What do you get when you cross The Odd Couple with The Golden Girls?
Grace and Frankie, a Netflix original series starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin.
Grace's husband Robert and Frankie's husband Sol (played by Martin Sheen and Sam Waterson respectively) have been longtime law partners and close friends. It comes out in the first episode that the two men have also secretly been gay lovers for the past twenty years. Now that gay marriage is legal in the state of California, Robert and Sol want to get married – which means divorcing their confused and heartbroken wives.
At first, Grace and Frankie have a relationship which is contentious at best. The pair have little in common except their husbands' relationship. Frankie is as much a woo-woo hippie as Grace is prim and uptight. As the season progresses, however, the women bond as roommates living together in the beach house their husbands had bought for use as a vacation home for the two couples.
I'm glad the series chose to focus on the lives of the wives in this scenario, rather than their husbands. It's difficult to even find Robert and Sol empathetic characters at the beginning of the series. Rather than an argument for gay marriage itself, the series functions more as a meditation on the ways our culture has shifted in the last 40 years.
When Robert and Sol married Grace and Frankie in the 1970s, neither could have conceived of marrying and living openly as gay men. It's also unclear at what point either man began to self-identify as gay, but the show seems to suggest these feelings are an abberation for Sol (Robert is his exception to the rule), while Robert may have suspected or outright known his preferences from the beginning.
That's another thing which makes this series as compelling as it is – the stark difference between the marriages of Grace and Robert as compared to Frankie and Sol. Grace admits to Robert that she had long suspected something was off about their marriage, but that she had just assumed what they had was as good as it got. That this was just what marriage was like, and she shouldn't expect more.
Frankie and Sol, on the other hand, have an obvious and deep love for one another and a strong friendship. Throughout the season, they have a much more uphill battle regarding setting personal boundaries, letting go of their rituals as a couple, and accepting that their marriage is actually over.
While the series begins with stereotypic sitcom tropes, the characters grow, develop, and deepen as the season progresses. Cheap and predictable jokes fall by the wayside as human beings emerge from their archetypic shells. Towards the end of the season, the show includes several powerful scenes which are dramatic rather than comedic and which raise powerful questions about love, loyalty, and family ties.
Grace and Frankie explores topics not often seen on television, and in a sensitive and empathetic (though still often humorous) light. When was the last time you saw a television series speak openly about post-menopausal vaginal dryness? Or dating in your 70s? It probably WAS The Golden Girls which last raised those issues, and it's high time they were brought back into public consciousness again. We need to see positive images of late-life sexuality, rather than just jokes made by the young at the expense of the old.
Past a certain age, women in Hollywood are relegated to the roles of grandmother or witch. There aren't many options for an actress pushing 50, let alone 70. And while Grace and Frankie are wives, mothers, and grandmothers, we see them also as autonomous single women. As empowered and capable, with hobbies and interests and lives outside home and family.
But the series also doesn't shy away from the realities of the lives of older women. Both Grace and Frankie are afraid that getting divorced means dying alone. They struggle with feeling invisible and useless. The show highlights how much more difficult divorce is for women as compared to men, and the ways in which society views women as wives first, while men are seen as men instead of husbands.
Grace and Frankie also highlights a strange tipping point in our culture. As LGBTQ rights gain ground and being gay or lesbian becomes more normalized, many LGBTQ individuals who ended up in heterosexual marriages because it was expected of them may choose to come out of the closet and live their desires and identities openly. While Grace and Frankie's situation is made all the more comedic by the fact of an established close relationship between the two families, it's not an impossible scenario.
Are Robert and Sol selfish for wanting to get married? How will their families cope? Do the children celebrate their fathers' happiness or mourn with their mothers? Can they do both? The show also doesn't shy away from exploring the complexities of the relationship between Robert and Sol, who become more likeable as the show progresses. How do these men navigate the shift from clandestine love affair to marriage? How do they deal with the guilt of lying to their wives for so long, and the pain of seeing their wives move on as well?
Grace and Frankie is by no means perfect. There are moments where it makes a backwards or cliché joke, or just falls flat. But there is promise in the series. The show explores the power of the bonds of female friendship and the joy as well as the pain of being a woman in her golden years. The show ultimately explores Grace and Frankie embracing life – embracing their new lives together. Helping each other heal. Holding each other accountable. Or sometimes just holding each other.
Tomlin's performance especially is often delightful. I found myself wishing alternately that Frankie were my grandmother or that I will be just like Frankie when I'm in my 70s. Grace and Frankie is definitely worth a watch, and like the characters itself, it gets better with age. If the first few episodes feel too formulaic, just wait it out. It's worth it by the end, I promise.
The first full season of Grace and Frankie is currently streaming on Netflix.
This review was originally published by The Horn on 05/14/2015.