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Netflix continues their remarkable year—one that has already included the premieres of “Bloodline,” “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” and “Daredevil,” along with the return of “House of Cards”—with one of their most star-studded productions to date in the funny “Grace and Frankie,” starring Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, Martin Sheen, Sam Waterston, Ethan Embry, Brooklyn Decker, Baron Vaughn, and June Diane Raphael. The undeniably remarkable cast shines…when given the chance to do so. There are moments of truth about aging, relationships, and the unpredictability of life in nearly every scene, even if the situational comedy often threatens to overtake the character-driven honesty—a flaw that feels more amplified by Netflix’s binge format. It’s to the credit of this cast, which includes four Emmy winners who are likely to notch a few more Emmy nominations shortly, that it never does.
“Grace and Frankie” opens with a sitcomish set-up. The title characters, uptight Grace (Fonda) and hippie Frankie (Tomlin), have been asked to dinner by their husbands Robert (Sheen) and Sol (Waterston), who happen to be law partners. The two women have clearly known each other for decades, but it’s the forced friendship that often comes when spouses work together more than actual affection. They presume that their husbands have brought them there for a celebratory dinner to announce their retirement. It turns out that Robert and Sol are leaving Grace and Frankie, for each other. They’ve been more than law partners for the last twenty years, sending Grace and Frankie spinning into the similarly forced friendship that comes from shared life trauma.
Frankie and Grace’s children are similarly sent back to reexamine their lives, including recovering addict Coyote (Embry), Frankie’s son, and high-strung mother Mallory (Decker), Grace’s daughter. Frankie has another son in the supportive Nwabudike (Vaughn), while Grace’s other daughter Brianna (Raphael) is more the cynical type who smiles as the house burns to the ground. Comparisons are likely to be drawn to “Transparent” in the way revelations by a patriarch (two in this case), force life reassessments by friends and family. In this case, Frankie and Grace end up living together, dealing with their new realities.
It’s difficult to overstate how good Tomlin and Fonda are here. They take the rigid archetypes of the high-maintenance socialite and low-expectation hippie and inject them with honesty. There are so many lines and scenes that wouldn’t work if they weren’t handled by actors of such a high caliber. When Fonda says, “We were normal. I thought we were like everyone else. I thought this was life,” and Sheen pauses before saying, “And I thought there was more,” there’s a beautiful simplicity to the sentiment. Fonda captures a woman who was going through the motions for decades, while Sheen finds the heart of a man who needed something to break that pattern. There are so many quick, smart decisions made by Tomlin and Fonda (and Sheen and Waterston in smaller parts) that it’s easy to take them for granted.
The small problems with “Grace and Frankie” are more structural. I kind of hated that episode one had to fall into a sitcomish trap like doing peyote on a vision quest for easy humor. The character-based stuff is so strong that the situational stuff feels even more forced. Luckily, the cast and writing gets better as the show goes along, discarding some of the easy set-ups of the first couple episodes. There’s a great dinner scene in episode three without Fonda or Tomlin that allows the rest of the supporting cast, especially Decker, to shine. And Raphael gets her moment in episode five.
Finally, I do wonder if binging “Grace and Frankie” isn’t the way to go. It becomes so much easier to see repetitiveness in the humor when you watch a comedy in one weekend, and so things that wouldn’t annoy you week to week in a show like “Parks and Recreation” are amplified. Maybe not. Maybe this is just the new way to watch TV. Netflix is certainly doing everything they can to make that so.
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