Neil Simon’s 1965 play The Odd Couple showed what could happen if a man, asked by his wife to vacate the family home, sought refuge in the Manhattan apartment of an old friend whose attitudes and habits were totally different from his own. Fifty years later, Grace and Frankie also looks at the consequences of a marital rift: Having been informed that their husbands of 40 years are partners in life as well as in business, two women with very different dispositions and values find themselves sharing a gorgeous Southern California beach house. Does hilarity ensue this time around? Not exactly, but Netflix’s new 13-episode series, which will be released in its entirety on Friday, is a very modern, surprisingly endearing, twist on the now familiar odd-couple setup.
Type A Grace (Jane Fonda) finds herself stuck with a roommate she’s never been able to stand: a hippy-dippy artist who reeks of medical marijuana, goes on peyote-assisted vision quests, and teaches painting to ex-cons. Grace is angry at Robert (Martin Sheen), whose coming out has shattered the perfect life she’s gone to such lengths to create (“It would have been easier if you’d died,” she tells him), while Frankie (Lily Tomlin) is heartsick to have lost the companionship of Sol (Sam Waterston), her dearest friend. A few episodes in, as they leave a funeral that has also served as Robert and Sol’s coming-out party, Frankie automatically gets into Sol’s car when he pulls up to the curb. It’s hard to break a 40-year habit, especially when you still love the man behind the wheel.
Breakup is a tricky topic for humor—broken hearts and shattered dreams rarely trigger laughing jags—but when the couples are all in their 70s, extra levels of vulnerability could get in the way of glee. Grace and Frankie explores several age-related storylines, showing how easily old women are rendered invisible, how often their points of view are declared irrelevant, and how fragile their bodies are, no matter how great they look. Somehow, Fonda—uptight, taut, and self-denying (Grace lives on chicken breasts and vodka)—seems particularly vulnerable. Early in the pilot, she has her very own How to Get Away With Murder moment, when she sits in front of the mirror and removes her hair extensions and false eyelashes, an act that leaves her exposed in all kinds of ways. A few episodes later, a moment’s inattention provokes a more serious health scare. Apparently, being rich, white, and skinny doesn’t render your hips less brittle than any another 70-year-old’s.
If this all seems grim and gloomy, take another look at that cast. Tomlin, an amazing physical comedian, routinely elevates second-rate jokes to first-class laugh lines, even in the pilot—the most cliché-ridden and least funny of the six episodes Netflix released to critics. Fonda arms her character with such a high-voltage force field of privilege and invincibility that when she allows Grace’s true feelings and frailties to show through, those moments feel shockingly intimate. After years of watching Waterston as a gruff prosecutor on Law & Order and a blustery broadcaster in The Newsroom, I was surprised to see how good he is as a big-hearted goofball—albeit a goofball with a successful law practice and an amazing real-estate portfolio. I’m not so sure how to read Martin Sheen’s performance. Is he uncomfortable to be playing a gay man, or is his awkwardness a projection of Robert’s unease? Given Sheen’s track record, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, there’s more to living as a proud gay man than making one announcement, and having spent 40 years as the spouse of woman who always behaves perfectly, it isn’t surprising that Robert would find it embarrassing to be partnered with a guy who wears sneakers to a funeral. “You’re not doing anything right,” he tells Sol at one point, meaning, “You’re not behaving like Grace.”
Robert and Sol have been engaged in an illicit affair for 20 years, but now they can be wed, and they want to live openly as a married couple. It’s important that Grace and Frankie should also be the story of Robert and Sol: As the women adjust to life without a husband, their former spouses are learning what it’s like to have one. There’s something very of the moment about this story line—not so much because same-sex marriage is now an option, but in the way it acknowledges how awkward it is for a certain kind of liberal when family members whose behavior they’d love to criticize turn out to be gay. At a dinner the newly out lovers host for their four children, the thirtysomething kids complain bitterly about how annoying it is that they’re not allowed to be annoyed. And somehow the abandoned spouses manage to express their hurt and anger without being homophobic—even when, filling out an online dating profile, Grace says her biggest turn on in a man is “that he’s not gay.”
It’s hard to resist the urge to compare Grace and Frankie with Transparent, another show about family members dealing with a surprising piece of news from someone they thought they’d figured out long ago. Grace and Frankie lacks the specificity of Transparent: These characters are typical TV types—rich, liberal lawyers and high-flying businesswomen whose kids might struggle with addiction or fall for the wrong guy but are basically kind and well-adjusted: a different breed from the tormented, all-too-real Pfeffermans. But there’s room for more than one story about starting over late in life, and there’s a deceptive profundity to Grace and Frankie. Oscar Madison and Felix Ungar could never have dreamed of such adventures.