Judging from last week’s news that Maggie Gyllenhaal, at 37, is too old to play the on-screen love interest of a 55 year old man, not much has changed in the 35 years since Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda appeared together in that legendary feminist film, 9 to 5. It’s a shame, because they are fantastic together. They always were. If you don’t believe me, take a look at their new Netflix series, Grace and Frankie.
I don’t blame you if you were slightly hesitant to jump on this show the minute it was released. Created by people who brought us Friends and Home Improvement, it sometimes feels as if Ross and Rachel are lingering around the set. But if you choose to give it a get-out-of-jail-free card on two topics, you can see that it handles a third, equally important topic, quite gracefully. Or…Grace-fully. (See what I did there?)
The show is not socioeconomically diverse (a la Friends). The characters are entirely Caucasian with two – well, one and two halves – exceptions, and not one raises a legitimate concern about money, unless you consider the worry that your wife will revenge-buy a $10,000 yurt legitimate. In fact, it’s quite clear there is quite a bit of cash – and real estate – to go around. And in one of Hollywood’s favorite acts of laziness, there are straight men playing gay men – including two of the four leads. So make the conscious choice to look beyond those topics, and focus on what the show addresses remarkably well: aging.
The premise of the program is that two women, opposed in politic, décor, and decorum, must find a way to bridge a common emotional gap: the vast chasm left in each of their lives when their husbands confess to having a 20-year homosexual affair, and leave their wives after 40 years to marry one another.
Don’t let Tomlin’s hippy, yoga-doing, pot-smoking, sage-burning, dashiki-wearing character fool you. The plot is concisely contrived. But the two protagonists are in the middle of the messy process of aging, and the show doesn’t hide it. I mean, of course both Tomlin and Fonda are gorgeous, and their characters aren’t worried about whether social security will cover the rent or how to afford the copious amounts of Xanax that are sprinkled through most episodes, but the show’s tidy manner of dealing with the untidy topic of aging is a welcome relief. The very premise – giving up everything familiar and loved and forging a new way forward – is exactly what we must do as we age.
Grace and Frankie's circumstances (and the plot line) force them to learn how to start again – how to jump back in to life instead of, temptingly, just waiting it out. It doesn’t happen quickly. There is some depression, of course. Slumped at the table of the (ridiculously gorgeous, Crate-and-Barrel) beach house where they have parked themselves, Fonda and Tomlin try to re-engage.
Grace: Maybe I’ll wash my hair.
Grace: It’s what people do.
Frankie: I don’t feel like a person.
Grace: Maybe I’ll crawl into bed.
See? Simple, but real. Also real? Mixing Jameson into a bowl of vanilla ice cream to dull the pain. I’m not saying I’ve done it. Just…it’s real.
There are arthritic fingers and grey hair (beautifully dyed and styled, but grey), jokes about facelifts and bladder control and erectile dysfunction. One character can’t hear. Another says, “I’d give my good knee for a cigarette.” In the first episode, Grace (played by Fonda, 77) comes home from a dinner event, removes the hair pieces that make her perfect coif so full, and then reaches behind her head to pull off an adhesive anti-wrinkle contraption. She and Frankie (Tomlin, 75) both make references appropriate for people in their 70’s, rather than down-aging them for Hollywood. At one point, a very handsome gentleman (Timothy V. Murphy, from Sons of Anarchy and True Detective) is referred to as, “Newmanesque,” then, “more of a young Robert Shaw.” I’m not gonna lie. I had to look him up.
The show also doesn’t belabor the past. Maybe the writers recognize there is no obligation to spoon feed your audience every single detail? There are two adopted sons whose origins the show doesn’t fully explore, and a never-explained history between Grace’s daughter and Frankie’s son. But life doesn’t always intertwine in tidy woven patterns, now, does it? The pace of the show is slow enough that a woman I know called it boring, but after all the Criminal Minds and First 48 and rapid cuts of Scandal, I liked settling in for a story. I caught myself wishing my mom (a Fonda-busting youthful 73) was around to sit with me and a glass of wine, and then maybe even share a conversation on what it’s like to start exiting youth before you’ve even really acknowledged you have it.
In lead-up interviews to the show, Jane Fonda’s looks were mentioned ten times more than her voice. One interview after another described her as, “as stunning as she was articulate,” (the Wrap), or “gran as styled by Cartier,” (the Guardian). Tomlin, as more of a character actor than an iconic beauty, is characterized as, “preternaturally youthful,” (the Washington Post). Fonda is a brand ambassador for L’Oréal, and her Deneuve-esque cover of W magazine in May is making waves; she is decades older than their oldest cover model ever was. Certainly, Fonda is beautiful. But she also actively blogs, acts, and represents various causes, including teen motherhood. The truth is, we hear too much about these actresses, but far too little from either of them, on any topic. So it is with women in Hollywood, though maybe that is beginning to change.
I am still waiting for the magical, ground-breaking show that manages to address diversity of ethnicity, economics, and age all in one fell swoop. Given that it took 35 years from when the same women who introduced workplace gender equality onscreen in 9 to 5 to come close to representing it, I may have a while to wait. In the meantime, my wrinkles (and my wisdom) continue to grow. I’m giving you fair warning that you should treat yourself to catching up on Grace and Frankie before season two, just publically confirmed, comes out next year.