When you set out to review Grace and Frankie, the latest original comedy from Netfix, it’s basically impossible to do it without talking about 9 to 5. In 1980 Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin starred as working women of vastly different backgrounds forced to work together to undermine their misogynist boss. The two had an electric comedic chemistry that hasn’t dulled one bit in the intervening three and a half decades, and it’s that ability to spark off of one another that saves the show’s somewhat imperfect pilot.
Fonda and Tomlin play uptight society wife Grace and progressive hippie Frankie, both lawyers’ wives, who are shocked to learn that their husbands (Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston) plan to leave them in order to start a new life together after twenty years of marriage. Much has been made of the show’s premise which is at the same time progressive and very traditional. Waterston and Sheen manage to make their characters sympathetic without resorting to stereotype, but they also don’t have a lot to do in the pilot. As the title suggests, it’s Fonda and Tomlin who do all the heavy lifting here.
Through a series of somewhat predictable plot moves, the two women find themselves cohabitating at the couples’ shared beach house as they work through the major and unexpected life changes forced on them by their husbands’ revelation. These scenes are where the show really shines. Fonda and Tomlin know how to deliver odd-couple comedy, and Grace and Frankie draws on the same dynamic they shared in 9 to 5 but deepens the differences between the two. The jokes are a bit predictable — Tomlin meditates while Fonda self-medicates — but their perfect line delivery elevates even the most predictable jokes.
The pilot does drag a bit when we check in on Sheen and Waterston who, despite the best intentions, aren’t really selling the idea of a loving couple of twenty years who are finally free to be themselves in public. Both men are best known for playing commanding figures. Sheen played President Josiah Bartlett on The West Wing while Waterston is best known for his long running role as crusading district attorney Jack McCoy on Law and Order. Here both are sheepish, tongue tied, and off balance. It could make for a refreshing change, but so far it feels more awkward than endearing. The two will continue to play a larger role as the series goes on and hopefully will develop some of the chemistry that Fonda and Tomlin came pre-loaded with.
Ultimately chemistry is going to be the cornerstone of Grace and Frankie’s success. Most of the cast has worked together before. Tomlin and Sheen acted opposite one another on The West Wing and Fonda and Waterston recently shared scenes on The Newsroom. Unsurprisingly, the pilot’s strongest scenes are between actors who have worked together before, but given the caliber of talent involved, it shouldn’t take long for this ensemble to fully solidify. Overall it’s a promising pilot with a few truly glorious moments, like Jane Fonda’s reaction to accidentally drinking peyote laced tea, and a cast with enough gravitas to bring us back for more. This isn’t the show I was expecting, but it may ultimately be the one I wanted.
More than any network or studio in history, Netflix knows its audience. The company has access to a tremendous amount of data about what we watch and how we watch it, and they’ve used that data time and again to serve the people what they want, often before they even knew they wanted it. Grace and Frankie fits nicely into an unoccupied corner of the television landscape. Its willingness to put older actors, and specifically older women, center stage is almost entirely unique in television right now. I don’t expect Grace and Frankie to be an all audiences smash-hit, but expect it do to well in several under-served niches.
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