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Season 6 Fonda/Tomlin-led Netflix comedy is full of grace, frank as ever

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L to R: Jane Fonda as Grace, Lily Tomlin as Frankie. (Photo by Ali Goldstein, courtesy of Netflix)

Change comes crashing in like waves at the beachfront property shared by the polar opposite title characters of “Grace and Frankie,” as Season 6 picks up mere seconds after the last one left off.

Now available in full on Netflix, the 13 episodes of this penultimate season deliver game-changing storylines for every member of the ever-evolving, deliciously dysfunctional, San Diego-based Hanson and Bergstein clans.

Honeymoon plans, health scares, mobility issues, an arrest warrant, a bacon curfew, and a new invention from the creators of a pleasuring device designed for older females figure into the goings-on.

Haven’t seen the series? You’re missing out on a binge-worthy ensemble comedy, and one of the few shows committed to exploring, with sly humor and saucy language, the potentials and limitations of the 70+ set.

Loyal fans and curious newcomers alike, be warned: The below paragraph contains backstory tidbits, and the rest of the proceedings drop some current season spoilers.

With Jane Fonda as vodka martini-loving, mega-WASPish cosmetics company founder Grace Hanson and Lily Tomlin as hard-toking, hearing-challenged free spirit Frankie Bergstein, these two women with only mutual loathing in common are thrust together by a shocking announcement: Their divorce lawyer husbands, ultra-liberal people-pleaser Sol Bergstein (Sam Waterston) and musical theater-loving, comparably conservative Robert Hanson (Martin Sheen) are embarking on a life together. Appropriately stunned, Grace and Frankie both stake their claim to the beach house whose “good investment” purchase served as canoodling central for Sol and Robert. A younger generation is also experiencing upheavals, as the Hansons and Bergsteins each have two children. Respectively, they are brood-tending, troubled-marriage Mallory (Brooklyn Decker) and filterless insult savant Brianna (June Diane Raphael), and adopted sons Coyote (Ethan Embry, as a recovering addict) and Bud (Baron Vaughn, as a divorce lawyer and go-to fixer of family drama).

Having made its debut in May 2015, “Grace and Frankie” is the brainchild of veteran comedy creators Marta Kauffman and Howard J. Morris.

“We are, first and foremost, writers,” says Morris, of his working dynamic with “Friends” co-creator Kauffman. “I’ve known Marta since she gave me my first job [as a writer] on ‘Dream On,’ in 1990. We’ve always shared a similar sensibility. It’s comic, but doesn’t leave the realm of the real. We both love complicated situations that are messy and human, and reflect how people really are.”

Even though “Grace and Frankie” is, notes Morris, “an absolute, avowed comedy,” he and Kauffman are not afraid “to hit the more poignant moments. We decided early on that this is a show about hope, about what happens when you think your life is over, but it isn’t.”

Of the once-contentious, still-tense Grace and Frankie relationship, says Morris, “They’re always going to be at odds, because whatever they do, they approach it from opposite attitudes.”

Citing a pivot in Season 3, Morris recalls, “You’re doing a show about two people who, at the beginning, really disliked each other, and you can’t keep doing that show, reacting to the fact that their husbands left them… So we had them open a business, helping older women with products that people don’t usually talk about.”

Frank talk tackled with grace is something “Grace and Frankie” excels at, especially as it applies to people of a certain age.

“That’s something we really wanted to explore,” says Morris, “and when there’s something nobody else is doing, it’s often an opportunity. That excited us. So we will always ask, ‘What are we talking about that is true to these characters, and their age?’ It’s not a show that could be done if they were 35.”

As for how the narrative evolves, says Morris, “We sit down at the end of the year, watch the previous season, and see what the hanging chads are.”

Such reflection has yielded the return of supporting characters, including, says Morris, “Tim Bagley, who cracks us up constantly.”

Seen previously as the tyrannical director of a gay community theater troupe who runs a catering business with his husband, deadpan artist Bagley’s hypercritical Peter returns this season, taking a weak stab at amending for his stint as the demanding houseguest of Sol and Robert (whose impossible dream of playing the lead in “Man of La Mancha” was crushed when Peter cruelly downgraded him to Sancho Panza).

