On a scale of things you really don’t want happening to you late in life, when the kids are grown, you finally have the time to pursue your passions and work is close to being a distant memory, having your partner leave you for someone else would have to rank fairly near the top of the list.
What would be worse however is having them leave you for the partner of a friend, and finding out on top of this that they’d been conducting an affair under your nose for 20 highly-deceptive years.
It’s the situation that Grace (Jane Fonda) and Frankie (Lily Tomlin) find themselves in when their husbands Robert (Martin Sheen) and Sol (Sam Waterston) announce at a dinner in a very public place that they are not only long time law firm partners and close colleagues but lovers who are taking the recent federal legalisation of same sex marriage as a golden opportunity to come out on a whole lot of different levels.
(This prompts a delicious response from Frankie who says “Yes I organised the fundraiser” when Robert rather too obviously points out they can now marry.)
They’re elated of course to finally admit their true feelings for each other but socialite Grace, who recently relinquished her beauty products business to her daughter Brianna (June Diane Raphael) and hippie art teacher Frankie are naturally devastated, not simply by the announcement but by the fact that this has been happening for 20 years and neither of them noticed.
The ripples naturally spread far and wide.
As Grace points out to Robert, who is near ecstatic that he is living his authentic life (Oprah would be proud; Grace not so much), at a funeral of mutual friends, he lost very little but she has lost everything – her partner, her best friend (Robert’s sister Lydia (Christine Lahti), and her unified family while he has lost very little.
Similarly Frankie, who in contrast to Grace had a close and loving relationship with her husband, is bereft, her dreams of close twilight of life companionship gone out the window in such a heartbreaking fashion that no amount of meditation or incense can right things.
A dramedy of sorts – there is as much drama, if not more, than comedy, placing the series firmly to the weightier end of the sitcom spectrum – Grace and Frankie draws its humour from its wry observations of the devastation caused by the loss of something as profoundly personal and intimate as the relationship with your significant other.
It isn’t laugh-out-loud humour refusing to trivialise these events for the sake of cheap laughs; rather the lightly dark humour stems from the almost wincingly truthful insights that populate this cleverly-written show which acknowledges that there is laughter to be found in even the most traumatic of situations.
For a start, Grace and Frankie, never the closest of friends due to their utterly divergent life philosophies, are forced to live together in the beach house that the two couples jointly own, leading to the kind of clashes you would expect.
Frankie is a relaxed, chilled hippie to the core, choosing to wear funky pink shoes to a funeral and reaching ex-cons to work out their issues through painting; Grace by contrast is the accustomed belle of the ball, a statuesque woman who values social propriety and standing above many things.
But there they are together, united in loss and grief and forced to find some accommodation with each other.
To the credit of the team behind Grace and Frankie, headed by creators and lead executive producers Marta Kauffman and Howard J. Morris, it’s not an accommodation that is arrived at easily but nor is it belaboured either.
Rather it illustrates with equal does of resentment and practicality what would happen if two people of long acquaintanceship suddenly have all their dirty relationship laundry, or rather than of their soon-to-be ex-husbands aired in public for all to see.
Bonds would be created sure but how lasting? As Grace and Frankie discover that’s not only up to them but crucial for their ability to get through this like it or not.
They might not have needed each other before but they sure as hell do know, and it’s this acknowledgement and manifesting of their mutual interdependence, both humourously and seriously expressed, that fuels much of Grace and Frankie‘s appeal.
That’s not to say that Robert and Sol are ignored – their relationship and their clumsy attempts to make it work out in the open, not just with their ex-wives but four adult children including Brianna and sister Mallory (Brooklyn Decker), and Coyote (Ethan Embry) and Bud (Baron Vaughn) are given their due time in the narrative sun – but the show is ostensibly about how Grace and Frankie navigate their unexpected new lives and the successes and failures that come with it.
On a side note, the writing of Robert and Sol’s relationship feels a little underbaked in the first few episodes with no real chemistry between the two actors or their characters; this stands in marked contrast to Fonda and Tomlin who bring their characters fully and completely alive pretty much from the word go.
This is less a problem with Sheen and Waterston’s acting which is, as always, top notch, and more a possible lack of real understanding or ability to properly articulate what it would be like for two men to embark on a same sex relationship in their ’70s.
Be that as it may, Grace and Frankie is an appealing mix of loss and grief, unexpected gains and hilarity, peppered with withering, all-too-knowing insights and a profound sense that life shouldn’t have to be reinvented so far into its run but that we never usually get a choice in these things and have to make the most of it.
It’s deeply affecting – the scene where Frankie, lost in her musings on life, the universe and everything, gets into the car Sol is driving instead of Robert is simple but highly moving – frequently hilarious and always greatly insightful, treating the traumatic life events which befall these two women with understanding, wit and compassion, and a hearty dose of appreciation that life is frequently unpredictable and we have no choice but to make the best of it, like it or not.
Season 1 and 2 are currently available on Netflix.