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Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin Rise Above Their Material in Netflix’s ‘Grace and Frankie’

Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin Rise Above Their Material in Netflix's 'Grace and Frankie'

I love the premise of “Grace and Frankie,” Netflix’s latest comedy (out May 8), in which two women in their 70s (Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda) are unceremoniously dumped by their husbands (Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston), who announce they’re gay and in love with each other. Tomlin and Fonda, together again! Older ladies cutting loose! And the bonus of President Bartlet as a septuagenarian gay dad, paired with another Aaron Sorkin alum, no less! Love it, love it, love it.

Here’s the good news: Tomlin and Fonda really are living it up in these roles, getting in some great digs about the invisibility of old age and the cosmic WTF of having your life uprooted at an age when you thought everything was more or less settled. They look terrific, and their comic timing is impeccable. If the show works in a Dolly Parton cameo, I don’t know if I’ll be able to handle it.

The two women, who are also producers, have talked about why they did the show and what they hope to accomplish with it. “I hope with our series, people will feel less alone. Women who have not seen themselves in the culture will feel less alone, and maybe older gay men as well,” Fonda told Out magazine. The same interview, in which Tomlin talks about being an out gay woman in entertainment, addresses the overlap of the hurdles faced by the male and female characters in their show: “Between women and gay men, there are a lot of points of commonality — feeling like they’re supposed to be something they’re not,” as Fonda puts it.

The bad news is that “Grace and Frankie” is not entirely worthy of them, which is disappointing, especially since its co-creator, alongside Howard J. Morris, is Marta Kauffman, a co-creator of “Friends.” Unlike that legendary sitcom, this one lags where it should snap and the subplots are half-baked. Plus, it occasionally puts some truly groan-worthy age-centric dialogue in the mouths of our leading ladies:

Grace (Fonda): I’ve made a monumental life decision.

Frankie (Tomlin): What’s wrong with the ignition?

Grace: I said I’ve made a life decision!

Frankie: Oh… where are you going fishing?

The pilot, directed by Tate Taylor (“The Help,” “Get On Up”) starts out promisingly enough. Grace and Frankie meet up at a restaurant, where their husbands — who are longtime law-firm partners — are late. A few broad strokes establish that they’re opposites: Grace is a type-A matriarch, Frankie a longtime hippie. When their spouses arrive together, they drop the bombshell almost immediately (“We want to get married.” “Because we can do that now!”), setting the stage for the two women to try to cope with their new reality in opposite and often overtly conflicting ways. By the end, though, they’re swilling peyote tea together (albeit unwittingly on Grace’s part) and reluctantly bonding. Not to be all “Nine to Five”-centric, but it’s like a genius callback to the time they all smoked pot together.

Unfortunately, the show slows down markedly in the second and third episodes, flitting back and forth between the women trying to figure out what to do next and the men settling into their new life together. (I still can’t decide whether their insistent use of the outdated-sounding “homosexual” is a deliberate depiction of how older men might use it or just oblivious.) The show spends an awful lot of time telling us how different Grace and Frankie are. And the repeated depiction of a caftan-clad Frankie meditating, OM-ing and waving sage wands around feels like overkill: We get it, she’s an Earth-mother type.

The character development on the part of the men also feels somewhat lacking. As a couple, they seem highly sympathetic – there are no villains here – but their actions don’t always seem believable, like when Sheen’s character decides they’ll both cut off their wives’ credit cards immediately – before either of the women knows about it. Given that the men are the ones doing the leaving, this seems pretty harsh, even for a couple of lawyers.

Still, “Grace and Frankie” finds its footing in moments between the two women that feel truer than a lot of the sitcommy paces it puts them through, like a scene in a grocery store where the duo is trying to buy cigarettes and getting roundly ignored by a clerk, who’s flirting with a young blonde girl. The normally composed Grace loses it: “You think it’s alright to ignore [Frankie] just because she’s got gray hair and I don’t look like [the blonde]?” she rages. Later, Frankie’s shown to have shoplifted the smokes: “I discovered I’ve got a superpower,” she says. “You can’t see me, you can’t stop me.”

I can’t help wishing for the two women that this show had been instantly awesome, on the level of a “Transparent” or even an “Arrested Development,” but their combined grace (no pun intended), skill and sheer cultural importance is enough to keep them sailing through an underwhelming start to the season. I have heard that future episodes are an improvement, and, as we know, it takes time for many shows to get their bearings. That said, this one’s female stars are dazzling right out of the gate.

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