Ernie Hudson, as the main ingredient supplier of Frankie’s yam-based lube, returns from Santa Fe to vie for her attention, alongside newcomer Michael McKean, as a monied Deadhead with a secret Frankie fails to hear, during a date in a noisy restaurant (“He’s fantastic,” Morris rightly notes, of McKean). Millicent Martin, as former divorce firm secretary (and porn director?) Joan-Margaret, builds on her legacy of straight talk, while Peter Cambor returns as accountant Barry, whose sperm donation to a lesbian couple further complicates his relationship with Brianna.

But for all these notable guests who grew into recurring characters, Morris says Peter Gallagher has proven to be “the most obvious” example of, “Oh, wait, there’s something more there, and we’ve got to write this.”

Gallagher plays Nick Skolka, the charismatic, confident tycoon whose unyielding commitment to considerably older Grace led to a Vegas marriage at the tail end of last season.

“Whenever you cast somebody who’s a potential romantic lead,” says Morris, “it’s so hit or miss. But we immediately recognized Jane and Peter have this great chemistry.”

L to R: Martin Sheen as Robert, Sam Waterston as Sol. Photo by Saeed Adyani, courtesy of Netflix

Also high on the show’s chemistry scale (aggressively topped by Fonda and Tomlin) are Sheen and Waterston. The well-paired straight actors share frequent smooches and knowing glances that convey the hard-won intimacy of Robert and Sol, whose journey out of the closet is soured by frequent reminders that they cheated on their wives for 20 years. Add to that their bickering nature and propensity for keeping secrets (par for the course for this show), and you’ve got decidedly less than ideal poster boys for the gays. Morris acknowledges there’s been some pushback on that.

“The criticism we’ve gotten, especially in the beginning,” he says, “is that it wasn’t truly ‘gay’ enough, or felt inauthentic.” But from the very beginning, he recalls, “We were like, ‘We’re not going to be suddenly having them wear leather pants.’ We’ve stayed true to who these guys are, who were repressed all this time.” (Sol does don leather this season, but it’s more about revenge than fetish.)

“Aside from that,” Morris says, of the can’t-be-all-things-to-all-people Robert and Sol relationship, “people in the gay community just go crazy for Jane and Lily, and we’re just very grateful that the show was embraced.”

In the service of authenticity, Morris notes the contribution of gay writers John Hoffman and Billy Finnegan. “He’s fantastic,” Morris says, of Hoffman, “and will always let us in on the perspective of people he knows.” Finnegan, Morris says, “is just a tremendously funny, talented guy.”

Among other things, Finnegan and Hoffman are responsible for writing, respectively, episodes 3 and 4 of Season 4, which tie up a Robert/Sol storyline about activism, flesh out the Grace/Nick age difference thing, give the title characters their zaniest scheme to date, and kills off Frankie, in a manner of speaking. Dense with plot pivots and one-liners that we dare say could only come from a “gay sensibility,” the episodes also offer new takes on the show’s core themes of aging, partnering, and reinvention.

Now, says Morris, the creative team is challenged with the task of closure: Season 7 will be their last, with 16 episodes ordered (three more than the usual).

“I can say it will continue in a vein of hope,” says Morris, “but it does feel like a lot of pressure. You want to do it justice. We really want to deliver for everybody who’s been there for us.”

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Online Culture

LGBTQ+ friendly Netflix could lose a quarter of its subscribers

70% of survey respondents use Netflix the most, meaning it has higher usage than any other streaming service—by a 60% margin

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LOS ANGELES – Streaming service Netflix which is home to LGBTQ+ friendly fare including the smash hit series Heartstopper, Queer Eye, Uncoupled, and Grace and Frankie along with a robust portfolio of other queer friendly content is poised to lose a staggering quarter of its subscribers.

