[Editor’s Note: Welcome to “Stream This,” our weekly feature where we single out television programs and movies of considerable merit that are available on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Crackle, or other streaming services. Look for a new recommendation every week.]
Let’s forget, at least for the moment, how refreshing Marta Kauffman and Howard J. Morris‘ Grace and Frankie‘s depiction of getting old is, how unfettered and optimistic the trajectory of the titular divorcees is when characters their age are often relegated to sage status or mere afterthoughts. That’s a big step, mind you, and exactly the kind that Netflix has been routinely taking as of late by reaching outside of the key 18-49 male demographic (which this reviewer would be included in), but that’s really only the first interesting element of this very funny show. Far more interesting, and what ultimately gives the show its mildly contemplative vibe — at least for the sitcom format — is its thematic fascination with forgiveness, and how age reveals the pettiness and insignificance of squabbles, grudges, and gripes.
Finding forgiveness is exactly what Grace (Jane Fonda) and Frankie (Lily Tomlin), the bickering wives of a pair of best friends and law partners, find themselves having to engage in when their husbands, Sol (Sam Waterston) and Robert (Martin Sheen), announce that they’re gay and are planning on getting married. Rather obscenely privileged, Grace and Frankie unknowingly both plan to hide out at the beach house the families share, and end up living as housemates while the processes of their respective divorces gets underway, and they begin to grapple with the truth along with their grown-up children. I know, I know, it sounds like some rogue Nancy Meyers script got a quick polish from Elaine May, and, to an extent, that’s exactly what it is. It’s intensely white, most of the issues faced would be cackled at in a reasonable world, and its imagery is only slightly more ambitious than your common variety sitcom. Beyond these modest hurdles, however, Kauffman and Morris have crafted a sharp comedy about the difference between wisdom and day-to-day life skills, despite both needing constant tending to make any difference.
Much like Modern Family, Grace and Frankie takes a matter-of-fact approach to depicting a homosexual relationship, lacking the sexual friction that made the relationships on Looking feel so much more convincing. Still, beyond that, the fact that the husbands are gay is less of a talking point than the endless grievances involved in wedding planning, the finer points of divorce, and parenting after your children turn 30. Sheen and Waterston are warm, funny, and capable of evincing a storied intimacy in a few lines; however, though the show clearly plays it safe in the lust department, the relationship is not merely cute and kind, as evidenced by the revelation of one-night-stands and affairs. There’s also a pretty ribald physical gag involving a phallic mechanical bull ordered for their bachelor party, which Nwabudlike (Baron Vaughn), Sol and Frankie’s adopted sons, quite literally grapples with.
Sol and Frankie’s other son, Coyote, has recently gone sober after years of drug and alcohol abuse. The show smartly avoids stressing the struggles of sobriety and rather details Coyote’s attempt to be a productive member of society, and find forgiveness with those he’s wronged. At the top of that list would be Joe and Grace’s younger daughter, Mallory (Brooklyn Decker), who he’s clearly always been in love with and decided to burden with a long, personal speech in a drunken, drugged out stupor after she married. Decker’s character is probably the most minute, but she’s nevertheless fascinating, deeply hesitant to let Coyote back into her life and using drugs regularly to deal with the stresses of parenting, sans the judgmental moralizing that often comes with such characters. Conversely, her older sister, Brianna (June Diane Raphael), is far more openly lewd and tough, but Raphael’s lovely comedic performance adds a crucial measure of sweetness and loneliness that underlines her non-familial interactions, from a dog-adoption sponsor she has a one night stand with to the co-worker she begins to fall for towards the end of the season.
Indeed, even when the writing is not at its sharpest or most daring, Grace and Frankie offers a consistently guffaw-generating showcase for some major character actors who are often relegated to dull historical dramas or on-the-cheap action flicks. Craig T. Nelson shows up as Robert’s old friend and Grace’s new fling, who also happens to have indulged in cannibalism, while the great Ernie Hudson plays Frankie’s most promising suitor, a yam farmer with a penchant for good weed. Television veterans ranging from Mary Kay Place, Brian Benben, Corbin Bernson, Christine Lahti, and Joe Morton also show up in supporting roles, and all of them carry the presence of actors who have worked in front of the camera most of their lives. They each add their own distinct dramatic flavor to their scenes, giving a great sense of variety to the studied ease of the central quartet of Tomlin, Fonda, Sheen, and Waterston. Giving all these actors a place to perform without having to act specifically old, Grace and Frankie is one of the more damning retorts to the Hollywood rule that age is neither funny nor sexy, and therefore irrelevant to show business, creating a hugely entertaining sitcom that quietly subverts the stale mechanics of the sitcom formula.
Grace and Frankie is currently streaming on Netflix.