As Netflix’s lineup of original series expands, the streaming service faces an identity crisis: Do they want to beat TV at its own game, or change the game instead? Reviews of “Grace and Frankie,” which stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin as women brought together when their husbands come out of the closet and announce they’re in love with each other, mostly paint it as a largely unsuccessful attempt to do the former, awkward combining the pat premise of a network sitcom with the placid approach of an cable dramedy. Old-fashioned multi-cam sitcoms come up a lot in the discussion of “Grace and Frankie,” as does Amazon’s “Transparent,” a critical favorite about 21st century families by which this uneven attempt falls notably short.
Just as Fox’s “Last Man on Earth” emerged as a series that would have been better binge-watched than doled out in weekly doses on a broadcast network, so “Grace and Frankie” sounds like it would be a better fit for a TV channel, where the break between episodes would make its shifts in style and perspective less glaring. Hiring co-creators Marta Kauffman and Howard Morris, whose backgrounds include “Friends” and “According to Jim,” was more or less a guarantee that the show wouldn’t break any new ground, and it shows that Netflix’s data-driven approach to picking up shows has pretty clear limitations. The only thing that keeps “Grace and Frankie” from being straight network fodder is that its stars are women in their 70s — not insignificant, surely, but not enough. Performances, from Tomlin and Fonda as well as Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston as their former husbands, are judged highly all around, and there’s plenty of affection for seeing these two very funny women back on a screen of any size. But a show whose only distinguishing feature is its target demographic risks watering down Netflix’s brand and killing enthusiasm for future series as well.
“Grace and Frankie” is now available on Netflix.
Reviews of “Grace and Frankie”
Hank Stuever, Washington Post
“Grace and Frankie” is mainly a reminder that for all the revolutionary talk, Netflix is as susceptible as anyone else to serving up conventional, lukewarm fare. There are too many talented people in it — especially Tomlin — and enough stray LOLs to prevent a disaster. But the show dawdles in a long and empty corridor that separates edgier, topical character studies such as Amazon’s brilliant “Transparent” from a traditional comedy series such as “Friends” (for one example), the perpetually syndicated hit helmed by “Grace and Frankie” co-creator Marta Kauffman.
Melissa Maerz, Entertainment Weekly
At a time when dramatic comedies like “Transparent” and “Beginners” have opened viewers’ eyes to the complicated process of coming out later in life, “Grace and Frankie” plays like a ’90s sitcom, going for elbow-nudging jokes (“Have you ever wondered if Ben and Jerry make more than ice cream together?”) and mostly ignoring the specific details of what each family is going through. Fonda and Tomlin’s great screwball chemistry can’t save the show either. It’s tough to imagine a worse fit for Netflix.
Margaret Lyons, Vulture
“Grace and Frankie” is secretly a very conventional sitcom, but instead of being a multi-camera show from ten — more? — years ago, it’s a new Netflix show right now. So it doesn’t have that short cold-open, even though rhythmically and spiritually, it ought to. (The opening titles, which instead are the very first thing in the episode, are terrific.) Over the six episodes made available for review, this discordance popped up over and over. The bigness of the physical comedy, the pacing of jokes, the existence of set-’em-up, knock-’em-down jokes in the first place, and a seeming aversion to authentic human pain — all hallmarks of a show better off in front of a live studio audience.
Joshua Alston, A.V. Club
“Grace and Frankie’s” premise is pure multi-cam throwback. The show has the sort of logline that would attract the rapt attention of TV Land, the home of new, original sitcoms that could pass for the broad, relatable fare spotlighted in ’90s nostalgia marathons. The sexuality component comes off as an attempt to insert a third rail into what would otherwise be a garden-variety take on the “Odd Couple” dynamic, but the idea of older, married, closeted gay men leaving their wives isn’t as provocative or dangerous as Kauffman and Morris seem to think it is. “Grace and Frankie” wants to be grander and more substantial than a sitcom trifle, and not even director Tate Taylor (“The Help,” “Get On Up”) couldn’t figure out how reconcile the show’s warring tones.
Richard Lawson, Vanity Fair
There’s not a lot of room for straight-up belly laughs in there, as this is pretty serious stuff. Fonda and Tomlin are both game and limber, and have the snappy rapport one would expect of “Nine to Five” co-stars. (A Dolly Parton cameo has to be in the offing, right??) But they’re given uneven ground to stand on. In the five episodes I’ve seen, “Grace and Frankie” has trouble figuring itself out, the tone shifting episode to episode, from light screwball to bruised and melancholy.
James Poniewozik, Time
The setup — from Marta Kauffman (“Friends”) and Howard J. Morris (“According to Jim”) — could either be the stuff of on old-fashioned odd-couple sitcom or of a Showtime-style dramedy. The hitch with the first six episodes of “Grace and Frankie” screened for critics is that it tries, jarringly, to be both at once.
Tim Goodman, Hollywood Reporter
This is a single-camera series shot as a dramedy but played almost entirely for laughs that seem as forced as they sound.
Liz Shannon Miller, Indiewire
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.
Alessandra Stanley, New York Times
It would be very easy for this to be a bad knockoff of “The Golden Girls,” with grating one-liners and farcical pratfalls. It’s not an easy sell. In the era of streaming services, it’s shows like “House of Cards” or “Transparent” that usually make the cut. This premise — two frenemies are forced together when their husbands announce they are gay and plan to marry each other — seems more like that of a conventional sitcom, which makes sense given that Marta Kauffman, a co-creator of “Friends,” is an executive producer. Even the star power of its lead actresses isn’t necessarily a slam dunk: Ms. Fonda and Ms. Tomlin, who were co-stars in the 1980 comedy “9 to 5,” have recently had roles in some good projects, but also some really bad ones, like the 2014 film “This Is Where I Leave You,” in which Ms. Fonda starred. So it’s a relief to see that “Grace and Frankie” is better than all that.
Sarah Carson, Telegraph
If you’re looking for a sitcom about President Bartlet hitting gay bars, you’ll be disappointed. “Grace and Frankie” is serious about relationships — both break-ups and lasting bonds. It’s lighthearted in celebrating the continued vigor of people in the later years of their lives, addressing their concerns without reducing its characters to fumbling old biddies with a lost sense of purpose, and the excellent leads bring life and plausibility to a story that might otherwise have fallen flat.