It begins in the very first episode. Duane, a delivery man for the generically named Express Delivery Service, carries an oversized box up to a nice house. He waits for the woman inside to sign for the box, then cheerfully thanks her. “And you have yourself a great day now,” he says, and he sounds like he really means it. Maybe Duane genuinely loves his job and has made it his personal mission to spread joy to all the new people he gets to meet on his route. Maybe he’s actually tired and cranky, but he’s performing good old-fashioned emotional labor, putting this rich, white lady’s feelings ahead of his own. Maybe he’s just practicing basic common courtesy.
We don’t know, because we don’t know much about Duane. We don’t even know if his name is Duane; despite it being stitched into his uniform, actor Maxwele D’Angelo is credited in the episode merely as Delivery Man. Whatever Duane’s deal is, his reaction indicates that he certainly didn’t expect how the WASP-y woman in the nice house in La Jolla would respond to his well wishes: “Fuck you.”
As viewers of Grace and Frankie, of course we know that that woman is Grace Hanson, played by Jane Fonda, and that she’s upset because her husband Robert (Martin Sheen) just announced that he’s gay and is leaving her for his business partner. We know a lot about Grace already in this first episode—that she’s uptight, proud, and in pain. We know that in time she’ll come to find a new life with her husband’s lover’s ex, Frankie, played by Lily Tomlin. And over the course of seven seasons, we’ll learn even more. But Duane doesn’t know any of that. Duane is just trying to get through the day. And he’s but one of many unintended casualties in Grace and Frankie’s adventures.
The life of a bit character like Delivery Man is not an easy one. They exist for mere minutes, bearing witness to the protagonists’ antics, cleaning up after their hijinks, possibly creating a few of their own—and then, poof! They often vanish from the story entirely, never to be seen again.
On Grace and Frankie, though, these roles result in some of the show’s most fascinating performances. In Season 4, Diona Reasonover plays a waitress who seats Frankie and her ex-husband Sol (Sam Waterston), who are wearing bunny ears. “It’s a Chili’s now,” she explains nonchalantly when the pair ask what happened to the animal testing facility they were hoping to protest. Her subsequently delivery of “Welcome to Chili’s” is devoid of any enthusiasm, but it’s not monotonous, either. It has a rehearsed, resigned, only slightly ironic amiability to it. Reasonover plays the entire scene with the same pleasant nihilism, unconcerned with the main plot of the episode, counting down the minutes until she can clock out.
In Season 5, Albert Kuo appears as yet another Delivery Man, this time one bringing Chinese food to Frankie and Robert. On this occasion, Frankie and Robert are so high they try to pay him with a photo of the money. Kuo has just a few lines, but between his dead stare and flat delivery, he creates a character at once haunted and desensitized, with a rich past spent peering into the lives of the kind of people who order too much Chinese food. The horrors he’s seen!
And these two characters are the lucky ones. You see, over the course of Grace and Frankie, the heroes find themselves battling ageism in its many forms—a crosswalk light that’s too short, a beauty industry hostile to older women, children who don’t respect their autonomy. But there are plenty of times when they’re not so much sticking it to the man as inconveniencing a bunch of minimum wage workers who work for him. When Grace and Frankie’s kids trick them into moving into a retirement home, they balk at the residence’s rules, enforced by orderlies whose job it is to enforce those rules. One, after informing Grace she can’t run a business from her residence, finally snaps, telling her: “Well, I’m not a fan of working here, but Invisaligns don’t pay for themselves and my girlfriend says I need them.”
And sometimes, the seniors displace their anger entirely, taking it out on service workers like our pal Duane who have nothing to do with the problem at hand. When Grace and Frankie finally flee the home and take refuge at a Del Taco, Frankie insists on being served at 9:52, even though the dining room closes at 10:00. Behind her, employees are mopping up, probably exhausted after a long day. She demands to talk to an absent employee, Craig, only to be informed that he is taking his SATs the next day. “We are not leaving until we decide that it’s time for us to go,” Frankie yells at poor Bob behind the counter, even though he is not the one who sold her house out from under her—her kids did that. “You stay as long as you like,” he tells her nervously. Bob is not getting home at a reasonable hour that night.
The latest batch of episodes from Season 7 sees Grace and Frankie turn away from money laundering to a more relatable, more noble cause that takes them over the border to Mexico. But even there, no service worker is safe. Grace and Frankie are only in the country a few hours before trying to rope a waiter into their latest schemes—schemes that could land him in prison—when all the poor man wants to do is take their order. Fans will miss the odd couple, but at restaurants, at the DMV, at big-box hardware stores, and inside delivery trucks, the end of Grace and Frankie surely means that service workers of La Jolla are breathing a sigh of relief.