There’s plenty wrong with Netflix’s latest original series, Grace and Frankie — though none of it is catastrophic — but the one thing above all else that the series has going for it is the relationship between Robert and Sol, the gay couple played by Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston, respectively.
In the opening episode, those two characters — business partners at a law firm over the last 40 years — provide the narrative impetus by confessing to their wives over dinner that they are in love with each other, have been having an affair for the last two decades, and that they want a divorce so that they can get married.
The revelation obviously upends the lives of Grace (Jane Fonda) and Frankie (Lily Tomlin), who move in together into a beach house that the two previously married couples have been sharing. Grace and Frankie provide emotional support for one another as they both contend with the fact that they’re not only losing their husbands, but that their husbands are gay and marrying each other, a source of humiliation for Grace and a huge source of pain for Frankie, who is losing not only her husband, but her best friend.
Grace and Frankie also happen to be on opposite sides of the personality spectrum: Grace is a society woman, composed, and cold, while Frankie is into incense, pot, and vaginal lubricant made from yams. Over the course of the first season, the two nevertheless bond over their shared misery and pick each other up as navigate their relationships with their ex-husbands, as well as their newfound difficulties in the dating world.
In other words, as far as the Grace and Frankie go, the series is very much like a hybrid of The Odd Couple and Golden Girls: Two 70-year-old opposites trying to bone new menfolk (and the sitcom attempts to extract a lot of laughs out of the comedy supposedly inherent in old people fucking).
There’s nothing inherently wrong with Grace and Frankie, except that its two lead characters are the least interesting in the series. It’s neither the fault of Fonda nor Tomlin — they’re magnificent in their roles — but in their Nancy Meyer conventions. The writing of their characters isn’t bad, either. It’s just not remarkable, and too often the edge is taken off the poignancy by the writers’ need to cram in another punchline. In fact, the series comes from Marta Kauffman, the creator of Friends, and though Grace and Frankie is not a multi-camera track sitcom, it follows the same beats, as though often leaving space for a laugh track.
However, Sheen and Waterston — who are essentially the co-leads on the show — steal every scene they’re in. Their characters are more dynamic, more interesting, and more likable (ironically in that they’re the ones who leave their wives). It’s a situational problem: Grace and Frankie’s storylines are driven by their newfound misery and bitterness, while Robert and Sol’s storylines are mostly driven by the challenges of being in love and the guilt they feel for leaving their wives, for whom they still care deeply. Because they are gay and coming out of the closet after 20 years, they also get to be seen as heroes, even though they’re leaving their devastated wives behind.
Also, they are adorable together, which is something I never thought I’d say about a gay couple played by President Bartlet and District Attorney Jack McCoy. It’s a straight — almost conventional — depiction of a gay couple completely smitten with one another, and it’s all approached in a very matter-of fact way. They kiss. They hold hands. They sleep in the same bed together. They call each other “honey,” and it’s no big deal.
June Diane Raphael is also very good, as ambitious but single daughter of Robert and Grace, and she’s another character — like Coyote (Ethan Embry), the recovering addict son of Sol and Frankie — who I’d be more interested in seeing the show revolve around instead of Grace and Frankie (Brooklyn Decker in a very subdued role, and Baron Vaughn are also very good).
It’s not necessarily to its credit, but Grace and Frankie is also the first Netflix series I wanted to continue watching, but felt no urgency to complete. It’s comfort television — a good show to watch on your phone in bed before you fall asleep. It’s fine television, which makes it a very suitable series to watch midweek between episodes of Game of Thrones.