The dramedy genre remains very much in vogue on TV, to the consternation of awards show voters everywhere. Netflix’s Grace And Frankie is one offering in that increasingly popular hybrid format, but unlike its contemporaries Transparent or One Mississippi—or insert some other, non-Amazon title here—the series has leaned into its comedic elements for much of its four-season run. When you consider the huge betrayal that kicks off the action, that approach is vital to keeping Grace And Frankie from turning into The Affair: Grace (Jane Fonda) and Frankie (Lily Tomlin) learn their husbands Robert (Martin Sheen) and Sol (Sam Waterston) have secretly been in love with each other for 20 years, and are now divorcing them. New living arrangements, romantic relationships, and hilarity ensue, as well as the emotional toll on all four parties.
Series creators Marta Kauffman and Howard J. Morris have consistently poked (mostly) gentle fun at the realities of aging without ever falling into ageist humor. It’s a balance that The Golden Girls was also able to achieve: earnest yet playful, bawdy yet warm—and with enough snacks and sweets to make you wonder if both shows’ writers were constantly in the throes of the munchies. And just like their predecessors in Miami, Grace (Jane Fonda) and Frankie (Lily Tomlin) are well-rounded characters, but they also have things in common with the twentysomethings who populated Kauffman’s biggest hit, Friends—that is, aside from the fact that Ross Geller’s (David Schwimmer) marriage also ended after his wife came out. (There’s also Lisa Kudrow’s brief stint in season four of the Netflix show as a kooky manicurist who really should have been named Regina Phalange.) The two divorcées might be in a different demographic, but they’re no less interesting, ambitious, or, as we’ve seen repeatedly, amorous.
That latter quality is the one most highlighted in promos for the series, but the show’s treatment of Grace and Frankie’s healthy libidos is actually very thoughtful. There’s frequent discussion of safe sex, dry spells, lube, and of course, the ergonomic vibrators that powered much of the story in season three. Grace and Frankie’s active sex lives are never the punchline, though the initially-reluctant friends do have some amusingly awkward encounters with men played by Craig T. Nelson, Ernie Hudson, and Peter Gallagher. They’re also not the women’s defining characteristics: Grace’s uptight and judgmental nature manifests in every other area of her life, while Frankie’s “good, game, and giving” attitude leads to trouble in and out of the bedroom.
As respectfully as Kauffman, Morris, and their writers might handle sex in the twilight years, Grace And Frankie also acknowledges real-life ignorance of and aversion to the topic. But it smartly lumps in the raised eyebrows over their interest in steady orgasms with surprise at their passion for their new careers, or living on their own. The series never condescends to the characters about how [in loud voice] great it is that they started a successful “adult stimulation” business as part of their third act, or [patronizing squeeze of the hand] how lovely it is that Sol and Robert are now out, proud, and married to each other. Age is a source of comedy here—like when Grace and Frankie spend the day supine after throwing out their backs in succession, or Frankie is declared dead, but not before a postal worker notes she wasn’t looking good before her passing—but it’s mostly just a number. An ever-increasing one, but still just a number.
In the fourth season, which debuted on January 19, Grace and Frankie’s age and competence become the subject of much debate and hand-wringing. Their cohabitation has always been bumpy, but here it’s a cause for concern among their four children, played by June Diane Raphael, Ethan Embry, Baron Vaughn, and Brooklyn Decker. And to be fair, season four features some of Grace and Frankie’s biggest blunders, like driving a mobility scooter under the influence and hitting a cop car, or following a truck to the U.S.-Mexico border while your infant granddaughter is in the car. After a swindling contractor robs them of $10,000 and all their copper piping, the women are gaslit by their adult children—who they were recently giving parenting and professional advice (when they weren’t giving them companies or free childcare)—into joining an assisted-living facility or retirement community, despite currently running a successful business.
Grace and Frankie aren’t the only two people starting over, and they’re not the only parents their kids should be worrying about. Sol and Robert’s marriage got off to a rough start after the former slept with Frankie before their wedding, and their late-in-life activism has landed them in jail. Robert underwent bypass surgery in the second season, and Sol was having trouble keeping up with his son Bud (Vaughn) at the law firm he and Robert founded. The new season finds them struggling to keep the spark alive in their marriage, so they test-drive an open relationship and end up with a beautiful, naked man in their kitchen by the end. Sol and Robert’s relationship definitely deserves a closer look, and not just because Sheen and Waterston are so charming in the roles. But individually, they aren’t subjected to nearly the same amount of scrutiny as their ex-wives. Could it be because they’re men, or because they’re married?
Grace And Frankie is very much about new beginnings, from meaningful post-divorce friendships to recovery (Embry’s storyline), from Bud’s new role as a boss and dad to another divorce (Decker as a separated mom of four). But though the show spent the first three seasons and half of the fourth proving that with the right friends and family we can weather those transitions at any age, it seems to lose confidence in its two leads in the last few episodes of season four. Grace and Frankie are bundled off to a retirement community, where they can’t prepare their own meals or work on their projects and business, in part because it’s more convenient for their children. Their “exile” doesn’t last long, but the season finale ends on a much more somber note than ever before, with the tried-and-tested friends seated in beach chairs at the house they no longer own.
If this was a bid for greater drama in a series that’s chugged along just fine on its breeziness and ribaldry, it was successful. Grace and Frankie are now in pretty dire circumstances. Of course, there’s a good chance that Nick (Gallagher) bought the house to keep in Grace’s, er, good graces, since it appears that it sold very quickly (although beach property is probably always at a premium). The relationships can almost certainly withstand this latest hurdle, but if the show wants to maintain the level of consideration it’s given its most compelling characters, it will actually need to stick with the heightened tone, even if just for the first few episodes of the not-yet-ordered fifth season. Just as Grace and Frankie realized they could continue to look after themselves, the writers will need to address this lapse in agency—maybe by challenging the adult kids to think about why they fret over their moms and not their dads. The fact that it might put Grace And Frankie more in league with its dramedy brethren is just the glow-in-the-dark buttons on the gel-sleeved vibrator.