Why I Should Love Grace and Frankie, but I don’t — yet.

by Dr. Rosanne Welch

Jane Fonda. Lily Tomlin. Martin Sheen. Sam Waterston. Marta Kaufman. What’s not to love? That was my initial thought about watching the new Netflix comedy Grace and Frankie. I have loved all those actors for years — and I deeply admired Marta Kaufman’s during Dream On with no idea she would go on to co-create Friends (with David Crane — who she had worked with on Dream On but who has turned his attention to Episodes). So with all that beloved talent on board, of course I tuned in to the pilot of Grace and Frankie prepared to binge through them in a weekend. My rule with new shows is to promise to watch the pilot and at least one regular episode — sometimes 2 — to give them a chance since pilots are a beast built on exposition. Some pilots are merely a normal episode of the show and we learn about how the characters all came together as the series spins out its seasons. Other shows, shows like Grace and Frankie, use premise pilots — pilots that contain the inciting incident that sets the show’s whole storyline in place. Friends was a premise pilot in that it opened with Jennifer Aniston’s Rachel running away on her wedding day and re-encountering her high school friend Monica. That explained to the whole audience why the two women would end up being roommates rather than just beginning the show with them already living together.

So for Grace and Frankie’s premise pilot they had to show us the 2 husbands finally (after 20 years in the closet) telling their 2 wives that they were divorcing them to marry each other. I’m sure that played better in the room pitching to the network executive than it did in the scene, which seemed clunky and weirdly unemotional enough to represent the breakup of 2 long term marriages and the information that men who were loved and valued had lied for so long to women who were suddenly superfluous to their lives. I flat out didn’t believe the story — even if it might be based on real events it didn’t ‘play’ as real, which meant I began my viewing journey needing to be re-wooed into watching more.

So the urge to binge never manifested itself. Oh, I watched all 13 episodes of season one before writing this but I did it casually, across a couple of weeks, never feeling the need to watch the next immediately the way true binging happens. My first true binge was with Torchwood: Children of Earth by Russell T. Davies. I began that around 9pm one night expecting to watch 2 of the 5 episodes back to back but after 2 I needed number 3 and then it was after midnight but I needed 4 and then 5 no matter the hour of the night. That’s binging. I’ve binged Torchwood: Children of Earth and I’ve binged Broadchurch (the original, written by Chris Chibnall — not the Fox remake) I’ve binged, The Almighty Johnsons (which I wrote about a few episodes ago)

I’m even re-binging Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which I’ll talk about in segment 2) and I already know what’s going to happen in most episodes but still I need to watch one after the other.

And that’s not how I feel about Grace and Frankie — yet. Perhaps it’s impossible to need to binge on a comedy since comedies are not built on dramatic hooks and act breaks in the same way dramas are built. Granted, thanks to Netflix I’m re-watching both 30 Rock and 3rd Rock from the Sun so I measured my interest in tuning in one of those over dinner versus tuning in Grace and Frankie and found it was a dead heat. That still my thought about watching another episode of Grace and Frankie centered more on my wanting to watch those actors and root for their success rather than my wanting to hang out with those characters, which as Friends proved, is the key to good comedy. With Grace and Frankie I still DO want to hang out with Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen, and Sam Waterston but here’s a major issue. I ONLY want to hang out with them. Not with the 4 various grown children who are spinning out into their own B, C and D storylines each episode. This became an issue with Robin Williams’ last show Crazy Ones in that we all signed up to watch the genie from Aladdin and his daughter, played by Sarah Michelle Gellar so anytime either of them were not on screen the audience had near zero interest in the lives of their fellow office-mates because the audience didn’t sign up to watch them. Similarly, on Grace and Frankie I have a deeply difficult job trying to make watching the children worth time away from watching Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen, and Sam Waterston.

Here’s another issue. As they show moved on I found myself more interested in Martin Sheen, and Sam Waterston, but the show is named after Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin. That’s a problem. I think I like the fact that the male characters are more interesting than the female ones is an inherent problem. Part of that is because Sam Waterston is playing SO MUCH OUTSIDE the character we’ve seen him play for years that he is far too fun to watch. Though I’m waiting to see him in a work setting to see how this new persona performs law compared to his previous characterizations of lawyers. It feels as if the writers aren’t sure how to show that so they are simply avoiding it — or is it some deeply subconscious gendered issue where now that they have made him the ‘wife’ in the pair, they can’t imagine him in a power setting in a workplace? That frightens me.

