Grace and Frankie is one of the most important shows running today.
The Netflix comedy, which stars the septuagenarian quartet of Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston, recently dropped its sixth season. Here’s the premise: Robert (Sheen) and Sol (Waterston) are longtime law partners and besties. Over the course of many years, they realise that not only are they besties, but they are in love with each other. Respectively married to Grace (Fonda) and Frankie (Tomlin), they keep it under their hats for a long time, but finally decide to break the news. That’s what the pilot started with—the men telling their wives they plan to leave them, to get married to each other. The wives were never particularly fond of each other despite their husbands’ longtime friendship, and both lay claim to the beach house the two families share. Without a lot of options, both wives move in to the house, learn to live together, and learn to love each other.
Grace and Frankie is doing for the present day what The Golden Girls and Murder, She Wrote did for the 1980s. It is reminding the world that older people have lives too. Not only do they have lives, they have (gasp) sex, ambitions, orgasms, and a penchant for profanity. It’s all well and good for magazine covers to say pithy things like “50 is the new 30” and “70 is the new 50”, but in reality, far too many people (especially in the USA) see older people as variations on Grampa Simpson. Please. Among other things, Jane Fonda is 82 as of this writing, and she is still more gorgeous than most of us will be in our lifetimes.
I was excited for this show from the first second it was announced. I’m a big fan of Aaron Sorkin, and all four leads are veterans of his shows. Sheen and Tomlin were on The West Wing together, and the glorious dynamic of Fonda and Waterston is one of the reasons I still miss The Newsroom. No, the writing on Grace and Frankie is nowhere near Sorkin level of quality, but then, what is?
In all honesty, it took this show a little while to find its footing. When I recommend it to people, I typically tell them to watch the pilot so they know what’s going on, and then they can skip to the end of the first season. Not that S1 is bad, it’s just that the show is still trying to find its way after the initial premise. That’s okay. We get to watch Robert and Sol being cute with each other when we’re not watching the women work through their dislike of each other, and discover a heart-warming, Odd Couple-ish friendship. By the end of S2, the women have formed their own company—they create and sell a vibrator that is specially designed for older women. The scene where they announce their plans to their collected families is glorious. Their exes and their adult kids sit there and cringe as Grace and Frankie loudly talk about orgasms, arthritis, and the increasingly sensitive vaginal tissue of women over 70.
The business takes them through the next few seasons. In the meantime, we also get to go with the women through the trials of dating again after having been married for 40 years. Frankie and Jacob (Ernie Hudson) have an adorable run, and I will ship Grace and Nick (Peter Gallagher, who is 18 years younger than Queen Jane, if you were counting) until the day I die. Season 6 gave us what I thought would be a perfect love interest for Frankie (Michael McKean), and I really hope that gets followed up in S7.
I have to admit, Frankie was the reason I was worried for a while the show was going to lose me. She was always the hippie-dippy one, the impulsive artist, the foil for the tightly-wound and practical Grace. Despite that, for the first few seasons, she was still a functional human being. By Season 5, however, someone must have decided that this was the source of her comedy, and that it would be a good idea to turn up the volume on it. Instead of just a lovable goofball, Frankie was absolutely helpless without Grace or Sol to look after her, and rarely took responsibility for anything. I would sit there and marvel, “how are you still alive?” and eventually it got frustrating, especially when Frankie’s co-dependence looked like it was going to come between Grace and Nick.
Season 6 allayed my fears. At the very end of S5, Grace and Nick jetted off to Las Vegas to get married, and at the top of S6, Frankie wasn’t taking it well. By the end of the season opener, though, Frankie has acknowledged that A) Grace and Nick are perfect for each other despite the age gap, and B) she needs to learn to take care of herself. Grace moves out of the beach house, and into Nick’s posh penthouse (did I mention he’s a billionaire?). That’s where they discover the through-line of the season.