In a recent survey conducted by REVIEWS.org, a organization staffed by teams of experts who rate and review connected home services and products including Mobile & Wireless; TV & Streaming; Home Security & Smart Home along with other web based offerings surveyed 1,000 Americans to gauge their streaming habits in 2022 and found that 1 in 4 are planning to leave Netflix this year. 

Based on the report’s findings,  that could be over 18 million US subscribers—and an estimated $272 million in lost subscriber revenue for the streaming company. The experts noted that Netflix has had a difficult 2022, losing nearly 1.2 million subscribers in the first two quarters of 2022 and recording subscriber loss for the first time in a decade. 

The company hopes to add one million new subscribers in the third quarter, but the report questions if the streaming company face another loss of that magnitude.

The survey noted that nearly two-thirds of respondents cited Netflix’s increasing cost as a reason for leaving.

  • Netflix’s Basic one-screen plan went up by 11% in January 2022 for the first time in three years.
  • Meanwhile, Standard and Premium plans increased 20% and 25%, respectively, in the same time period.

The REVIEWS report also pointed out that Netflix currently has the highest average plan cost among the eight most popular streaming services in the United States. And that is leading 30% of surveyed subscribers to share their password with people outside their household.

Graphic via REVIEWS.org

Netflix cost vs. competitors

Streaming serviceAverage monthly costNumber of plans
Netflix$15.15Three plans, no ads
HBO Max$12.49Two plans: With and without ads
Hulu$9.99Two plans: With and without ads (does not include Hulu Live+)
Amazon Prime$14.99One plan, no ads
Disney Plus$7.99One plan*
Paramount+$7.49Two plans: With and without ads
Apple TV+$4.99One plan, no ads
PeacockTV$7.49Two plans: With and without ads
Graphic via REVIEWS.org

Data as of 09/05/22. Offers and availability may vary by location and are subject to change.
* Does not include Disney bundle

Another issue with those surveyed was lack of content. 1 in 3 respondents said Netflix no longer has the shows they want to watch and then 30% said that they use other streaming services more.

The report notes that Netflix became popular for licensing many TV shows and movies for streaming before the company developed its own original programming. In recent years, those shows and movies have left Netflix for other streaming services—mainly to build the libraries of WarnerMedia’s HBO Max, Walt Disney Company’s Disney+, and NBCUniversal’s Peacock—leading to ‘the streaming wars.’

Graphic via REVIEWS.org

The report’s findings state that the average American is subscribed to 4 streaming platforms:

  • 78% subscribe to Netflix
  • 46% are Disney+ subscribers
  • 42% subscribe to HBO Max
  • 33% are Peacock subscribers
  • 26% subscribe to Hulu
  • 22% are Apple TV+ subscribers
  • 5% subscribe to Hulu
  • 5% are Amazon Prime subscribers

The survey also found that 70% of respondents use Netflix the most, meaning it has higher usage than any other streaming service—by a 60% margin!

In a distant second place is HBO Max with a 10% share of respondents and Disney+ takes third place with 6%. Every other streaming service is under 5%.

So can anything beat Netflix the REVIEWERS.org asked? Their answer was “Right now, no. But rising prices, a lack of content, and increased competition could lead 1-in-4 subscribers to cancel their Netflix subscription within the year.”

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Television

‘Modern Family’ creator returns to form with hilarious ‘Reboot’

Show about a show ditches tired mockumentary format

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The cast of ‘Reboot’ on Hulu. (Photo courtesy Hulu)

TV veteran Steven Levitan already had a lot of success as a writer, showrunner, and producer before the premiere of “Modern Family” – a series he co-created with Christopher Lloyd – in 2009. That show turned out to be a cultural phenomenon, helping to redefine and normalize the representation of LGBTQ relationships on TV by including a gay couple within its ensemble of central characters while also becoming a long-running fan-favorite, winning scores of awards (including nine primetime Emmys) and being nominated for scores more before airing its final season in 2020. Even with a resume that includes shows like “Wings,” “Frasier,” “The Larry Sanders Show,” and “Just Shoot Me,” that’s got to be considered a career-topping triumph.

