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“Grace and Frankie” is a post-apocalyptic drama — for its title characters, at least. The first scene of the series sets up the premise with the blunt force of a nuclear explosion: Two women pushing 70 learn their husbands have been in a homosexual relationship for 20 years and are filing for divorce so that they can marry each other — “because we can do that now,” Robert (Martin Sheen) blurts out.
Everything that follows happens in the fallout of that revelation, which proves understandably devastating to both Grace (Jane Fonda) and Frankie (Lily Tomlin) and leads to them co-habitating in the wreckage of their lives. Created by Marta Kauffman and Howard J. Morris, who boast easily hundreds of episodes of multi-camera experience between them, “Grace and Frankie” occasionally sinks into dialogue written with a pacing that anticipates the laughter of a studio audience. But there’s no studio audience. There’s instead only the silence of empty rooms and broken hearts.
Which is to say that, to the show’s credit, it takes its premise extremely seriously, really digging into the emotional reality of what Sol (Sam Waterston) and Robert’s revelation means for them and their families. But quite frankly, it takes a long time for things to feel at all funny. I clocked my first real chuckle at about 17 minutes into the first episode. If you were expecting a hilarious comedy, downgrade those expectations appropriately, and instead look forward to what, with some patience, could be an intriguing portrait of modern relationships, anchored by some incredible talent.
The toughest thing “Grace and Frankie” has to overcome is also one of its greatest strengths: Its iconic quartet of stars are so keenly iconic that hooking into their characters proves tough. This is especially tough because initially, the writing doesn’t do them a ton of favors, painting Fonda and Tomlin pretty bluntly into their stereotypical boxes: Fonda as the tight-laced Type A perfectionist with a fondness for vodka and Tomlin as an easy-going hippie type who freely experiments with substances of all kinds. It’s a classic odd couple pairing that gets leaned on a little hard for its comedy potential. It’s an understandable instinct, given the brutal truth of what these women are experiencing, but one that lacks the subtlety of later episodes.
Meanwhile, Martin Sheen’s Robert, early on, is solid but straight-laced to the point of blandness, lacking real definition beyond reacting to Grace’s anger or Sol’s affection in the early episodes. Once he loosens up a little bit (both as a character and as a performer) Robert and Sol’s relationship becomes a much more believable thing.
Waterston actually proves a key factor of the series, as the character of Sol is revealed over the course of the first six episodes as both a man who you’d believe as both a successful lawyer and the loopy Frankie’s partner of 40 years. Of the four, Sol is maybe the first to really stand out as a unique character with a unique point-of-view — an essential quality for the series’ long-term survival.
This isn’t to say that everyone involved isn’t acting their butts off; Fonda in particular does some lovely subtle work, including a scene in front of her bedroom mirror that’s almost on par with Viola Davis’s big wig moment from “How to Get Away With Murder.”
And Ethan Embry, Baron Vaughn, Brooklyn Decker and June Diane Raphael, as the adult children confronted by the new reality of their parents’ lives, get some standout moments. Raphael in particular gets real opportunities to shine opposite both Tomlin and Fonda, and Decker brings out unexpected spunk and depth.
Perhaps one of “Grace and Frankie’s” strongest moves, especially in early episodes, is not to dump a ton of backstory on the audience all at once, especially when it comes to the lives of the children (whose relationships are more complicated than one might expect). After six episodes, there’s still more to be revealed about everyone (especially about Vaughn as Nwabudike, who’s an understated presence but might be the most stable one of the bunch), which is promising for a series that is driven almost entirely by its characters.
It’s worth noting “Grace and Frankie” doesn’t lack humor. There are plenty of sharp jokes and great beats. But ever since its original announcement, “Grace and Frankie” has carried a number of burdens: Not just the highly-anticipated reunion of Tomlin and Fonda, who starred in the beloved 1980 comedy “9 to 5” (in case you were wondering it looks unlikely that Dolly Parton will be in Season 1, according to Tomlin in a recent interview with Indiewire, but could appear in Season 2) but also the political and emotional weight of its premise.
While its engagement with both factors isn’t flawless, it does build over the course of the first six episodes, a luxury that other Netflix series have utilized to brilliant effect. It might take a little while, but “Grace and Frankie” has the capability to be something really, really special. And in the meantime, what we have isn’t half-bad.
“Grace and Frankie” premieres Friday, May 8, on Netflix.