Despite mixed reviews from critics, Netflix’s new original series “Grace and Frankie” has become the latest must-see cultural phenomenon. And it’s not just because it stars 70-something Hollywood legends Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda. The brainchild of Marta Kauffman, co-creator of the long-running hit “Friends” – who is now 60 herself – this is the first comedy-drama about older female characters that doesn’t make fun of them. We’re laughing with these women, not at them, and that’s a sea change that has got media types talking.
“Netflix is unashamedly targeting older viewers,” says Business Insider, which sees the new series as jumping on a bandwagon with Internet originals “Orange Is the New Black,” also from Netflix, and Amazon Prime’s “Transparent,” about an older man who comes out as a transsexual.
Now it’s older women’s turn: “Nobody is addressing them, that’s what’s unusual about the series,” Business Insider quotes Fonda as telling journalists during a pre-launch press event.
Fonda plays Grace, a blonde, impeccably coiffed uptight society matron, while Tomlin is Frankie, a new-agey Earth goddess type. They’re married to law partners Sol and Robert, played by Sam Waterson and Martin Sheen, who announce at dinner one day that they are leaving their wives for each other after having had a clandestine gay affair for the past 20 years.
Grace and Frankie reluctantly wind up sharing the spectacular beach house that the two couples own. Although they start out despising each other, they wind up becoming best friends when Frankie spikes Grace’s tea with peyote and they bond while tripping on the beach. These characters were young women in the ’60s. Acting “old” is not in their skill set. They may be elderly divorcees who’ve been dumped by affluent husbands, but they are in great shape, hip and often outrageous.
As Grace and Frankie, as well as in real life, Fonda and Tomlin are wrinkle-free and lithe. Grace claims she’s 64 in her Internet dating profile. Frankie performs squats in a scene at an assisted living facility where she’s applying for a job as an art teacher – and is outraged when she’s mistaken for a prospective resident. These women aren’t about to conform to stereotypical notions of what 75 looks or acts like. And for some critics, that’s a problem.
“Grace and Frankie” hedges its bets about the indignities of aging in more than the looks department. Grace slips in a yogurt shop, gets knocked out and hallucinates a broken hip and a small stroke. For many people in their 70s, a fall like that would actually be the beginning of the end, observes the Washington Post, “but Frankie catches Grace when she slips. Which means she never really fell; she merely glimpsed a flash of the horrors of being the sort of human who grows old.”
Maybe it takes an older woman – the show’s target audience – to notice that, as Joyce Wadler notes in the New York Times – Grace has “the universally dreaded Inner Upper Arm Wiggle Waggle.” Considered more repulsive to TV viewers than blood and intestines, this brazen baring of arm flab is revolutionary in itself, Wadler points out – a new “frankly-embracing-our-aging-bodies thing” that “Grace and Frankie” gingerly entertains.
The show has some sharp, funny humor about the invisibility of older women that is never at the expense of its characters. In one scene, a convenience store clerk ignores Grace and Frankie, who are trying to buy cigarettes; he’s too busy flirting with a buxom blonde. Frankie throws a fit, and when they get back to the car, she tells Grace that she stole a pack. “We have a superpower,” she says. “You can’t see me, you can’t stop me.”
Jane Fonda was recently on “Late Night with Seth Myers” explaining why she thought the show was important. “There is no face of older women in mass media, and both Lily and I wanted to give a face to us, and we wanted to do it in a comedy format.” Referring to the show’s take on sex over 70, she said, “Older women aren’t seen as sexual beings, but older women do want to be romantic and have lovers.”
Grace does find a lover, but Frankie worries about her vaginal dryness. Outraged by all the chemicals in commercial lubricant, she makes her own lube out of yams, which Grace unknowingly is putting on her toast. Frankie approves. “You should never put anything in your vagina that you wouldn’t put in your mouth.” This might be the first joke about vaginal dryness ever heard on TV.
Vaginal dryness jokes don’t sit so well with some younger folks, it seems. The Daily Dot considers it a “depressing study on loneliness and aging.” But social media does not agree. The show’s Facebook page has hundreds of comments indicating that Grace and Frankie has become a binge-watching guilty pleasure for both younger and older viewers.
Meanwhile, Tomlin and Fonda are putting their money where their mouths are by publicizing their unhappiness with their paychecks from the show, which has the two female leads earning the same amount as their male supporting actors. “The show is not ‘Sol and Robert,’” says Tomlin, referring to Waterston and Sheen’s characters. “It’s ‘Grace and Frankie.’”
Is there a taste of things to come in “Grace and Frankie”‘s model of older women as… well, just older women? Will today’s notable exception become tomorrow’s staple of TV entertainment as we age and mix a little of this and a little of that – Botox, peyote, sex, workouts, bare-armed waggle – to create our own version of growing older, without necessarily breaking a hip? Will TV venture next into the lives of less privileged older people who have more wrinkles and fewer options, but who still own the ways their older age plays out?