A couple of seasons ago, Grace had to have knee replacement surgery, and while she’s much improved, the toilet in Nick’s fancy bathroom is too low for her to get off of without help. She’s embarrassed to ask her younger husband, or to keep some typical old-person apparatus in the bathroom. After that first time (when she actually calls Frankie to come over and help her up), the two of them decide that their next business venture is going to be a toilet with a hydraulic mechanism built in, that will help you up off the toilet and into a standing position. They call it the Rise Up, and the season is about them trying to raise money to sponsor the invention. It’s not only a practical invention; it helps older people maintain their dignity and independence.
Through all of this, the men have had their own trials and tribulations. They’re married, they love each other, but like Grace and Frankie, they are very different people, who have to learn to share their lives. It’s wonderful to watch two very heterosexual actors in their 70s lean into playing a married couple. Not going to lie, it was a little head-breaky at first to watch President Bartlet and Charlie Skinner smooching, only because my life has featured so many West Wing and Newsroom rewatches (not because they’re guys, but because I’m used to them being those particular, very straight, guys). I got over it quickly, though. Sheen and Waterston have terrific chemistry with each other, and you spend the entire series rooting for them through health problems, infidelity, insecurity, and them trying to figure out their particular niche in the gay community.
One of my favourite plotlines has been Robert’s discovery of community theatre. He becomes part of a local gay theatre group, and for three seasons in a row, we got to see him working on a different musical. His first role (perhaps as a particular gift to West Wing fans) was John Adams in 1776, and subsequent seasons brought us Music Man and Man of LaMancha. I sincerely hope Martin Sheen had as much fun doing this as it looked like he was having. Season 6 had no musical, but I’m hoping for another one before the series ends—maybe Pirates of Penzance. In the meantime, Sol has been getting into activism and dog ownership. He gets a Jack Russell terrier named Carl, and watching Sam Waterston emote with this dog is just as cute as watching Martin Sheen rock showtunes.
The beach house itself has kind of become a character all on its own. The end of S4 saw it torn to pieces by shady contractors, a rat infestation, and a bathtub crashing through the floor of the upstairs bathroom and landing on the kitchen counter. The house was repaired in Season 5, but then sold out from under Grace and Frankie by their well-meaning children, who were keen to get their moms into assisted living because they think the women are too old to look after themselves. Season 5 sorts that out, and in S6, even though Grace has married into a swanky penthouse, by the end of the season, they find an excuse to get everyone back into the beach house. As it happens, Peter Gallagher got another series, good for him—I had been concerned that they would have Nick get run over by a bus or something, but their solution was much better. At the end of the season, Nick gets arrested for some white-collar, rich guy douchebaggery, and is taken off by the FBI.
Grace gets to go home with Frankie to the beach house, where they find a surprise waiting for them, in the form of their ex-husbands (and Carl, who is VERY proud of himself, and probably assumes the new name of the show is going to be Grace, Frankie, and Carl, because he is a good boy). The women had gifted their exes with a prototype of the Rise Up, which wound up flooding their house, which will now need months of repairs. The men, having nowhere else to go, have done what their wives did back in the pilot—they brought themselves and their belongings to the beach house. Season 7 is all set up to end the show with the quartet back together, but with the new dynamic that has been six years in the making. They are friends with each other they way they never were, even during their respective marriages (well, Frankie and Sol were best friends as well as married, but it bordered on co-dependence and I feel like both have evolved since).
I can’t predict how they will decide to end the series. On the one hand, it’s good that it will end on its own terms, whatever those turn out to be. It would be sad if a series this important just sort of petered out and got cancelled. Even The Golden Girls ran out of different ways to call out ageism after so many seasons—though, the writing on that show was so good that even when they got repetitive, no one cared. Grace and Frankie is mostly a comedy, for all that it gets quite real from time to time…nevertheless, I do worry about them ending with the death of one or more of my beloved leads (or, God forbid, Carl). My hope is that Nick gets out of prison with his fortune depleted just enough that he and Grace can live happily ever after on more equal financial footing. I hope they bring back Michael McKean for Frankie, because come on, Michael McKean. I hope that these four amazingly talented actors keep working and debunking the myth that age = useless.