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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Grace And Frankie puts its central friendship to the test

Illustration for article titled Grace And Frankie puts its central friendship to the test

After two episodes in a row of husband drama that fell flat, “The Test” takes a much needed break from the Robert and Sol of it all to really focus in on Grace and Frankie’s relationship again. The episode benefit from its razor-sharp focus, and there aren’t any parts of the story that feel extraneous this time around. Plus, it’s the right time for Grace and Frankie to be taking up most of the episode: The events of “The Road Trip” left a crack in their friendship. But in “The Test,” Grace ultimately proves just how strong their bond is, regardless of their inherent differences.

I’ve had the feeling in this first stretch of the season that Grace And Frankie has drastically changed in tone and scope, and “The Test” really drives that home for me. It’s a slower show, more concentrated on the emotional beats. Lily Tomlin keeps the jokes zipping, and Jane Fonda gives a fun and rich, if different, comedic performance, too. But even the humor doesn’t really involve jokes in the conventional sitcom sense. I’d make the argument that Grace And Frankie was never trying to be a conventional sitcom. But in the first season, there were some more sitcom elements that snuck in, likely due to the creators’ work histories. But in season two, that’s almost gone entirely. In fact, the brief subplots that do seem like the belong in a sitcom—like Bud’s autocorrected email “The Vitamix”—seem glaringly out of place. Overall, season two dials it down on the jokes. It’s still a very funny show, but the comedy is purely character-driven. And to be honest, Tomlin could probably read just about anything and find a way to make it funny. The writers have it easy with her.

Season two has slowed things down, gone even deeper into these characters’ heads. It starts to unfurl some really complex emotional stories. It’s a bit of a risk. People checking into Grace And Frankie are probably just expecting some throwback laughs from the likes of Tomlin, Fonda, and their male co-stars. What they get is something much more complex. Grace And Frankie embodies the kind of drama-heavy comedy that dominates cable. It doesn’t quite have the grit or depth of Girls—at least, not consistently. But it’s a similarly character-driven comedy that hinges its storytelling on relationships and the complicated emotions that come with them.

Not a whole lot happens in “The Test,” but it does build on some of the developments in “The Road Trip” on both an emotional front and a plot front. After getting in trouble with the law for driving with an expired license last episode, Frankie spends “The Test” getting high while studying for her driving test, which she fails three times before realizing that the only way to pass is to recreate her studying conditions (in other words: wear pajamas and bring a vape). Grace tries to get over her Phil emotions by reconnecting with the friends she had while she was still married. Things have changed though. Her friends have replaced real bowling with Wii bowling. They’re still married; Grace isn’t. But the even more significant change is the one that Grace has undergone. She does have a lot in common with these women, but she isn’t exactly like them anymore. For starters, she cares about Frankie deeply. The country club bitches stick up their noses at Frankie’s eccentricities, her wild hair, her general Frankie-ness. Grace used to be one of them, but she isn’t anymore.

Even though not a lot happens in the episode, “The Test” further develops the central relationship of the show, starting with the way Frankie tries to apologize in the beginning and culminating with the emotional climax of the episode, when Grace defends Frankie to her uppity country club friends. Grace’s defense of Frankie ends up being an understated scene, not framed with the kind of grandiose dramatics one might expect from a huge character moment. But it’s the simplicity that makes it powerful. Grace very succinctly explains how much Frankie means to her even though she drives her crazy. It comes off as a grounded and naturalistic character moment, and Fonda really sells the hell out of it without doing too much.

For the first time, the title of the episode really stood out to me. In a literal sense, “The Test” refers to Frankie’s driving test. But it also functions on a deeper level than Grace And Frankie’s episode titles usually do. The real test of the episode is a test of Grace and Frankie’s friendship. Grace reclaims a part of her past life, breaking back into her former social circle, but it comes at a price that she isn’t willing to pay. Grace’s empathy immediately comes through even before Frankie is brought up. The ladies want to set Grace up with a man who just left his wife, but Grace’s immediate thoughts are with the abandoned woman and not with the prospective suitor. The episode doesn’t explicitly make this connection, but it’s pretty clear that Grace has been softened by the end of her marriage and, more importantly, by her new closeness with Frankie. Frankie is rubbing off on her, and not necessarily in obvious ways. Grace will still be the uptight Grace we’ve come to know. She’s not going to be vaping or writing in invisible diaries any time soon. But she’s emotionally maturing alongside Frankie, becoming more empathetic and warmer. So while nothing much happens in the episode on the surface, it provides a pretty transformative new phase of Grace’s character arc. The Grace And Frankie writers are adhering to the expectations of their premise, allowing these two polar opposites to learn from one another. But they’re doing it in a way that isn’t too surface-level or on-the-nose. It’s smart, measured character development. Grace And Frankie has managed to transcend its premise in this second season.


Stray observations

  • The broadly drawn friends of Grace provide some fun, no-frills comedy for the episode.
  • Frankie: “I can’t help that I have memorable hair.”
  • Frankie’s “bullshit diary” where she writes in the air is simply the best. “Dear diary, tomorrow, I buckle down and hit the books. Smiley face, winky face, heart, heart, prayer hands.”
  • I love Frankie’s feeble attempts to throw her sons out of her house. At first, she’s firm, but then she offers them lasagna.
  • After Frankie’s boys make her feel old, she picks up whittling. Frankie’s so perfectly weird.
  • Vape Frankie at the DMV: “Eat that coyote! That’s a funny name to name a baby.” Tomlin’s delivery is so great.
  • Frankie: “Best friends!” Grace: “Kill me now.”
  • Is this dog dead? This dog is dead: