When Netflix renewed Grace and Frankie for a second season, the half-hour dramedy starring 9 to 5 coworkers Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin had gotten mixed reviews from critics, probably based on just the first couple of episodes. It was described as too “stagey,” like a ’90s sitcom, with “unlikable” female characters, and it wasn’t “compassionate” like Amazon’s Transparent. There’s no doubt G&F had early signs of trouble. No matter how charismatic Fonda and Tomlin are, they still had to sell a clunky peyote trip that felt like a cheap YouTube video titled something like “Seniors React to Drugs!” But somewhere in that 13-episode arc — if you stuck around through all of it — Fonda and Tomlin brought to life some revelatory moments about what it means to keep living after everyone’s already written you off.
In season two, Grace (Fonda) and Frankie (Tomlin) have finally moved on from their sham marriages to two gay men, Robert (Martin Sheen) and Sol (Sam Waterston), and now we get to see them start living again. As in the first season, we still have to wade through some flat setups, though.
In the first episode, Grace and Frankie remind us in dialogue of everything that happened at the end of last season as they walk from the beach back to their home, where they must sort through the wreckage of Grace breaking up with her good-enough boyfriend (Craig T. Nelson) and Frankie sleeping with her gay ex-husband, Sol, on the eve of his wedding. For any other show, I might have rolled my eyes at the artlessness of this recap — Couldn’t they just do it with clips and then jump ahead in time instead of starting with the exact scene we left off on? — but the series began making its own rules in season one, and one of those was: We’ll do whatever we want, and you’ll deal because you want to see Fonda and Tomlin together.
After the recap, we launch into a pair of episodes that feel as if they belong to the first season, where Robert has a heart attack and wants to marry Sol in the hospital ASAP, just in case he dies. There should be tension around this, and guilt, because Honest-Abe Sol wants to confess that he cheated on Robert, and Frankie won’t let him. But if you didn’t binge on that season just before starting this one, these episodes suffer from being disconnected from all the great emotional work that went into setting this up, so it might be difficult to feel for these people. There’s comedy in this storyline — the leads have to run around the hospital to find an officiant and deal with a priest who won’t marry gay people and a rabbi who won’t do an interfaith marriage — but the full impact doesn’t hit immediately: Grace and Frankie’s humor is highly dependent upon characters and a little less dependent on the dialogue. So we have to be immersed in their world to get the joke.
But that’s why visual gags later on — like the window of Frankie’s dirt-caked car, with “Wash Me” and Frankie’s written response, “It’s a drought Asshole” — pack a solid punch. Frankie’s exactly the West Coast hippie who wouldn’t let that shit go and has to respond with a passive-aggressive (or aggressive-aggressive) note to make a point. The drought, by the way, becomes a strong running gag that might be most enjoyed by California viewers who are at a code-red panic about water — and still self-aware of how ridiculous we sound to the rest of the country when we freak out over “Bucket Challenges.”
Tomlin and Fonda shine when they’re at extremes. The former is best when she can be mean or genuinely sad, while the latter inspires some delightful cringing when her character is prodded by stupid people and plied with alcohol for maximum outbursts.
Aside from the stars, the standout this season is the hilariously snarky Brianna, played by June Diane Raphael, whose role has been smartly expanded. Brianna’s the millennial counterpoint to the boomer leads, and the dynamic plays like a before-and-after for women, like, “Yeah, you look good, you have power, people pay attention to you, but take a glimpse at your future, girl!” And while technically a comedy, Grace and Frankie again stirs full, satisfying feeling in its dramatic moments.
Last season, the killer scene when Frankie accidentally got into her ex-husband’s car after a funeral proved exquisitely painful. This time, a new character named Babe — played by Estelle Parsons, most famous with younger people for her stellar turns on Roseanne — joins the cast for a difficult, heartfelt storyline about cancer and assisted suicide. The series plays this as both emotional and matter-of-fact, and you get the feeling that this is just how older people deal with death: unsappy and very different from what we see on shows seen through younger people’s eyes. Also, Tomlin’s not just a comedian; she can act with a capital A.
We get a similar moment from Grace in the form of an Alzheimer’s storyline. Grace is desperately in love with an old flame (Sam Elliott), but when she meets his wife — who fades in and out of reality — Grace can’t get over it. It all builds to a scene that pulls at your heartstrings before it goes in for a right hook.
Millions of people care for loved ones suffering from cancer or Alzheimer’s — and face the weird moral dilemmas such care spawns. We have sorely needed a show that deals with these topics without making them cryfests. I’d be remiss not to say that my mother actually uses Grace and Frankie episodes to help me understand her illnesses and late-in-life divorce, and like a long-form, high-budget PSA, the series has made me a more empathetic person. The bonus is that it’s funny, with a quartet of amazing actors, all 70-plus, inviting us into a world that television rarely depicts.
So, yes, the show misfires a few times before revving up. It is a little “stagey” with some plots that take obvious turns, it definitely doesn’t have the gravitas of Transparent and Grace and Frankie don’t always react the way we want them to. But they also don’t seem to care what we want. It’s a solid mix of comedy and drama showcasing the leads’ real-life camaraderie at a time in their lives when people would otherwise be Googling, “Is ___ dead yet?” Spoiler: They’re alive, and they’re still entertaining as hell. Don’t write them or this show off just yet.