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TV Review: Netflix Comedy ‘Grace and Frankie’ Starring Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda

The basic premise of Grace and Frankie: Best friends and law partners Sol (Sam Waterston) and Robert (Martin Sheen) reveal to their wives Grace (Jane Fonda) and Frankie (Lily Tomlin) that they have been lovers for 20 years, and now want divorces so they might get married (now that it's legal). The wives, never friends, now find themselves with only each other to turn to in this rather surreal time. Of course the couples have grown children (and grandchildren) whose lives are also complicated by this turn of events. Each couple has two adult children. Grace and Robert have two…

Review Overview

Stars

Mostly Fun and Worth Watching

Summary : 4 Stars: Groundbreaking but somewhat disappointing.

User Rating: 4.36 ( 8 votes)
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The basic premise of Grace and Frankie: Best friends and law partners Sol (Sam Waterston) and Robert (Martin Sheen) reveal to their wives Grace (Jane Fonda) and Frankie (Lily Tomlin) that they have been lovers for 20 years, and now want divorces so they might get married (now that it’s legal). The wives, never friends, now find themselves with only each other to turn to in this rather surreal time. Of course the couples have grown children (and grandchildren) whose lives are also complicated by this turn of events.

Each couple has two adult children. Grace and Robert have two daughters: June Diane Raphael plays Brianna, who took over Grace’s beauty products business recently; Brooklyn Decker plays Mallory, married with two young children. Frankie and Sol have two adopted sons: Ethan Embry plays Coyote Bergstein, recently out of rehab; Baron Vaughn plays Nwabudike Bergstein, known as Budie or Bud, who recently joined Sol and Robert’s law firm.

To cope with the distress, loss and displacement, both Grace and Frankie head to their shared beach house for solitude. Unhappy at finding the other there, each tries but is unsuccessful in tossing the other out. They reluctantly agree to share it, then become better friends over the course of the season. Sol and Robert move in together to start their lives together and to plan their wedding, now sharing Robert and Grace’s former home. 

Part of the problem with Grace and Frankie concerns the too-numerous subplots and themes: drug addiction/recovery, abortion, affairs/infidelity, dishonesty/secrets, vaginal lubricants, seniors having sex, interracial adoption, Judaism, marijuana, peyote/vision quests, yoga/meditation, sage/smudging, coming out of retirement to return to work, family businesses, divorce, wedding planning, gay bachelor parties, integrating homophobic friends into a gay couple’s life, blended families, phobias, earthquakes, financial actions during divorce, ex-cons, cannibalism, funerals/death, extended family issues during/after divorce, sibling rivalry, parent-adult child relationships, aging, personal growth, casual sex, friendship, love. Less would have been more.

I wish the writers had chosen to pursue fewer story lines, and focused more Sol and Robert’s relationship to make it more realistic. The reactions of the adult children to all these events are also underwritten. With fewer subplots, the important aspects might have been more fully explored. Certainly, the series is ground-breaking in its handling of bisexuality, and the relationship issues of senior citizens. I hope they focus more on these elements in season two.

A Word About the Performances

Neither Waterston nor Sheen are believable in their roles. Tomlin and Fonda fared much better–both excellent in their respective parts. 

It seems to be a trend in Hollywood for famous people who live heteronormative lives and are cis-gender to play homosexual /bisexual characters in the 21st Century. However, casting “against type” is usually a bad idea, unless those cast are actually great actors, like Tom Hanks or Meryl Streep. Neither Sam Waterson nor Martin Sheen belongs in that stellar-actor category and neither of them is credible as a bisexual man. They also have no sexual chemistry, whatsoever (no surprise, there).

Contrast the Waterson/Sheen “relationship” with Kevin Kline and Tom Selleck’s in the excellent film, Inside-Out, to see the difference. Two heteronormative men can play bisexual or gay men and actually be convincing in their roles, with great sexual sparks.

This brings me to my major problem with the scriptwriters and with Marta Kauffman: these characters are not gay! Sol and Robert have chosen to and lived heterosexual lives, fathered children and had sex with their wives for forty years while having sex with each other and perhaps other men for about half that time. How are they not bisexual? They are bisexual men who belatedly chose to leave their hetero marriages to be more fully with each other,. That decision does not “make them gay,” nor have they “always been gay.”

Sol and Robert’s adult children, their gay friends, and their ex-wives all make this “mistake,” calling them “gay,” which means the scriptwriters do not understand bisexuality. GET A CLUE! Sheen does better in scenes with his adult daughters and Sol’s sons, but Waterson still does more aping, cringing and complaining than acting. 

Tomlin and Fonda, on the other hand, are stellar in their roles, partly due to much better writing for their parts. Either of these fine actors could have played the other’s part; in fact, in one episode, they exchange clothing and “types” temporarily without missing a beat. Their evolving friendship and the changing emotions each feels about their divorces, themselves/aging, dating and their new lives are nuanced, believable and poignant. I’m very grateful that Kauffman made this duo the focus of the series.

In actual life, Tomlin is about five and Fonda is about seven years older than the characters they’re playing, and each is a few years to up to a decade older than their respective “husbands” or Grace’s dates, but those disparities are almost impossible to see due to plastic surgery, great acting and the blurring of ages after 60. Both are also physically in excellent health, so they are able to do stunts and poses that many others their ages and younger could not do.

There are interesting and quite-famous guest stars popping up in each episode, usually with two-dimensional roles played for laughs but fun to watch. Recurring minor characters, such as the adult children and Grace’s first post-divorce repeating date, are better drawn to some extent, but still fall into stereotyping and one-liners too often. I especially despise the depictions of the gay male characters who appear not only in Sol/Robert’s life but in Brianna’s (Grace’s former) workplace.

