Sunday, May 10, 2015

GRACE AND FRANKIE a Frank and Graceful Tale

Article originally written for Seat42F.

I cannot remember the last time my opinion of a show changed so drastically from the start to the finish of a pilot as it did for Netflix’s GRACE AND FRANKIE. The show, which launched all thirteen episodes of its freshman run yesterday, is the story of two women whose husbands come out as gay after forty years of marriage. The women hate one another, but they each may just be the only other person in the world who understands what the other is going through.

The first episode of GRACE AND FRANKIE, funnily enough entitled “The End,” begins with a corny theme song and a big, splashy announcement of the breakup at a double dinner date. While watching this scene, the situation seems incredibly cheesy and almost cliché, though the circumstances aren’t yet cliché at this point, and the characters feel flat and unrealistic. I was very tempted to turn it off.

As soon as you get past the opening of “The End,” though, the series immediately begins to deepen and improve. By the end of the half hour, viewers will not just understand how all of this happened the way it did, but feel like they’ve seen very raw performances from four actors at the very top of their craft. It’s not that the opening is bad, it is just not easy to understand until you get more from the characters. I cannot wait to go watch the other twelve installments.

GRACE AND FRANKIE stars Lily Tomlin (9 to 5, The West Wing) as Frankie, who is married to Sol (Sam Waterston, Law & Order, The Newsroom) at the start. They are a couple of spiritual hippies who are one another’s best friends. They have raised two sensitive sons (Brotherhood’s Ethan Embry and Fairly Legal’s Baron Vaughn), at least one of whom is adopted, and even after hearing the news, Frankie is the type who can’t bring herself to sleep in a different bed than Sol, at least not the first night.

GRACE AND FRANKIE also stars Jane Fonda (9 to 5, The Newsroom) as Grace, who is married to Robert (Martin Sheen, The Departed, The West Wing) at the start. They are an uptight, well-off couple who can’t stand one another very much. The poison in their relationship has led to a pair of judgmental daughters (Burning Love’s June Diane Raphael and Friends With Better Lives’ Brooklyn Decker) who are there for their mother, but also share her coldness a bit. She let herself be blinded to Robert’s tendencies because, even though their marriage wasn’t good, she thought this was normal.

Sol and Robert are in love and trying to spend their waning years happy. This is inherently selfish, as at least one of the wives points out, not leaving their spouses with a choice or much time to seek their own fulfillment. If the boys were going to do this, they should have done it twenty years ago, before life is almost over. Their last snatch at being who they want to be, finally something socially acceptable and their impending marriage legal, robs two other people of their own comfortable twilights.

Being able to see both sides of the guys’ decision, the one where they are finally doing what is right for themselves and the one where they are destroying a family, makes for quite a complex story. GRACE AND FRANKIE is easy to explain on the surface, but I was surprised and impressed by how deep it goes.

Where opposites attract for the men, they repel for the women, who know one another because their husbands are too close not to involve them, but have no desire to spend any time together. That the couples invested in a beach house together, the natural retreat for both females, provides a convenient way to force continued exposure. The show does manage not to fall into familiar tropes in which they
quickly become pals. As much as I want them to stay in scenes together, it must be authentic. “The End” gives me hope that it will be.

This series is also funny. Conflict breeds humor, and GRACE AND FRANKIE has conflict in spades. From a semi-inappropriate chair to the effects of a bitter tea, there is plenty of opportunity to be amused, too, even if it’s with a sad kind of laugh.

The acting in this program is excellent, as one would expect from this cast, many of whom have worked together in the past. It tickles me that both women have played major roles in shows that the other’s TV spouse starred in. These four are all people who have had a heyday some time ago, and yet prove their careers are not over by any stretch of the word. I’m glad their talents are not being wasted in their later years, as they are clearly still young and vibrant enough to put them to good use for an appreciative audience.

GRACE AND FRANKIE is on Netflix now.

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