9 to 5 Reunion Missing More Than Dolly
Netflix has certainly gotten mileage out of the 35-year old on-screen reunion between Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin in its newest original release, “Grace and Frankie.” Sadly, it remains one of the few reasons to check it out. Elegant and proper Grace (Fonda) and freewheeling and eccentric Frankie (Tomlin) have nothing in common but their husbands (Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston, respectively), who have recently come out as a couple and announced their plan to get married. With each woman taking solace in the beach house the couples co-own, this “Dharma & Greg” meets “The Odd Couple” situation provides less comedy than it strives for. Where it ultimately fails is in tone. Shot as a single-camera dramedy, the script cannot seem to rise above its multi-camera pedigree from creators Marta Kauffman (“Friends”, “Joey”) and Howard J. Morris (“According to Jim”, “Home Improvement”). Kauffman and Morris wrote the first two episodes and can be credited with having the weakest of the season’s thirteen. (They contribute to the finale as well.) Having not written for television since streaming became the rage (and increasingly, the norm), the creators’ material feels dated and stale. Moreover, their premise of “husbands fall in love and dump their wives/wives start over — and realize that they may actually need each other to do so” could be much simpler than it is presented on-screen. For an approximate half-hour show, there is a dizzying amount of family members and friends that are paraded out in the initial episodes without the requisite development. And some of the jokes are seen coming, not funny, or both. Even Ryan Gosling deserves better than what he gets in the pilot (no spoilers here). It’s such obvious attempts at humour that detract from the emotional throughline the show is trying to construct. In a possible attempt to differentiate itself from Amazon’s “Transparent,” the writing too often veers away from truth and honesty toward the hackneyed. “Grace and Frankie” misaligns its focus between the women and the men; ultimately, it isn’t fully anchored by its premise.
One can understand taking the idea of two men leaving their wives for each other and running with it. It’s fresh. It’s happening in the world as we speak. Somewhere in the development process, in the attempt to bring authenticity to the script, its creators faultered and it arrived half-baked and unbalanced. Maybe they were trying to figure out who its audience was going to be? With Netflix often praised for not having any network-like involvement, perhaps the targets were not accurately hung? Is “Grace and Frankie” for the older demographic? Only older women? Gays? It seems to want to be a more topical “Brothers and Sisters” but comes across as more of a companion piece to TV Land’s “Hot in Cleveland” (were it still on the air). It’s important for the show to know if it is presenting the wives to us as: a) having moved on with their lives, b) trying to move on with their lives, or c) not being able to. These are actually distinctions worth noting. With the situation not clearly defined, the comedy is impossible to mine. There are laughs to be had, to be sure. Alexa Junge’s (“The United States of Tara”) episode (“The Funeral”) helps to give the show some bearings and is the rare episode to understand its genre and audience. It is especially welcome as the fourth in the series. (Dare I recommend that the first couple might actually be avoided?) Episode eight (“The Sex”) is also a bit of an island, tonally. And throughout the series, plotlines involving the kids are questionable for how they add anything to the show at all. (No parallel between Frankie’s son Coyote’s (Ethan Embry) drug addiction is linked in any meaningful way, nor does it add a worthwhile layer to the story. In another episode, his mention of searching for his birth mother is a seed for a future episode. Unfortunately, it will most likely be one beyond the production of the show.) Nor do the children’s reactions to their fathers’ announcement ring true. Shock and anger is not the common response anymore — especially when raised in a liberal SoCal family like Frankie and Sol’s. (Everyone is accepting of it in the end, but any interesting navigation to that point is not shared.) Even with the flashback that is (nearly all of) episode ten, the odd relationship between each family’s children is not made clear or more palatable — and is too late to invest in by that point. That is not to say that the show does not have its redeeming qualities.
As the husbands, Robert (Sheen) and Sol (Waterston) are more realistically presented and portrayed than the women they were married to. They are equally as opposite a couple as their former wives but find interesting ways to match up and meet within their scenes. Kudos to the men for their thoughtful, nuanced performances. Waterston, especially, is lovely to watch settle into his character. June Diane Raphael as the eldest of Robert and Grace’s daughters, Brianna, is a standout among the supporting cast with her unparalleled timing and delivery. Even her throwaway lines sometimes deliver an episode’s biggest laughs. Alas, the show is let down by some of the direction as it, too, harkens back to the multi-cam days, with punchlines or buttons left to hang in the air, and bit players left with egg on their faces. Christine Lahti and Craig T. Nelson (among others) make some great guest appearances. And a who’s who of sitcom dads pop up as gay acquaintances of the newly engaged men. But most of us are tuning in for Grace and Frankie and Fonda and Tomlin don’t really disappoint, even if Tomlin’s excellent physical comedy could be reined in at times. There are certain scenes that reveal why each are such respected actresses. They elevate their material, even if their directors don’t always know where to place it. Some of their scenes together are so natural and funny that it is disheartening when you feel the show leading them astray. The emotional baggage from their divorce is not unpacked in an authentic manner — though they deal with the situation episode to episode, their priorities seem out of place. So, though there are moments where there is excellence in the acting, is it worth sticking it out? Probably not — unless you’re Fonda or Tomlin fans. I wouldn’t be surprised if the grounded depictions of Robert and Sol are what keep some people interested. If you’re expectations are low, or you don’t care for consistency, you will probably like the show. My favourite scene was in the final episode of the season between Grace and Sol. It was real. It had humour. It was emotional. It was everything “Grace and Frankie” seemed to want to be. And yet I half expected Dolly Parton to suddenly make an appearance and jostle the show off its tonal moorings yet again. I guess with a cup of ambition, that’ll be something to aim for in the second season.