When the first season of Grace and Frankie launched five years ago, its big talking point was the formidable star cast led by fantastic actors like Jane Fonda, Lilly Tomlin, Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston. But no one really knew if a show about two seventy-year-old frenemies who find themselves thrown together when their husbands come out as gay lovers and want to marry each other would really work.
Created by Marta Kauffman, one of the co-creators of Friends, and Howard J Morris, Grace and Frankie is now in its fifth season with all episodes streaming on Netflix. Season 4 of the show ended on a characteristically hilarious yet poignant note when Grace Hanson (Jane Fonda) and Frankie Bergstein (Lilly Tomlin) break out of an old age retirement home that their kids tricked them into moving. They discover to their horror that their beloved beach house has been sold.
Season 5 begins where season 4 left off, and the two women decide that they are calling the shots in their lives again. Their new mantra is a phrase that quite rhymes with the word bucket. The ladies stage a âdharnaâ of sorts, squatting in the living room, refusing to leave till they get their house back. Which they do after they convince their famous new house owner, she doesnât need their home. Life is back on track briefly and includes a girls' getaway, Frankieâs attempts at living an authentic vegan life while having a fling, visions of their dead friend Babe, and Grace trying to save her former company.
But after five years together, the unchangeable truth of time ticking away takes a toll on Grace and Frankieâs friendship and the marriage of their ex-husbands Robert (Martin Sheen) and Sol (Sam Waterston). When Sol announces he is a ânew Solâ, more assertive and less obsessed with keeping everyone happy all the time, Robert is not ready for this change. Neither is he for his new sleep apnea machine, frequent humiliation in front of younger theatre colleagues and constant restrictions on his diet. Each of them wants to find meaning in their twilight years, but is old age the time to push your limits, or slow down and just savour the joy of living, one day at a time?
The first couple of episodes quickly wrap up the main crisis from the previous season of where the women will live. It does seem a bit too simplistic and rushed but clearly, the creators had bigger things planned for the remaining season. This includes subplots involving Graceâs daughters Brianna (June Diane Raphael) and Mallory (Brooklyn Decker) and Frankieâs sons Budd (Baron Vaughn) and Coyote (Ethan Embry). In a follow-up to Coyoteâs meeting with his birth mother, he meets his half-brother, but the show puzzlingly does not explore their relationship further.
Also underwritten are Malloryâs attempts to start dating again while handling four children and being an unpaid intern at her sisterâs company. Brianna gets a better fleshed out story involving her boyfriend becoming a sperm donor to his best friend and her wife. The emotionally shut down Brianna from season 1 has softened considerably over the past seasons and itâs a nice character graph for a talented performer like Raphael to play with.
There are some wonderful moments in this season. Budd and Alison getting married, a confrontation between the ladies where Grace asks Frankie to snap out of her quest for something better and honour what they have built together, Frankie getting seconds added to a stoplight so the elderly can cross with ease, Robert getting his childhood wish of singing a musical number as Don Quixote, and a wonderful finale episode where we see what life would have been like if Grace and Frankie had never lived together.
But one cannot shake off the feeling that what started as a wonderful fresh premise, may be running out of things to say. The constant struggle between âI am old, and I need extra helpâ and âI am an old person, but I will not be treated differentlyâ has just so many permutations and combinations to play with. Season 5 finds itself floundering a bit up to the halfway mark with its characters jumping from one thing to another, trying a little too hard to keep things funny. Itâs only when the show finds its balance between drama and comedy that the narrative becomes engaging and the big twist in the last moments of episode 13, might be just the impetus it needed for an already announced Season 6.
Grace and Frankie is a wonderful experiment in new age sitcoms for the digital medium, where there are no fixed episodic structures or a laughter track. From season 1 the focus has been less on plot and more on the themes and issues that the show wants to highlight. Death, loneliness, ill health, second chances, courage, sexuality for the elderly- but the bedrock of the show has been its focus on family and most importantly, strong female friendships.
Fonda, Tomlin, Sheen and Waterston are excellent in their respective roles, as is the supporting cast and their now established chemistry keeps you invested. Season 5 doesnât quite match up to the brilliant first four seasons, but one cannot deny how crucial this show has been in changing how characters are written for older actors and the elderly as a community. Watch it if youâre a fan of the series because itâs quite likely that we will not see another show like it anytime soon.