“Are you watching Grace and Frankie?” my coworker asked me.
I mumbled something about not having time to get to it, but that wasn’t exactly true. Actually I’d been avoiding the show. Part of me didn’t want to see my beloved icons,the ones I grew up with, under the spotlight, probably looking worse for wear.
Jane Fonda— she of the leg warmers and leotards. The one with those VCR exercise tapes many of us flopped around to back in the ‘80s. Would she seem rickety?
Lily Tomlin—Edith Ann in the huge rocking chair on Laugh-In. Would her timing still be on?
Martin Sheen—the sexy sociopath of Badlands. Jed Bartlett, a dignified president, the kind we used to have. He was looking pudgy lately.
And Sam Waterston—he and I go way back, to his portrayal of Nick Carraway in the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby. Would he be a stooped shadow of his former self?
A Grace and Frankie Review: New TV Territory
I assumed Grace and Frankie would be like all the other sitcoms, with some references to Viagra thrown in for social currency, and maybe the hilarious hijinx of an oldster going on Tinder.
But it was more than my concerns about the passage of time. I knew how seniors were treated by TV (or, excuse me, streaming series, as they are known these days). In my youth, I watched an ungodly number of sitcoms. If a kid watched that much today, ChiId Protective Services would be summoned. Nothing was beneath me. Not The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Not Gilligan’s Island. Not Petticoat Junction. None of them.
On the small screen, those in their “golden years” were the butt of jokes about creaky knees, bad vision, horrible hearing, and eating dinner at 4:30 PM. That is, if they could chew, given their problems with slippery, stained dentures. They were portrayed as set in their ways, curmudgeonly, perpetually indignant that things were not being done according to their antiquated standards. Old age was played for laughs with an undercurrent of cruelty.
So I assumed Grace and Frankie would be all that, with some references to Viagra thrown in for social currency, and maybe the hilarious hijinx of an oldster going on Tinder.
Maybe I was the one being set in my ways and clinging to the past.
But when a friend of mine who has a fantastic sense of humor said she adored the show, I thought maybe I was the one being set in my ways and clinging to the past. I tuned in and wound up binging on the first couple of seasons.
Yes, there are creaky knees and vision jokes from time to time. Some standard sitcom set-ups. And Viagra (make that Cialis, actually) turns up as a punchline.
Surprise! And Sex Too!
But this show had some surprises for me. And I loved that. Let me spell them out:
- The characters’ lives are a wonderful mess. Not a hard-to-watch, sad mess,not at all. Everyone in the cast looks suspiciously good, and their homes are straight off a “Nancy Meyers movie home” Pinterest boards. The show kicks off with two late-in-life divorces. Some of us may look at 70-something couples who are separating and think, Why bother to split up? Isn’t it better to be unhappily coupled at that advanced age than to fly solo? Grace and Frankie shares a hard no as the answer to that question. The characters are people who question, people who take risks. They don’t look at their age and say, “Guess it’s best to just stay on track and drift along till the final curtain.” They’re searching for their best lives, and will make major sacrifices to get there. It’s not at all how we’re used to seeing the old folk behave in the media.
- The late-in-life divorces are set in motion by Sol and Robert, Frankie’s and Grace’s husbands. The two men announce that they are homosexuals. The use of this outdated word versus “gay” underscores the huge societal sea-change these men have lived through. They also declare that they are in love with one another and want to marry. They don’t want to live another day denying who they are. It reminded me a lot of Caitlyn Jenner when she talks about how in the fourth quarter of life, she had to live her truth. In other words, it’s never too late to discover and express yourself—a fantastically encouraging message, whatever one’s sexual identity may be.
- The fact that Sol and Robert want to marry and live together isn’t just about authenticity. It’s also about sex. The four 70-something characters bang a gong, get it on, as the T. Rex song goes. Sex plays a big role in the lives on Grace and Frankie—it unties marriage bonds, it unites new couples. Hell, it happens more frequently for the Boomers on screen than their kids. It’s just a given that the septuagenarians are having sex. They want it, need it, enjoy it. A big thank-you to the show’s writers for putting that out there and resetting expectations for libido. Just because we may qualify for AARP discounts doesn’t mean our sex drive is dead and buried!
- When it comes to work, the stars of the show aren’t slouching into the sunset. They’re high-energy professionals (Sol and Robert sweating their legal cases) and even stoked with entrepreneurial zeal (Grace and Frankie’s beauty biz). They may not wear hoodies and talk in tech lingo, but they’re launching new products—specifically, the sweet potato-based “Yam Bam Thank You Ma’am” lube (or at least that’s my favorite choice of the names they’ve developed). Frankie is passionate about keeping this goop natural and holistic and won’t give an inch on her beliefs. There’s deep passion, expertise and ambition there, and Grace shows it in her mentoring work, too. This is exactly the imagery we need at a moment, when too many Boomer workers feel they have a bulls-eye on the back of their head and an arrow marked “Take the early-retirement package” headed right towards it.
- They eff up their relationships. But in a good way. They take risks and search for new connections. There’s a brilliant scene in which Grace is stoked to meet up with old friends. She gets glam for a boozy lunch with them…only to discover, like a pair of jeans from a decade ago, they somehow don’t fit quite right. The women who served her well when she was in her posh, lawyer’s-wife years now seem brittle and hostile. Grace calls them on their judgmental nature and returns to her odd-couple roomie, Frankie, with renewed appreciation. The epiphany: Grace is no longer trying to fit in with the cool-girl clique. She’s discovered that wacky, weed-smoking, throat-singing Frankie enriches her life way more than the Stepford wives at the country club ever could. I love the counter-intuitive notion of this: rather than letting our circle of friends coalesce and condense over time, blow it wide open. Invite in the outliers and the “not my types” in, and watch a richer life result.
So let’s high-five Grace and Frankie for the way it re-frames how the “older generation” is portrayed. We see our heroes and heroines sloshing around in the tides of life, being walloped by waves of change, and rising above them. The old rules of how to be old—sit back, relax, play some canasta—no longer apply. Instead, we are watching new rules be written: ones that make being 70-something look exciting, energizing, sexy, and full of surprises. And—I never thought I’d say this—something to look forward to.