And then, between the women, Lily Tomlin’s Frankie is far more fun than Jane Fonda’s Grace because Frankie’s character is always saying “Yes” and open to new things whether it be peyote or dating her African American organic grocer (played by Ernie Hudson of Ghostbusters). It would have been even more interesting if it was Jane Fonda’s uptight character who fell for the inter-racial relationship rather than Lily Tomlin’s former hippie. Then Grace would be moving more slowly into a new relationship rather than falling so quickly into Craig T. Nelson’s arms, thereby proving that what makes a woman’s life complete is a man. But then — spoiler alert — she realizes she likes him but doesn’t love him and breaks up with an admittedly perfectly wonderful man for no good reason — why couldn’t they just continue dating casually? Why this need at 72 to find THE ONE? I mean, okay, look for him but don’t NOT hang out with the cool nice enough guy while you’re looking — as long as you don’t lie and say you love him just to keep him. That whole episode screamed of those characters living in a bubble of a non-real world.

Another cliche they fell into was in the episode guest starring Michael Gross (of Family Ties where-he-played-Michael-J-Fox’s-dad fame). Gross played a gay caterer who was also a screaming liberal — as is Sam Waterston’s aging hippie liberal gay man. Why are all the liberals always gay? Just asking. A cliche that hurts more, however, is when I noted in the IMDB description of the show the women are defined as “rivals” — that description was written by someone who assumes ALL women are rivals. All that writer had to do was watch the pilot to see that the two characters are not rivals at all — Jane Fonda mentions early on that she has attempted to avoid Lily Tomlin’s character for all the years their husbands have worked together — so the IMDB writer fell back on the cliche that all women are rivals.

Also, while I’ve caught several lines of dialogue that have made me laugh and think, “That’s such a Friends kind of line” but they’ve also made me wonder if such lines fit in the mouth of Lily Tomlin (who I have always LOVED) or if they are throwbacks to Phoebe — as if Lily Tomlin’s aging hippie is Phoebe as a Golden Girl… I don’t know who that makes Jane Fonda’s Grace except maybe an even more tightly wound version of Courtney Cox’s Monica.

Finally, in an episode near the end of the season named ‘Secrets’ they made a flaw in their research that only I, a scholar of The Monkees, would find out of place. While swapping deep secrets at the end of the episode, Lily Tomlin’s character tells Jane Fonda’s character that she once made out with a Monkee — and it was Micky Dolenz — and then the show ends with Micky’s vocals on ‘She’. Jane Fonda’s character responds by saying, “the worst one” — which is odd considering he had the second most amount of fan mail. But the Jane Fonda character is very overly concerned with looks so maybe the writers thought that with him being the comic relief, her character would not have found him ‘cute’ enough. My thought was that since Lily Tomlin is playing the aging hippie, she ought to have made out with Peter Tork — but then that would involve the writers on the show having done as much research on the Monkees as I have done!

In the end it’s not the research issues, or the recycled joke issues, it’s the premise of Grace and Frankie that’s sticking me — as evidenced in the opening credits which try to visually explain the premise. The plastic dolls on a wedding cake crash and tumble through layers of icing with the plastic boys hugging each other and the plastic girls left to free fall alone. Watching it a few times a night gets old in a way the exuberant dancing in the opening credits of Friends never got old. It’s funny to see the lessons of one massive success not being applied to a new endeavor. I understand not wanting to repeat yourself, but still….

If you have any comments or ideas to share, let me know via the comments, email at Mindfull@3rdpass.media or via Twitter @MindfullMedia and we’ll develop your ideas as we go.

Dr. Rosanne Welch

— This Article was written by — Dr. Rosanne Welch

Mindful(l) Media with Dr Rosanne Welch

Episode 6: Grace & Frankie, Buffy The Vampire Slayer & Kymera Press founder, D. Lynn Smith

Listen as Dr Rosanne Welch helps teach the audience to think critically about the Media we both create and consume as it relates to the portrayal of Gender, Diversity, and Equality.

Mindful(l) Media is Hosted by Dr. Rosanne Welch, ScreenWriter and Film & Gender Studies Professor in Los Angeles

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