Now, Levitan is back with a new show, “Reboot,” which premiered on Hulu Sept. 20, and from its very first pre-credit sequence it signals a welcome return to the same rapid-fire comedic style that kept “Modern Family” on everybody’s weekly watchlist for 11 years – still inclusive, with prominent queer characters and storylines, but thankfully without the mockumentary format.

“Reboot” is a good-naturedly irreverent send-up of the Hollywood entertainment machine featuring “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” star Rachel Bloom as Hannah, a TV writer who gets greenlighted on her pitch for a revival of “Step Right Up,” a beloved sitcom from the early 2000s. She manages to convince the original cast to reprise their roles as the show’s “wacky family” – despite their complicated offscreen history – by promising to adapt the show for a contemporary audience, eliminating the corny, outdated humor and shifting toward a more sophisticated, realistic tone. At the first table read, however, Hannah’s plan for a reimagined series is met with a significant obstacle – the unexpected presence of the original sitcom’s creator, Gordon Gelman (Paul Reiser), who has wielded his industry clout to insert himself into the mix as a showrunner and ensure that “woke” ideas about comedy don’t get in the way of the laughs.

Obviously, this scenario provides a ripe field for jokes about the cultural conflicts that have become a fact of life in 2022 – mostly around the differing attitudes between older and younger generations, always a sure-fire bet for relatable comedy. The “OK Boomer” sparring at its core is common fodder these days, but Levitan and his creative team know comedy well enough to make it feel fresh – and their secret is to make sure that the characters are always the main attraction.

In this case, they’ve given us plenty of them to choose from. Besides Hannah and Gordon, whose rivalry for the reins quickly becomes just one of many thorns in their relationship dynamic, we also get the leading players of “Step Right Up”: Reed Sterling (Keegan-Michael Key), a Yale-trained thespian who ditched the show’s first run to pursue a movie career that never materialized; Bree Marie Johnson (Judy Greer), a once-popular star who left showbiz for a now-failed marriage to an obscure Scandinavian Duke; Clay Barber (Johnny Knoxville), a “bad boy” stand-up comic known less for his talent than for being a train wreck; and Zack Jackson (Calum Worthy), a former child star who seems to have reached his mid-20s without actually growing up. Rounding out the main ensemble is Krista Marie Yu as Elaine, a young production exec transplanted from the tech industry whose fish-out-of-water incongruity provides a necessary outsider perspective amid the show-biz histrionics that surround her.

There’s a host of supporting characters, too – a roomful of writers, for instance, hilariously bridging the generation gap with their common love of comedy even as they clash over cultural values. Drawn in broad strokes, all of them could easily be dismissed as generic tropes, stock figures updated to fit the latest cultural zeitgeist; that they come off as fully realized human beings instead of lazy stereotypes is a testament to Levitan and the real-life writers’ room responsible for bringing them to life.

It’s also a testament to the actors who play them. Key and Greer have the biggest challenge, in many ways; their characters, cut from the same egocentric cloth as so many other parodies of vain and pretentious Hollywood stars and clearly designed to be adorably insufferable, come off in early episodes as simply insufferable. As the season progresses, fortunately, their skill as performers permits them (and their characters) to rise above the flaws and foibles and win us over. The ever-reliable Knoxville does what he does best – sending up his own wild-man persona – and occasionally reminds us that he’s not a bad actor, when he gets the chance; Worthy, an ex-Disney-kid also spoofing his own real-life image, likewise injects surprising doses of winning humanity as the show goes on.

As for Bloom, essentially the main character though surrounded by an ensemble of zanies, she holds her own with all the juggernaut talent she used to make “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” a wildly popular cult hit; required to be a grounding force while dealing with her own whirlwind of personal and professional dysfunction, she succeeds more than well enough to anchor the show. Finally, Reiser brings his status as a venerable sitcom legend to give his old-school character an appropriate presence, while making him much more layered and likable than the Archie Bunker-ish throwback we expect him to be.

With such a solid cast doing the heavy lifting onscreen, “Reboot” is able to cast its satirical net wide enough to poke fun at our rapidly changing culture without losing the important human connection that keeps its never-ending bombardment of one-liners – something for which Levitan’s previous shows have been widely known and admired – from feeling hollow. That doesn’t mean the comedy ever lulls; on the contrary, even the show’s most tender and meaningful moments – which often take us by pleasant surprise – are punctuated by zingers. And while the series leans hard into the kind of uncomplicated vibe that usually marks popular mainstream sitcoms, it also lets itself play at more complex levels, getting a lot of comedic mileage out of the inescapable “meta” quality of being a show about a show – for example, the fictional series, like the real one, is produced by Hulu, just one such cheeky touch among many that make it feel more subversive and iconoclastic than perhaps it really is.

What might work even more to the benefit of “Reboot” than the considerable lineup of talent it boasts both on and behind the screen is its format – and we’re not just talking about its choice to eschew the mockumentary thing, a masterfully innovative tactic that has now become tired from overuse, even on Emmy-favored “Abbot Elementary.” In the new era of streaming content, the 23-episode season feels like an increasingly outmoded way of doing things; with only eight episodes to undertake, there’s far less chance of stretching the material (and our patience for it) thin, or of running out of ideas and undermining the show’s integrity with sub-par writing just to pad things out.

Unsaddled from that burden, “Reboot” manages to be laugh-out-loud funny throughout each episode of its first season. That alone is enough for us to look forward to season two.

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Books

‘Before We Were Trans’ explores a complicated history

Scholars ‘need to tread carefully and responsibly’

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(Book cover image courtesy of Seal Press)

‘Before We Were Trans’
By Kit Heyam
c.2022, Seal Press
$30/352 pages

Yes or no: before there were rockets, there were no astronauts.

No, there wasn’t a need for them without a vehicle to go where people only dreamed of going. But yes – the word “astronaut” is more than a century old. Words and labels matter, as you’ll see in “Before We Were Trans” by Kit Heyam, and time is no excuse.

On the evening of June 8, 1847, John Sullivan was apprehended by gendarmes while weaving down a sidewalk in London. Sullivan was wearing a few women’s garments, and was carrying more, all of it stolen. Because it wasn’t the first time he was arrested, he spent 10 years in an Australian penal colony for his crime.

“Is this story a part of trans history?” asks Heyam.

There aren’t enough clues to determine Sullivan’s truth, not enough “evidence that their motivation for gender nonconformity was not external, but internal.” The answer’s complicated by the fact that “transgender” wasn’t even a word during Sullivan’s time. Presumably, Sullivan was white but even so, we must also consider “that the way we experience and understand gender is inextricable from race.”

Surely, then, Njinga Mbande, the king of Ndongo, can be considered trans; they were assigned female at birth but presented themselves as king, as did Hatshepsut of Egypt. In precolonial Nigeria, the Ekwe people were gender-fluid, to ensure that there was a male in the household. Do political and social reasons fit the definition of trans?

In England, it was once believed that to dress like the opposite sex was to become that gender. In prison camps during World War I, men participated in plays to ease the boredom, and some ultimately lived permanently as women. Early history shows many examples of people living as “both.” Were they trans or not?

Says Heyam, “historians need to tread carefully and responsibly when we talk about the histories of people who blur the boundaries between intersex and trans.”

Moreover, can we allow that there’s probably some “overlap”?

The answer to that could depend on your current situation and mindset. Absolutely, author Kit Heyam dangles their own opinion throughout this book but “Before We Were Trans” doesn’t seem to solve the riddle.

Judging by the narrative here, though, it’s possible that it may be forever unsolvable. There’s a lot to untangle, often in the form of partially recorded tales that hark back to antiquity and that are shaky with a lack of knowable details. Even Heyam seems to admit sometimes that their thoughts are best guesses.

And yet, that tangle can leave readers with so much to think about, when it comes to gender. Ancient attitudes toward trans people – whether they were, indeed, trans or acted as such for reasons other than gender – absolutely serve as brain fodder.

This is not a quick-breezy read; in fact, there are times when you may feel as though you need a cheat-sheet to follow similar-sounding names. Even so, if you take your time with it, “Before We Were Trans” may put you over the moon.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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