Netflix’s single-camera sitcom about the foibles of growing older stumbles a bit in its fifth season, but maintains its essentially strong wit and good heart.
Let’s not kid ourselves: Grace and Frankie is supposed to have a laugh track. It was always supposed to have a laugh track. Its writing, its timing, its wacky scenarios and larger-than-life characters are all crying out for a multi-camera format, for a studio set and a live audience.
But alas, that is not Netflix’s way. The platform’s original programming has cultivated a highly specific visual style, and that style requires a single-camera setup. But the impulse toward the ghost of sitcom past is so ingrained in Grace and Frankie’s DNA that even now, in its fifth season, I find myself wishing we had the comforting presence of a studio audience laughing along with us.
Because in all other respects, this show is nothing if not comfortable. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially when the subject matter is so often an exploration of the comforts provided by intimate same-sex companionship. It’s comforting to turn on the TV and see the same cast of lovable characters fighting more or less the same battles they’ve always been fighting. It’s comforting to see these things, because in the end, we know that our heroes’ love for each other is stronger than anything show creators Marta Kauffman and Howard J. Morris could throw at them. And on this front, season 5 delivers with flying colors.
But there are times when we, the audience, want to see characters and shows reach past their comfort zones, want to see them test their own limits and bring us along with them. And in this respect, Grace and Frankie almost immediately disappoints. At the end of the last season, leading ladies Grace Hanson (Jane Fonda, at the top of her game) and Frankie Bergstein (Lily Tomlin, whose every gesture delights) had just broken out of their restrictive retirement community, only to find that their beloved beach home had been sold without their knowledge. It was a finale that represented the inevitable decline of old age. There was no going back to one’s younger days; there was only the process of adjusting to new realities. I looked forward to a fifth season that dealt with this kind of radical change.
But in a feat of pacing quick enough to rival The Good Place, Grace and Frankie manage to recover their old home within the space of a couple of episodes. And it’s here, after retreating back into the safety of a truly sitcom-y, nothing-really-changes reality, that the season begins in earnest. Frankie gains more independence this season, taking an increased interest in Vybrant, expanding her social circle, and battling ageist injustices. Meanwhile, Grace starts to discover all the ways in which she alone is not enough. Her cosmetics company is still going bankrupt under daughter Brianna (June Diane Raphael), while at home, her life is upended once again by the return of capitalist beau Nick (Peter Gallagher, who manages to make the line “and that’s why corporations are people” endearing).
It’s ultimately par for the course for our two heroines, and it’s all just set dressing to get to the thing that always makes this show really shine: the core contrast between Grace and Frankie. Watching them bicker about everything under the sun seems like it should have gotten old by now, but Grace and Frankie has invested enough time and love into the relationship between these women that every fight seems important–and on the flip side, every renewed declaration of friendship seems like a well-deserved triumph.
The same cannot be said, however, for the show’s supporting characters, including the two women’s ex-husbands. The show’s writers have now had four seasons to put Sol (Sam Waterston) and Robert’s (Martin Sheen) marriage to the test. With their relationship established as rock-solid, the sense of stakes has all but vanished, and attempts this season to draw further conflict out of their interactions with the wider gay community feel like scraping a barrel that’s long since been cleaned out.
It should be mentioned, too, that despite the show’s premise giving lip-service to the queer community, the comfort offered by Grace and Frankie continues to be a specifically white, specifically straight brand of comfort. The gay men who surround Robert and Sol are little more than variations on the same brand of white, clean-cut, dramatically flamboyant cis man. And Frankie’s new-age hippie personality continues to be a source of cultural appropriations passed off as quirky gags, from her burning medicinal sage to, yes, dreadlocks that Tomlin wears for what is, far and away, the most bizarre season finale I have ever seen in a television program.
What Grace and Frankie does well, it does incredibly well. It’s home to some of TV’s best comedic performances right now, and I’m still finding laugh-out-loud moments (a particular visual gag with a CPAP machine comes to mind). There are also still flashes of brilliant writing, especially through some refreshing character matchups; late in the season, Frankie and Robert get (legally!) high together, and Sheen and Tomlin’s chemistry pops in a way that made me long for more. But a lot of what’s between those bright moments seems like leftovers from past seasons, and this show is simply too set on its rails to make any choices that might breathe new life into its more tired aspects.
Early on in the season, Grace and Frankie decide that their new motto is, simply, “fuck it.” Do what you want to do, or what you know is the right thing, and damn the consequences. And in a lot of ways, Grace and Frankie has said “fuck it” to the conventions of sitcoms, and of television in general. It remains a funny, smart, and heartfelt show about the bonds between people in their later years, when the rest of society has written them off as no longer useful. It’s comfortable, and it’s safe, but maybe that’s okay. Maybe, despite its flaws, the more critical among us need to say, “fuck it.” Maybe, like the titular characters, we need to sit back and watch the waves roll in to shore.
Grace and Frankie is currently streaming on Netflix; season five cashes its Social Security check on January 18th.