Washing down muscle relaxers with peyote-infused tea, enduring a little “light vomiting” along the way, Grace (Jane Fonda) and Frankie (Lily Tomlin) come to terms during a hallucinogenic “vision quest” in the series premiere of Netflix’s new comedy. The former rages against a life spent playing by the rules and the latter mourns her broken heart, an expression in microcosm of their distinct personalities, but what the two women share, after watching their respective marriages disintegrate, is an unwillingness to hold it together. Whether capturing their fireside dance on a Southern California beach or watching them negotiate a funeral reception, the mediocre “Grace and Frankie” fails to generate much energy from its inspired casting, but it’s also an instructive entry in the rise of a surprising icon of our youth-mad culture: the Bad Grandma.
Unapologetic and at times unexpectedly crass, stylish, successful, and independent, the Bad Grandma resists the erasure of older women in American society by refusing to become invisible. As Grace screams at an unhelpful store clerk, distracted by flirting with a much younger customer, “Excuse me, are you in a coma? What kind of animal treats people like this?” (For her part, Frankie steals a pack of smokes: “Can’t see me, can’t stop me,” she says.) In fiction and nonfiction, in film and on television, the aging lioness is an apt emblem of an era marked by the unprecedented advancement of women in politics, business, and art, and simultaneously by the ongoing fight for reproductive choice, equal pay, the end of rape culture, and a thousand other fronts in a war of which many of the figures in question are longtime veterans.
That Fonda and Tomlin were themselves stalwarts of the Second Wave—their last on-screen appearance together came in the riotous feminist classic “9 to 5,” released in 1980—is the primary delight of the otherwise slack, slow-paced “Grace and Frankie,” which turns, in its funniest moments, to their public personas for material. Frankie’s a daffy New Age Earth mother, dressed in flowing, multicolored caftans and sporting a wild mane; Grace is uptight and possibly alcoholic, tossing back martinis in neutral cardigans and crisp, dark pants. Though their clashes intermittently bleed into generic “Odd Couple” territory, for the most part “Grace and Frankie,” created by Marta Kauffman and Howard J. Morris, offers a knowing smirk as it makes comic hay from their paths to freedom. “I just need to do what I always do when I’m blue,” Frankie remarks, sitting cross-legged on the table, before emitting a hilarious, half-moaning chant. “I hate my life,” Grace replies.
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In an interview
with “TODAY” host Matt Lauer this morning (video below), Fonda
and Tomlin acknowledged the importance of their interwoven personal and
professional histories in the development of “Grace and Frankie,” discussing “stereotyped” roles for older women, career “do-overs,” and even, after a fashion, the Bad Grandma. “I look at the positive side, the ‘eff-you fifties’ we call it,” Fonda says in the segment. “Once you’re over fifty it’s like, who cares anymore?” (“TODAY” also has a web-exclusive clip of a 1980 interview
with the cast of “9 to 5.”)
Thrown together amid the white-and-wicker nautical theme of a shared beach house after their husbands, Robert (Martin Sheen) and Sol (Sam Waterston), longtime law partners and secret lovers, come out of the closet and announce their intention to marry, Grace and Frankie work through the difficulties of rebuilding their lives by making a fuss. The set design is straight out of Nancy Meyers’ real-estate-porn playbook—fittingly enough, given that Meyers’ “Something’s Gotta Give” (2003), starring Diane Keaton, and “It’s Complicated” (2009), starring Meryl Streep, might be considered important precursors of the Bad Grandma trope, with their vivacious protagonists finally letting loose.
Cursing, squabbling, crying, and eventually reemerging despite the embarrassment of their predicament, Grace and Frankie also suggest, at least periodically, the same assertive presence as the subjects of “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” (2010), “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel” (2011), “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” (2013), the late Albert Maysles’ portrait of Iris Apfel, “Iris,” and Tomlin’s tart Sundance sensation, “Grandma.”
Whether measured by Rivers’ bawdy, pioneering humor or Apfel’s canvas of bright colors and costume jewelry, all adhere, to one or another extent, to Apfel’s notion that abiding by the rules is “a waste of time”: they subvert the image of the older woman as a retiring, self-effacing caregiver by squaring a space in the culture so distinctive you need only mention their names. To wit, “Grace and Frankie,” for all its reliance on the sketchier characterization of the standard sitcom, may as well be called “Jane and Lily,” because it’s them we’ve tuned in to see. For the Bad Grandma, whether a real-life tastemaker or a fictionalized version of one, demands to be seen—even if, as in the case of Grace, suffering a broken-hip scare, or the late Stritch, hospitalized in the course of filming, the terrors of frail bodies and mortality itself begin to shadow the proceedings.
We live in a time of vital, provocative feminist discourses, particularly on television, and perhaps the Bad Grandma is simply a way of paying homage to the elders who paved the way. The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum praises Amy Schumer, with reference to “Saturday Night Live” and Phyllis Diller. Mic’s Kevin O’Keefe calls “Mad Men” heroine Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), strutting into McCann Erickson, “the coolest feminist on TV,” though she and colleague Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) now live in Matthew Weiner’s vision of America, 1970. “Girls” creator Lena Dunham curates a reading list with Judy Blume, who published “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” in—you guessed it—1970. Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, of “Broad City,” say their most important influence is “Roseanne.”
Yet, for all the recent focus on feminism in film and television—a conversation, it’s worth noting, that sorely lacks women of color and trans women, at least beyond the borders of Shondaland, Jenji Kohan’s “Orange is the New Black,” and Jill Soloway’s “Transparent“—the Bad Grandma also serves as a potent reminder of the work still to be done. Though “Grace and Frankie” is too comfortably bland to do more than nod at the challenges of Sol and Robert’s relationship, much less invest the two couples’ callous children with anything but a few lazily drawn character traits, its deployment of Fonda and Tomlin as personas, and not merely performers, engages the notion that women of any age remain constrained by retrograde expectations. 35 years after “9 to 5,” women earn 77 cents on the dollar compared to men, Roe v. Wade is perpetually under attack, “feminist” remains a label too few Americans embrace, and we applaud the fact that there are 20 women in the U.S. Senate even as we know that an equitable society would count 50.
“Grace and Frankie,” a disappointingly mild little series with two big Bad Grandmas at its center, is no Rivers routine or Stritch songbook, but its meritorious attempt to vocalize the concerns of older women in a torrent of insults and chants, screams and cries, is satisfying nonetheless. The Bad Grandma, having cut her teeth in the women’s rights movement of midcentury, recognizes that feminism is a lifelong struggle, not a war that’s been won. And she’ll keep on fighting to the bitter end, ardently refusing to go quietly.
“Grace and Frankie” premieres Friday, May 8 on Netflix.