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Fonda and Tomlin Tackle Life Changes in New Sitcom

‘Grace and Frankie’ ends up being about friendship

Grace and Frankie is as traditional a sitcom as its Laverne and Shirley-esque title suggests, but one thing about it is revolutionary: The show’s four main characters are all over 70.

The Netflix series, which has just been renewed for a second season, sets out to explore what happens after the title characters (Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, respectively) learn that their husbands (Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston) are leaving them and have been having an affair for two decades.

It’s not particularly strong on gay issues, but the show is surprisingly willing to tackle having to re-boot a life you thought was all mapped out. I’ll get to that soon.

Unfortunately, the Netflix series so far has relied on gimmicks. In one episode, we get two desperate sitcom ploys: the surprise childbirth scene and the stuck-in-the-elevator-with-feuding-friends scene. If only someone had two dates with two different people on the same night in that episode, Grace and Frankie could have hit the comedy cliche trifecta.

And the show isn’t as insightful about being older and LGBT as last year’s Transparent, in which a sexagenarian played by Jeffrey Tambor came out as transgender, or even Vicious, in which gay seventysomethings played by Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi sipped tea and bickered. The closest Grace and Frankie gets to fresh thinking about gay themes is when Grace’s daughter pointedly asks Frankie’s son: “Would you be cool with this if they’d both been cheating with women for 20 years?”

The Stars’ Chemistry

But the idea of a forced reinvention of life is handled with more skill.

As the first of the season’s 13 episodes opens, the four principles arrive at a restaurant for what the women don’t yet know will be the coming-out dinner. The scene sharply contrasts the excitement of the men with the confusion and pain of the women.

“We’re getting better with age and this can be a very exciting chapter we’re about to open in the book of life,” enthuses Waterston’s Sol. But Tomlin’s Frankie sees endings, not beginnings: “I’ve got news for you. The next chapter is not that long,” she says.

Grace and Frankie is really about friends negotiating new relationships and new challenges for which there is no roadmap.

Grace and Frankie checks in frequently on the guys, but the show is at its best when it’s exploiting the chemistry between the two lead actresses, which they first demonstrated more than three decades ago in 9 to 5.

Friends in real life, they are hilarious as they riff off each other while the scripts spin twists on what we already know about the lives of these legendary performers: Strong-willed Fonda plays weak-kneed Grace and Tomlin has a ball as a latter-day hippie who uses Eastern mysticism to hide her brutal cynicism.

Getting Laughs Out Of Aging

Frankie’s no-B.S. attitude comes in handy for the women, who only get tight after they become reluctant roommates in the beach house their families share. After a trip to a supermarket where they can’t attract the attention of a young clerk who Grace says is ignoring them because of their gray hair, Frankie simply pockets the cigarettes they were trying to purchase, cigarettes she has said she’d “give her good knee” to smoke.

“You stole those?” Grace asks, to which Frankie replies, “I learned we have a superpower: invisibility. You can’t see me, you can’t stop me.”

Later episodes find Grace, who has been in a sexless marriage, facing the prospect of intimacy with someone new, a subplot that grapples with vaginal dryness and, improbably, gets laughs out of it.

Meanwhile, Frankie finds she likes sleeping alone and resolves to get up-to-date on technology. As she signs up for Twitter and starts a vlog, she resolves, “I want to be a part of the conversation,” a message that won’t be lost on viewers who’ll have to figure out how to stream from their computers to their TVs before they can watch Grace and Frankie.

A Show About Friends

What with all the hunky eldersuitors and designer-kale luncheons, Grace and Frankie might seem too glib. But it acknowledges that big changes, even worthwhile ones, do not come easily. Grace’s attempt to stop people-pleasing and Frankie’s struggle to “not face this crappy part of my life alone” are not without pitfalls.

“You were making so much progress. You were moving forward. What are you thinking?” asks Grace in the final episode after Frankie screws up in a way that will put a big twist in the second season. The subtext? When you try new things, you should expect to make some mistakes.

Despite the hot-button subject that gets the series rolling, Grace and Frankie is really about friends negotiating new relationships and new challenges for which there is no roadmap (Marta Kaufman, who co-created Friends, is one of the show’s originators).

Here’s hoping the second season will continue to emphasize that it’s never too late to take a fresh look at what you’re doing. Or, as once-repressed Grace puts it to Frankie: “I like this saying-exactly-what-we-mean. I wonder if things would have been different if we’d done this a long time ago.”

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