lovingly codependent. The storylines were better too. The season’s major story arc, in which the two leads start their own business selling ergonomic vibrators to elderly women, seems contrived at first, but over the course of the season, it provides the show with ample fodder for its message about the vitality and relevance of the elderly. Likewise, Sheen and Waterston’s gay couple continued to evolve with funny and believable storylines.

Now, in the show’s fourth season, it continues to grow. As elderly gay couple Robert and Saul, Sheen and Waterston are fully invested and utterly credible. They talk like gay men, act like gay men and when they kiss, it feels like love. Their scenes of intimacy are tender and truthful without descending into the mawkish. Sheen shows us a different side to his talent as Robert, the musical-loving showoff who mispronounces the names of Broadway divas Gwen Verdon and Patti Lupone. Robert’s reserve masks a desire to go all-out-queer, a desire fulfilled as he becomes a local star of musical theater. This affords Sheen the opportunity to perform numbers from 1776 and The Music Man and he’s terrific in both. Whether it’s musical theater or a gay kiss, there’s something wonderful about seeing a 77-year-old actor push himself in new directions. And there’s a vulnerability about the actor we’ve rarely seen.

But best of all is Waterston, as the ever-frantic Saul, who seems perpetually on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Saul over-dramatizes his lines like a drunk theater actress, his voice stretched into a comic drawl, his face contorted into hilarious double takes and looks of bewilderment, alternating with those of defeat and despair. He’s a hoot.

Perhaps the most marked improvement in the last two seasons, is that Coyote, Bud and Malory are funny now. No doubt that’s due in part to familiarity. But the actors have grown into their roles as the writing has gotten better. The show added a significant other for Coyote and, most memorably, a funny and pregnant fiancé for Bud (the delightfully quirky Lindsey Kraft). And scathingly sarcastic control freak Brie has a hilarious storyline with nebbish boyfriend Barry (Peter Cambor), who remains his ever-patient self even while being subjected to Brie’s endless rules and regulations.

Grace and Frankie’s original message, that seniors are viable human beings capable of sexual feelings, seemed fresh 30 years ago when The Golden Girls did it, but by the time this series came along it hardly seemed groundbreaking. In retrospect, it seems more significant now. The women of Golden Girls were significantly younger than the cast of Grace and Frankie. When the series left the air in 1992, it’s three oldest stars were 70. Fonda turned 80 this year and Tomlin, Sheen and Waterston are all in their late 70’s. They’re older and slower and it shows. Fonda, despite her amazing physique and obvious plastic surgery, seems to have taken the worst of it. This is due in part to her character undergoing knee surgery, but even without the cane, her gait seems more labored. Her voice seems different too. It’s softer, less-assured and perhaps slower.

“Old age ain’t no place for sissies,” Hollywood legend Bette Davis, famously said. And showrunner Marta Kaufman (co-creator of Friends) clearly gets this. She’s included, in nearly every episode, evidence of the indignities of old age. The aches and pains, the mini-strokes, the bum knees, the forgetfulness that may be Alzheimer’s, the substance abuse, the seemingly endless funerals of departed friends, the victimization of the elderly by unscrupulous scam artists, and the humiliation of children who no longer trust you to be alone with your grandchild – It’s all here. And it’s presented as the daily fact of life that it is in real-life for millions of the elderly. That refusal to whitewash the aging process is, perhaps, unique and it’s given the show a new focus.

Grace and Frankie will never be the creative ground breaker that other Netflix shows like Master of None, Glow, and Orange is the New Black have been. For all its truths and its unflinching look at the trials of the aged, it still seems ingenuine at times. And it’s difficult to imagine non-boomers finding much to relate to in the series. But for baby boomers, there’s a special poignance in seeing the old stars, remembering them in their heydays and knowing they may not be around much longer. (Many of these characters are played by legendary septuagenarian and post-septuagenarian performers such as Estelle Parsons, Marsha Mason, Talia Shire, and Rita Moreno and well known character actors like Mary Kay Place, Swoozie Kurtz, Sam Elliot, and the still-buff-at-72, Ernie Hudson.) But they’re here now and it feels good having them around. Like your favorite worn out Grateful Dead T-shirt, Grace and Frankie offers baby boomers feelings of safety and warm nostalgia. It’s comfort TV for the AARP crowd.

Season One: 43/100
Season Two: 60/100
Season Three: 77/100
Season Four: 75/100