When TV scriptwriters in Hollywood understand that they have many episodes to develop some characters and use that time better (please become less lazy: use fewer toss-off lines to “establish” a character), I will be glad.

Grace and Frankie with Robert and Saul

Other Gripes About Grace and Frankie:

Gripe number one: Why do viewers get to see Grace in bed, having sex with one of her dates (a man), and passionately kissing another man, but NEVER see Sol and Robert do more than chastely kiss and hug each other, even when in bed? Network TV is notoriously andro-homophobic (more reluctant to show gay male sex than lesbian), but this is Netflix, Marta! Let them get it on a little! Sol and Robert are supposedly two-decades-long secret lovers who couldn’t keep their hands off each other to the extent that they eventually blew up their marriages, destroyed two families and hurt the women they claimed to love in order to be publicly together, but never once do we see that driving passion. Not even a hint of it.

In fact, it takes most of season one, in my opinion, for either Waterston or Sheen to do more than posture and pose, delivering one-liners and performing rather than acting. Very disappointing, since I’ve seen each of them do much better acting than this multiple times.

Gripe two: the writers created an insufferable character in Sol Bergstein. He is whiny, weak, ambivalent, child-like/immature, and otherwise unappealing. I found it completely absurd that Robert, a strong-willed, controlling leader-type, would ever have found Sol attractive, much less compelling.

Conversely, Grace’s character is also strong-willed and controlling, so I could much more readily see their “clash-of-the-titans,” high-powered couple-ness having worked well. Showing Robert’s missing Grace and their life together, mid-season, was the most believable Sheen ever got.

Frankie and Sol are depicted as Jewish, “lefty,” ”green,” “hippies,” compatible in their habits, rituals and values, so their marriage had also worked well; a lot better than Robert/Grace’s had, apparently. Their ongoing, strong bond is a source of friction for Sol and Robert and distress for Frankie and Sol throughout season one and probably into season two.

Gripe number three: the major disappointment of this series, precisely because it is the lynchpin of the entire premise, is the Sol-Robert pairing. No one can see how Sol/Robert’s union of opposites overcame all their clashing values, personality differences, suppressed sexual urges and internal homophobia ever to kiss, much less to become a couple. Their relationship is not ever fleshed out (pun intended) or well-drawn by the writing, directing or acting.

However, the saving grace (pun intended) of this series is the relationship between and the individual characterizations of Grace and Frankie, so well-played by Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. There are extremes and stereotypes galore, especially for Frankie’s character, many more than I would have liked (and I am much more similar to her than Grace). However, their interpersonal dynamic and internal difficulties are so well-written, directed and acted that I was moved many times to tears and laughing out loud, and so was my 83-year-old mother, who watched this entire season with me.

Overall, the story lines and acting by the two title characters save this series from a rating lower than 4 stars, but barely. I want Grace and Frankie to improve. I hope the writers and director read this review and get Season 2 in better shape!

Soundtrack: Excellent.

Great choices for “period” pieces from the 1950s – 70s, when they appear. Other, more modern selections or covers of older pieces are also great and fit the scenes well.

Special points for the opening credits’ song and artistic montage on the wedding cake: quite creative and hilarious.

Final Verdict: Mostly Fun and Worth Watching

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About Sally Ember

Sally Ember, Ed.D., has been passionate about writing since she was nine years old, winning prizes for her poetry, stories, songs and plays from a young age. She also began meditation in her teens. Now, Sally delights fans of psi elements with romance by blurring the lines between fact and fiction in "The Spanners Series" ebooks, a multiverse of multiple timelines, often including exciting elements of utopian science-fiction and Buddhism, for New Adult/adult/YA audiences; two out (first is permafree) with eight to come, Born Jewish on the cusp of Leo and Virgo, Sally's life has been infused with change. Currently, she meditates, writes, swims, reads and hosts her Google+ Hangout On Air (HOA)/Youtube show, *CHANGES* conversations between authors, LIVE, almost every Wednesday, 10 - 11 AM Eastern time, USA.
  • Scott S

    While I agree with much of your review, something you seem to overlook is the fact that being married and even having fathered children does not render someone bisexual. These were two men forced by society to live in a heteronormative world, but that does not mean they are bisexual. Being forced into living as society expected them in that era does not mean they weren’t gay; rather they were trying to fit square pegs into round holes and it wasn’t genuine for either of them. Their true orientation is gay. That part isn’t a problem for me as a viewer, although the husbands play only a bit part anyway, and their characters are anything but complete so far, but I agree that they are not (yet) completely convincing as a couple, just keep in mind their ages and how much things have evolved since they were younger. I have no problem with that premise. However, better writing on that would have helped make their relationship seem more genuine, but again, the husbands aren’t the show’s focus, the now ex-wives are.

    As for the children in the show, that seems pretty irrelevant to me as a viewer. They could have just as easily used stand-in actors and actresses for those roles and I think the subplots about the kids, with the possible exception of the character of Brianna Hanson, are kind of extraneous to the overall story. I also didn’t find any of the kids particularly endearing and don’t see that they add a lot of value to the story’s premise. The character of Coyote Bergstein is a distraction frankly but doesn’t add much value to the story or the premise. My thought was “Who cares?”.

    In the end, I liked the show, and look forward to season 2 but there needs to be more on the Sol/Robert front or the premise will seem unrealistic. However, the main characters played by Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin are great and how they are dealing with their new life will be fascinating to watch.