Marta Kauffman’s “Grace and Frankie” Netflix series ended last Friday, and I don’t think we’re making a big enough deal out of it.
Still true to its iconic binge model, Netflix is not and never has been about finales, just as it has never been about premieres. After a brief moment in the “Trending on Netflix” sun, each subsequent season of each show is simply pushed into the streamer’s overcrowded library, neither celebrated nor mourned.
“Grace and Frankie,” which stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin and became, in absolutely related news, the streamer’s longest-running show, deserved something better, something special.
For seven years, anyone with a Netflix password has been able to spend hours watching two of Hollywood’s most brilliant entertainers nail first-class comedic banter and touching revelations.
As women forced into friendship and into the second chapters when their husbands, their legal partners, divorce to marry, Fonda and Tomlin have set a whole new, high standard for buddy comedy. Tomlin is the only person alive who can hit a one-liner as perfectly as Fonda. Together, they form a nail-biting symphony of hilarious and ruthless repartee.
And if that wasn’t enough, these ex-husbands-turned-husbands are played by Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston, with June Diane Raphael, Brooklyn Decker, Ethan Embry and Baron Vaughn playing the adult (and more than slightly messed up) kiddie. And we haven’t even started on aspirational midlife wardrobe choices or Nancy Meyers-worthy interiors.
Grace (Fonda) and Frankie (Tomlin) aren’t here to save the world or reveal some grand conspiracy (other than society’s insistence that women over 70 have the decency to quietly blend into the paper painted). So maybe the show didn’t warrant the kind of media crescendo that preceded the end of “Game of Thrones” (I mean, look how it turned out). But surely Netflix could have conjured up a catalog of quasi-kaftans and exquisite white shirts, or a National Day of Appreciation from the Old Broads, or a Grace and Frankie Beach House collection at Nordstrom. I do not know; Something.
Interrupted mid-production by the COVID-19 pandemic, the seventh and final season of “Grace and Frankie” was delivered in two parts. The first four episodes premiered in August 2021, with the final 12 on April 29, 2022. That at least gave fans time to pause and reflect. To pull out the yam-scented candles and extra-large martini glasses and pray that neither Frankie nor Grace died in the finale, because that would make the possibility of, say, a movie sequel pretty small. (Hey, it worked for “Cagney & Lacey,” which had at least four follow-up movies after the series was canceled.)
After dispensing in the first season with the women’s angry desperation to be dumped and settled, by the second, in their recognized but still mutually exasperated friendship, “Grace and Frankie” draws less from “The Odd Couple” and more from “I Love Lucy” – if Desi and Fred had married, leaving Lucy and Ethel free to discover each other outside the bounds and safety of marriage.
As the series evolved, so did the craziness. In the final episodes, Frankie and Grace take a trip to Mexico — and yes, a purple sequined sombrero makes an appearance — but even that storyline drives a sober truth about the lack of affordable medicine, especially for the elderly.
Just as “I Love Lucy” became the first show to feature pregnancy and childbirth, “Grace and Frankie” dealt with topics that television — and American culture — too often ignores or approaches with apologetic solicitude. Grace and Frankie build a business based on vaginal dryness (treated by Frankie’s yam lube) and the painful relationship between arthritis and masturbation (solved by an ergonomically correct vibrator). They start a second business in motorized toilet seats after Grace has a fall that prevents her from getting up from a seated position without help.
As Sol (Waterston) and Robert (Sheen) settled into the subplot of long-delayed, sweetly amazed and slightly grumpy marital bliss, Grace and Frankie had lovers and love interests that were portrayed with the same range of passion. and awkwardness that you might see on a youth comedy. Sex is wonderful and absurd at any age.
Just like friendship, which is at the heart of the show. The arc of the series isn’t two women learning to survive betrayal and divorce, or even two women helping each other achieve independence. It’s about two women finding in their friendship what their marriage lacked: unconditional love and unwavering support. (OK, mostly unwavering; you’re not going to do seven seasons of a show about friendship without having it wobble a few times.)
It’s not a new theme – Kauffman co-created a little-known show called “Friends” which explored similar relationships – but watching these two women learn to love and love each other, including all aspects ugly, remains a revelation. That they did so at a time in life when, by most measures of TV, film, and society, female characters should be content to slowly exhale in a haze of sage advice and adorable stubbornness – well, that’s enough to give a person hope.
By the final season, the main characters are approaching their 80s (just a few years behind the people who play them), so it’s no surprise that Kauffman and his team have decided to put death and loss first. Fonda, Tomlin, Sheen and Waterston all look good for their ages (some have been helped more by cosmetic surgery than others) and appear to be in excellent health. But bodies age, mortality looms, and “Grace and Frankie” takes the same approach to these human experiences as it does to vaginal dryness: a recognized reality, but softened with humor and resilience.
I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the show’s finale except to say it’s one of the best finales I’ve seen, and not just because Dolly Parton shows up for a brief, damn ‘9 at 5” (although honestly every TV finale could benefit from a Dolly Parton appearance). It ends, as it began, with love. A bit of pain too, but above all of love and out of love, possibility.
Hopefully, someone will work on these movie sequels right away. If not, it’s worth going back to the beginning and starting over, if only to watch Fonda and Tomlin show us how it’s done.