The premiere episode of Grace and Frankie, the long awaited Netflix sitcom, is bouncy and brash, marked by Grade A performances and extraordinary chemistry between its stars, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin.
Still this subscription TV offering needs to shed its broadcast network sensibility.
The 21st Century has been unkind to the TV situation comedy. With a few exceptions, the five major networks have premiered sitcoms in September, only to cancel them before Thanksgiving Day.
Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, close friends since 1980’s Nine to Five, are hoping to change the sitcom’s hard-knock life, returning it to what it had once been: one of television’s most enduring and best-loved genres.
But bolstering a flagging TV format is a formidable challenge; even when iconic actresses lead the charge.
So how do they fare?
From the moment she sweeps into view, her frosted hair lacquered into an impenetrable helmet, Jane Fonda’s Grace strongly evokes Beth Jarrett, in 1980’s Ordinary People – a WASP Ice Queen – made unforgettable in that movie by Mary Tyler Moore’s acclaimed performance. She is a woman who air kisses her way through life – someone for whom appearance and materialism represent the entirety of reality. Make no mistake. Fonda’s Grace is Beth Jarrett, circa 2015.
Tomlin’s Frankie is a “Peace and Love” environmentalist: a Haight Ashbury leftover. Pity no one has told her that the parade passed hippies by, forty years ago.
Martin Sheen as Grace’s husband, Robert, is all business – at least, he has been, up until now. Robert was an ideal match for Grace, who had buried everything authentic about her in a time capsule sometime before the moon landing.
Sam Waterston, as Frankie’s easy-go hubby, Sol, has been Frankie’s Peace and Love match. Ostensibly the women are well paired with men who reflect their needs and wants.
Or are they?
While husbands Robert and Sol are law partners, working harmoniously together, their wives, thrown together because of their spouses’ partnership, are discordant, bi-polar opposites.
As the series opens, this foursome has assembled for a restaurant dinner. Psychically Frankie feels the septuagenarian husbands will announce their retirement over dinner.
How wrong she is. After Sol hems and haws clumsily, Robert blurts that he and Sol are leaving their wives, for one another. After being secret lovers for twenty years, they want to marry.
Grace’s first reaction is to call Robert a “spineless chicken sh–!” and then fling food at him.
Frankie simply loses the ability to breathe.
And that’s just the first scene.
By Scene Two, the women are confronting loneliness, change, loss, and pain: Bad enough when you’re twenty – unconscionable for women in their seventies.
The opening episode is a kaleidoscope of emotion. But feelings always take a back seat to zingy one-liners in the sitcom. After Robert’s custom designed chair is delivered – it has Ryan Gosling’s portrait emblazoned on its seat – Grace snaps, “If anyone is going to sit on Ryan Gosling’s face, it’s going to be me!”
After several such outbursts, Fonda’s Grace retreats to the safety of the emotional turtle shell in which she hides when things get too real. But Frankie, like any hippie worth her love beads, turns to junk food, liquor, smoking, and peyote.
Sol, who loves Frankie, feels guilty – most especially he is guilty about being happy. On the other hand, Robert has given up on guilt.
The couples’ adult children explain why some species eat their young. Frankie has two sons. One of them, Coyote, is an educator and recovering addict. He was busted after scoring coke from one of his students. The other son, Nwabudike, an African-American is, presumably, adopted.
Grace and Robert’s two girls are their mother’s daughters: Ice Princesses in training – insensitive women – out of touch with themselves, and with the times in which they live. They’re much more concerned about how to tell their children, “Grandpa is gay,” than they are about the bombshell that has nuked their parents.
And just when you think matters couldn’t be worse, a new cumulus formation clouds Grace and Frankie’s futures. This odd couple is forced to share the beach home the two couples own together.
Overall I’d like to see Grace and Frankie’s tone be more Nurse Jackie, and less Caroline in the City.
But does it really matter that Grace and Frankie frequently looses its delicate balance, unsuccessfully seesawing between hilarity and angst?
I think not. Forgive and forget its shortcomings, and just add Grace and Frankie’s thirteen-episode first season to your list of “must binge watch” LGBTQ TV.
In upcoming episodes and seasons, Grace and Frankie may become great. Till then, watching American cultural icons such as Fonda, Tomlin and Sheen shimmer, shine and bawl are enough.
Personally I’m waiting for the episode in which Dolly Parton, the third of Nine to Five’s triumvirate of divas, is integrated into the series. Musically, I believe she already has been. Dolly doesn’t receive on-screen credit, but isn’t that Parton singing the cover version of Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You,” over the show’s opening titles?
And really, folks, if two men in the autumn of their years can divorce their wives, and launch news lives together, then certainly this promising seriescan lose its TV factory feel, find its mojo, and launch itself into a long-running orbit.