“A lot of things happened before you came on the scene,” says one best friend to another, at a two-person, two-pig, squatter-themed slumber party, during which the title characters of “Grace and Frankie” are hell-bent on crushing yet another risky scheme — this time, staking a literal claim on their right to exist where, and as, they please.
It’s a telling quote from early on in season 5 of show creator Marta Kauffman’s kooky and complex rumination on the examined life, as lived by a deliriously dysfunctional family of characters — aging seniors and young adults, gays and straights, dog and cat people — for whom the shocking revelations never stop.
Be warned: Minor spoilers from 13 new episodes, now available in full on Netflix, await. But first, a primer.
Set in the privileged spaces, and occasionally seedy pockets, of San Diego, “Grace and Frankie” upends the lives of perfectionist business executive and enthusiastic martini drinker Grace (Jane Fonda), and free-thinking, deep-toking artist Frankie (Lily Tomlin), when they arrive at a restaurant to, they suspect, celebrate the impending retirement of their divorce lawyer husbands (Martin Sheen, as emotionally reserved Robert, and Sam Waterston, as eternally exasperated Sol).
When Robert and Sol reveal their 20-year gay affair, and a desire for divorces of their own, polar opposites Grace and Frankie put down stakes at the beach house those husbands pitched as an investment opportunity, but was, in fact, their love nest. What follows is an odd couple odyssey, during which the two women bond and start a business (vibrators designed for the older woman), while their exes retire for real, and figure out what to do with all that baggage, having emerged from the closet while in their 70s.
Back at the beach house, Grace and Frankie are exploring romantic possibilities of their own. Frankie woos Jacob (Ernie Hudson, as her “yam man” farmer), and then discovers the limitations of a long-distance relationship. Grace is forced into a do-over, after breaking up with her new beau, adventure author Guy (Craig T. Nelson), while he was under the memory-wiping influence of Ambien.
Surgery-necessitating injuries, possible strokes, mean girl cliques, the mental deterioration of contemporaries, and incoming calls on a landline that compel attendance at yet another funeral are among the rites of passage for this stage in life, often handled with a telling glance or a muttered comment that speaks volumes, and gives voice to subject matter rarely tacked on television without the assistance of a laugh track (“Grace and Frankie” thankfully has none, but does benefit from effective transition music and calm, confident editing).
The two female leads aren’t the only ones facing forced reinvention. Frankie and Sol’s adopted sons, Coyote (Ethan Embry, as a recovering addict) and Bud (Baron Vaughn, as a lawyer and the dutiful voice of reason) are also living together, and feeling the strain — while Grace and Robert’s daughters, Mallory (Brooklyn Decker as an overwhelmed mom) and Brianna (comedic standout June Diane Raphael, as the highly capable but generally disliked heir to her mother’s business throne) share, at first, little more than scar tissue not yet healed from their upbringing, at the hands of a mother more concerned with third-quarter profits than kissing boo-boos.
Although Frankie’s uncompromising liberalism is written too broadly, and Grace’s relentless perfectionism seems forced (on the page, at least), Tomlin and Fonda’s timing, delivery, chemistry, and gift for physical comedy makes the generally strong material soar to heights it would never reach in the hands of a lesser duo.
And in the Robert/Sol relationship, the show earns its pathos, ranking high in the pantheon of fully fleshed-out, older gay men. It’s a thin field, to be sure, but still, “A” for the effort. This reporter’s ignorance of other examples aside, only the British sitcom “Vicious” cares to explore an aging gay couple’s highs, lows, and cringe-inducing flaws with such gusto. Kudos, also, to the sheer amount of same-sex kisses Sheen and Waterston share.
The queer smooch count from any given season of “Grace and Frankie” rivals the entire catalog of “Will & Grace,” original and reboot combined, and reminds the so-inclined viewer how many times that comparatively anemic sitcom deferred to tepid punchlines over authentic representations of gay intimacy.
“Grace and Frankie,” however, has them in abundance: Robert sobbing in the middle of a store, when he realizes the scope of his betrayal to Grace, and Sol, making the case for his spouse to embrace activism, after so many years in the closet, while others fought for the wedding rings on their fingers.
There are also moments that call into question whether men of a certain age were victims, or beneficiaries, of their time. “Maybe we’re the lucky ones,” says the serene John Getz, as John, an ex-priest who points to two canoodling twinks, while sharing a park bench with Robert. “When you come out young, these days,” John reasons, “it’s difficult to avoid the near-occasion of sin.” It’s among the show’s best gay-themed scenes, as the older generation seeks to reconcile, perhaps rationalize, their own unrealized potential. (There’s an equally effective moment in season 5, when Robert finds himself in a gay bar, quizzing a patron about his leather gear.)
“They have gay writers in the room,” said Tim Bagley, who plays Peter, the hypercritical director of Robert’s gay community theater group. “They’re not young guys, and I feel like the way these characters are written comes out of their experience in their own gay relationships. So there’s a certain amount of authenticity… As gay people, we know there are all different kinds of situations, because we design our own relationships, and don’t really conform to any heterosexual idea of what a relationship should be.”
Those relationships are often at their best during telling, if rare, mundane moments. “There’s one scene,” Bagley recalled, “when I’m sitting around the table with them [Robert and Sol], and I discover that Robert can sing. And I remember looking at them, and feeling really lucky, because it was a scene about them just being happy and supporting each other. So much of the show, they’re dealing with problems. And I was thinking what this scene is, is just showing the normalcy of these two men. They’re in love and finally able to be together, and have a fun time with their friend.”
“Peter,” Bagley said, “started started out as kind of a sweet guy, and a friend of theirs [Robert and Sol’s], and I think the writers have had fun making him more and more awful. At first, he was pretty normal and easygoing. Michael Gross played my husband, and we were caterers. Then, later on, they found a way to have me direct this theater group. I’m kind of a bad director, and an awful person.”
Season 5 finds Peter as a demanding guest of Robert and Sol, after they discover him curled up on the couch (the show’s go-to metaphor for emotional retreat). “I can’t give away why,” Bagley said, of the couch situation, “but I can tell you there is a new musical… My character is hideous, but he has redemption, in his own way. You’ll understand, early on, why he does what he does.”
As for this viewer’s bleary-eyed verdict on season 5, having binge watched it way too close to deadline: It’s not quite the next step in evolution one might hope for, but it’s a welcome reminder why January (the new season’s annual premiere month) is a time of year worth looking forward to. Kauffman and company seem to have turned a corner that hints at weirder, wider, far more wonderful things to come.
The dream sequences and flashbacks of past seasons are replaced by bouts of magical realism, as when a drunken Grace is rattled by her (fully-awake?) conversation with Babe (Estelle Parsons), a deceased friend, whose subsequent encounter with Frankie appears to be a regularly scheduled appointment. And the eccentric final episode lays out an alternate timeline scenario that throws the relationship dynamics of seasons 1-4 into utter chaos.
Order, in the court of viewer opinion, or the lives of these characters, is not something the show’s creative team seems interested in courting. Good. A few more seasons in which the show embraces the newfound refrain of its two main characters (“F*ck it!”) is just what we’re going to need as we all age, gracefully or otherwise.