The first season of Netflix’s Grace and Frankie managed to transcend its foundational concept — that odd couple Grace (Jane Fonda) and Frankie (Lily Tomlin) had to live together after their husbands (Sol and Robert, played by Sam Waterston and Martin Sheen) came out as gay, got together, and thus ended both marriages — by grounding the series in the humor of strained families and weird roommates. The second season sees Grace and Frankie taking center stage, and the downplaying of the “so weird” conflict of geriatric gays challenges creators Marta Kaufmann and Howard J. Morris to find the rhythm of its titular characters’ friendship. The show eventually arrives at something like depth, and the season ends with some strong moments. But the journey there is rough, littered with what seem like obvious concessions to executive notes. There are big grabs at appeals to a younger audience, and they result in character inconsistencies that add up to annoyances that betray the weakness of the binge-watch model.
It’s strange to suggest that a comedy series about 70-somethings should hope to skew younger, but it’s undeniable that the show’s primary audience is far below the age of its stars. It’s undeniable, too, that those younger viewers are the ones who give shows legs, showcasing them in posts like this one or creating the social media #discussion that networks so strongly desire. In that way it makes perfect sense that, when trying to steer the show toward longevity in its second season and beyond, the writers decided to make Grace into a drunk who swears like your uncle, and Frankie into an unhinged activist pothead who tokes from a pocket-vape in the middle of a licensing exam.
But the sense that it makes, inside or outside of the show’s world, doesn’t make it any more palatable. And, let’s be clear here, to expect that anyone of a certain age doesn’t swear or imbibe once in a while is to be more ignorant than even the most chaste showrunner. But it’s the striking change in tone from the first season that causes bristling; it’s the equivalent of a dad wearing Wayfarers to be cool, a midlife crisis for a show that deserves to have more seasons than that implies.
Sure, you could argue that this is growth, that Grace’s saying “fuck” at every shock or surprise is indicative of the way Frankie has loosened her up, or maybe even hinting at her alcoholism, a thing that smartly comes to a head only near the tail-end of the season. It could be said that maybe, a year removed from the stasis of their marriages, the two characters have come fully unhinged, but the context surrounding this behavior suggests that these characters were always this way, just not around one another — no secondary characters (sons or daughters) seem to notice the change. (Though, Grace and Frankie’s pre-divorce animosity still resurfaces nearly every episode, whether in discussions between the characters themselves, or in anecdotes from the vast cast of supporting players.)
The worst of it is that the season’s memorable moments are memorable because they’re so out of place. There’s that time when Robert and Sol decide to really give this being “gay” thing a shot, and so Sol arranges for a drag bingo event to be held in Robert’s hospital room, a bit that plays like a distinct response to culture’s warm embrace of RuPaul’s Drag Race. There’s Grace’s brief stint as a mentor, where she coaches a lesbian bartender to near-success, finds purpose in the work, and then swiftly abandons it by episode’s end. Oh, and then there’s that arc-ending routine in which Frankie tanks her budding corporate partnership by insisting palm oil — the harvesting of which results in deforestation — be removed from her product, a demand she makes known by filling a bottle of lotion with fake blood, or ketchup, and smearing it all over herself in front of her business partners. These are OK images, and funny for a spell, but it’s the show’s insistence on building episodes around them that undermines what could be a very strong, important series. (The blood, and the drag bingo, are both culminations of at least episode-long build-ups.)
This wishy-washy adherence to cartoon characters makes even less sense as the season comes to an end, when very serious things like mortality, loneliness, aging, Alzheimer’s, and the aforementioned alcoholism become major plot points. Perhaps it’s just a symptom of the binge-watching era that such dramatic shifts of tone and inconsistencies in characters are even noticeable, or frustrating. If these episodes had been aired weeks apart, would it be so obvious that the twelfth episode’s titular death party appears plucked from a show entirely different from the one that sought guffaws when Grace filled the DMV with weed smoke? Or is it just that the very act of binge-watching demands a style of writing that defies the slow-moving nature of life, and so the shows that are released all at once can’t afford to allow people to exist in prolonged phases, instead shuffling them through absurdities at hyperspeed?
It’s tempting to let the writers off the hook, and to blame the show’s very platform for what is sometimes shoddy character development. Inconsistencies are much more obvious when they’re closer together. But the writers know the system in which they now operate, and they could’ve easily written away the inconsistencies by having other characters comment on them. Absurd set-pieces are necessary in broad comedies; it’s the nature of the beast. And you shouldn’t expect any comedic subtlety from the person who created Friends. But the smaller stuff, the always getting high on the beach, the new and constant swearing, the sudden cessation of communication with their children — especially on Robert and Grace’s side — those small behavioral things are what define characters. They’re what define people. It’s true that these things become less obvious as the show progresses into the latter half of the season, when the heavy hand of Time shoehorns in some meaningful, dominating plot, but, until then, it’s tough to see these characters as anything but their new tics. The show’s problems at first seem small, but when quickly stacked into a great pile with Netflix’s “Watch Next Episode” function they become major flaws that threaten the whole’s integrity. Like a good friend with a nagging personality, perhaps Grace and Frankie is best appreciated week-after-week rather than minute-after-minute.