It would do Grace and Frankie a massive disservice to make this review a list of Transparent comparisons, but the similarities are obvious, so let’s get them out of the way. Like Transparent, Grace and Frankie is the Los Angeles-set story of late-in-life change and its effect on loved ones; like Transparent, it’s a show that’s difficult to see happening before the current decade’s “prestige streaming” boom. The creation of two ’90s sitcom alumni, Grace and Frankie is both more emotionally complex than the average laugh-track show and sunnier than the typical cable dramedy — a perfect fit, in other words, for the home of material like Kimmy Schmidt, an NBC sitcom that happens to be too dark for NBC.
But Grace and Frankie, of course, is not Transparent. For one thing, the shows’ creators come from very different places: where Jill Soloway was an independent filmmaker, albeit one with experience on premium cable shows like Six Feet Under and United States of Tara, drawing on the deeply personal experience of her transgender parent’s coming out, Marta Kauffman and Howard J. Morris are best known for their work on Friends and Home Improvement. They also, according to Kauffman, had their stars — Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda — long before they hit on the premise that links their characters together: Grace and Frankie’s husbands, longtime law partners, dump them for each other, leaving the two women with nothing but each other… and their massive Malibu beach house.
Prior to what their children charmingly term “Armagayddon,” Grace and Frankie loathed each other, and it’s obvious why. Grace (Fonda) is a former beauty executive and current Beverly Hills lawyer’s wife, obsessed with appearances and fond of extra-dry vodka martinis. Frankie (Tomlin) is a filthy-rich hippie, that LA-native species which decries “environmental rape” while remaining glued to her iPhone. The comedy in their collision is obvious, if sometimes a little broad; I believe a Laurel Canyon earth mother would keep her stash of pot in the freezer, but even this two-decade veteran of Southern California has never seen a woman chant “OMMMM SHANTI SHANTI” whilst burning sage.
Designed as a platform for its leads, together onscreen for the first time since co-starring in the 1980 misandrist classic 9 to 5 (Dolly Parton, unfortunately, got left behind), Grace and Frankie nonetheless has an admirably strong ensemble for a show that could satisfy its built-in fan base with little more than the title characters reading the phonebook. Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston are particularly strong as Grace and Frankie’s soon-to-be-ex-husbands Robert and Saul, navigating between the joy of being open about their sexuality for the first time in their lives and the hurt that openness has inevitably inflicted on those around them.
And though the 70-something parents, in a refreshing change from entertainment’s relentless focus on The Youngs, are the stars of the show, the couples’ children bring their own emotional baggage to the table. Recovering addict Coyote (Ethan Embry) is in love with harried stay-at-home mom Mallory (Brooklyn Decker); both adopted son Bud (Baron Vaughn) and career woman Brianna (June Diane Raphael) are struggling to establishes themselves at a business founded, and in Bud’s case still run, by their parents. Grace and Frankie, in other words, is more than just a Tomlin-Fonda vehicle — not that a Tomlin-Fonda vehicle is the worst thing Netflix could give to the world.
The show isn’t without its missteps, like leaning a little too heavily on clunky expositional dialogue (“I’ve been a divorce lawyer nearly all my adult life, and I have no idea how to handle this one!”). That’s a side effect, however, of a series that wears its heart on its sleeve as openly as Grace and Frankie does. It’s a rare pilot that establishes its characters so well and so quickly to move a viewer to tears, but that’s exactly how invested I was by the time Frankie and Saul spent their first post-revelation night on the couch.
Grace and Frankie also joins the growing ranks of new comedies telling stories that generally don’t make it to the screen. Its cast may be affluent and almost entirely white, but they’re also aging, and doing so candidly; a scene in which Grace and Frankie are rendered almost literally invisible as they try to ask a store clerk for cigarettes is equal parts heartbreaking and hilarious. (“It’s OK, I learned we’ve got a superpower,” Frankie wryly consoles Grace.) And the woman behind a sitcom that’s gotten flak for its ubiquitous gay-panic jokes crafting an honest, nuanced look at coming out in one’s 70s is nothing to sneeze at.
Said nuance is arguably Grace and Frankie‘s best trait. Robert and Saul’s sexuality is never mined for laughs, though they’re not allowed to be saints, either. (I may have promised to hold off on the Transparent parallels, but the similarity to that show’s treatment of Maura, as selfish as she is brave, is obvious.) Grace and Frankie’s pain, meanwhile, is a multifaceted thing, one that allows them to laugh at themselves one moment and break down the next. It’s an experience Fonda and Tomlin make the most of in their performances, and one that provides ample material for yet another eminently binge-able Netflix show.