Grace And Frankie Season 1 Review: Everything Old is New Again

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Hollywood heavyweights and sitcom veterans come together for Netflix’s newest series that has something for everyone…even if it doesn’t all mesh together so well.

Please be advised that this post contains (minor) spoilers from the first season of ‘Grace and Frankie.’

Today’s television landscape has blurred the lines between comedy and drama so intensely, that disputes arise whenever it’s time to categorize certain series during awards season. Despite the confusion this causes, this new territory in storytelling is a good thing. Real life isn’t all serious or all funny. It’s the constant ebb and flow between the two that makes things interesting. And really, if we can learn to laugh at some of the darker parts of our lives, aren’t we better for it? For television to reflect this is immensely refreshing.

Sitcoms have played a large part in this evolution, thanks to their own ever-expanding style. A recent article from Entertainment Weekly has detailed how, over the past 10 years, shows like The Office and 30 Rock have paved the way for the fresh crop of sitcoms we have today; ranging from things like the irreverent It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the insider’s look of Veep, and the art piece that is Louie. I’d even go so far as to say that the coming-of-age tale Girls has put its own spin on the sitcom format several times. Each of these series manages to capture a unique form of comedy that’s much more organic than setup, setup, punchline, queue laugh track.

Grace and Frankie is a series that attempts to compete with its modern dramedy counterparts, but is a little too stuck in its classic sitcom ways to fully thrive within the medium. The show looks brand new. It’s single-camera filming style is polished, and it’s the latest series to utilize Netflix’s watch-the-whole-season-at-once model. Yet, its tone is often rooted in the glory days of multi-camera comedy.

Created by Friends co-creator Marta Kauffman and Home Improvement writer Howard J. Morris, the show follows two seventy-something women Grace (Jane Fonda) and Frankie (Lily Tomlin) who have become acquaintances through their husbands’ work partnership. What they don’t know—until one brutal dinner, that is—is that their husbands Sol (Sam Waterston) and Robert (Martin Sheen) are more than just partners in law. They’re in love with each other, and they’re leaving their wives to get married.

On its surface, Grace and Frankie, is multi-cam sitcom gold. It’s a female version of The Odd Couple—Grace is an uptight former CEO and Frankie is a yoga and yurt-loving free spirit—with a modern LGBTQ twist thrown in. In this respect, the humor is par for the course. The jokes are broad and in-your-face, covering everything from homemade lube, to mixing peyote with muscle relaxers, to a giant mechanical penis that gets delivered to Sol and Robert’s bachelor party.

Kauffman and Morris are both aces at writing zingers, and so their script often lends itself to several laugh-out-loud moments. All of this would’ve been fine if the show wasn’t as equally invested in its characters’ emotional journeys. Truly, this is where the series shines, as it tracks just how Grace, Frankie, Robert, Sol, and their children are adjusting to this abrupt, late-in-the-game change.

The show doesn’t give Robert and Sol hall passes just for being closeted gay men. They’re still two people who cheated on their spouses and lied to them for years. Yet, over the course of thirteen half-hour episodes, we’re able to see just how it was that they came to find each other, and how the rest of their family are ultimately able to accept this new version of their lives. Really, the show is about how nothing in life is certain, even when things seemed to have finally settled down.

At its heart is the relationship of Grace and Frankie, who find an unlikely friendship amidst tragedy. The script is adept at portraying the loneliness that has suddenly surrounded them. In one poignant scene in the premiere, Grace berates Frankie for not being more upset at her husband and her circumstances. “He abandoned you in your last years! Aren’t you even angry about that?” she asks. “No! Because I’m heartbroken!” Frankie responds before dissolving into tears. It’s a tender moment whose buildup has been coming all episode long. It’s then followed by the two dancing in the sand and waving to invisible spirits after their peyote kicks in.

It’s this sort of tonal dissonance that ultimately becomes Grace and Frankie‘s undoing. The show has a keen eye for character storytelling, but undercuts its genuine pathos with its loud wisecracking. There are two episodes that act as exceptions to this juxtaposition. “The Fall” and “The Spelling Bee” are each able to rise out of this uneven murkiness and produce a narrative that is both emotionally compelling and subtly hilarious.

Unfortunately, the rest of the first season is hindered by these opposing approaches to comedy. It’s a shame, really, because had Grace and Frankie been able to find a balance between its two schools of thought, it would’ve been spectacular. In all other areas, the show is a gem.

Performance-wise, the series is at the top of its game. There’s a reason this all-star cast is held in such high prestige, and it’s because they really know how to deliver. Fonda and Tomlin are each excellent in their roles, bringing layers of diversity and intrigue to what could’ve been two very archetypal characters. The two actresses haven’t been onscreen together since 1980’s Nine to Five, and yet, with their stellar rapport, it seems as though hardly a day has passed by.

Waterston and Sheen are equally as engaging as Sol and Robert, with Waterston being especially masterful at playing a gay character without playing up stereotypes. His performance is colorful, but never over the top.

New Girl‘s June Diane Raphael is a total scene-stealer as Grace and Robert’s eldest daughter Brianna, and Brooklyn Decker, Baron Vaughn, and Ethan Embry round out the cast nicely as the rest of the two families’ children. One thing Grace and Frankie never skimps on is characterization. Not all of these people are as equally developed—Brianna certainly gets more screen time than her siblings—but each is given enough material that there’s potential for growth in seasons to come.

Speaking of which, despite this show’s commitment to formulaic comedy, the season ends on a surprisingly somber cliffhanger. I won’t give away what happens here, but it’s safe to say that Kauffman and Morris aren’t interested in wrapping everything in a neat little bow just yet. There’s more to this story than its surface concept would let on, and my only hope is that it figures out out to straddle the line between comedy and drama more delicately in the future. With its wholehearted take on late-in-life reinvention, Grace and Frankie could end up being a classic. But first it just needs a bit of an update. Grade: B+

 

By Mike Papirmeister

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