Why A New Show About Old Age Is The Most Refreshing Thing On TV

Grace and Frankie is a funny and poignant reminder that self-discovery never stops, not even in your 70s.

May 27, 2015

Don’t tell anybody, but I am tired of TV. Maybe you are too. In this so-called golden age of television, there is always something new to obsess over and even if, yes, most of it is very good, I am just one person and I cannot spend 23 and a half hours a day watching shows about dragons and meth and the 1960s, no matter how great they are. Maybe it’s just Mad Men season finale malaise, but TV used to be the thing you weren’t supposed to be watching—the guilty pleasure your mom would yell at you for doing instead of your algebra—and now it’s started to feel like the homework itself, a necessary contrivance just to keep up with all of your peers the next day.

That was until I caught a clip of an amazingly hilarious promotional interview with veteran actors Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. In joint appearances to plug their new Netflix original series, they argued with each other about who invited who over last and mimed smoking weed on camera—whatever they were selling, I was sold. It turned out to be Grace and Frankie, a funny, poignant new 30-minute Netflix comedy about two women in their 70s who move in with each other after their respective divorces. Why did I choose this unpretentious sitcom to binge on instead of the million other franchises with serious subject matters, brooding main characters, crazy costumes and viral YouTube moments? Purely because it’s in my gay DNA to love old funny broads like Fonda and Tomlin, and I would watch them read a phone book.


Turns out, it’s much better than a phone book. The show was thought up by Marta Kauffman, a co-creator of Friends, and it’s got a '90 sitcom sense of lowbrow ease and even, dare I say, campiness. This week, to mine and Miley Cyrus’s excitement, it was picked up for a second season. Here’s the setup: Fonda and Tomlin are Grace and Frankie, two women who hate each other but are married to partners at a law firm, Robert (Martin Sheen) and Sol (Sam Wasterson). Grace is a thin, well-dressed waspy blonde who doesn’t eat carbs, Frankie is a hippie with silver stripes in her hair who smokes weed and vlogs on her iPhone. They bicker. But the show’s true drama comes quick: in the first scene of the first episode, Robert and Sol take Grace and Frankie out to a seafood dinner and tell them that not only have they been law partners for all these years, but they’ve been having an affair with each other and are in love—furthermore, they've decided to divorce Grace and Frankie and marry one another.

Grace and Frankie are forced out from their homes and, after some to-ing and fro-ing, decide to move in with each other to a house by the beach. For the rest of the season, they guide each other through the shared process of disconnecting from longtime husbands who have not only been cheating on them for twenty years—with men, no less—but are abandoning them in the final chapter of their lives, when companionship and support is most needed.

It’s not only a generous vision of life post-divorce, it’s a generous vision for everybody: you have your whole life to try new things.

It’s a slightly unbelievable premise, but it’s a modern one. The show was created with an apt eye towards tackling two contemporary issues: ageism and gay life in a post-marriage world. Let’s start with the ageism. If you think because you are young—and you probably are if you are reading this—that this issue doesn’t apply to you, remember that you will be old some day and you will not want to be ignored. Grace and Frankie not only focuses on the lives of senior citizens, but takes as its premise that life’s most important self-discovery can happen when your hair is grey. “We want to address the stereotype, which is that after a certain age, it’s all downhill, and there’s no more joy or sex or play,” the 77-year-old Fonda told Entertainment Tonight. Grace and Frankie flirt with guys for the first time in decades, find hot boyfriends, discuss vaginal dryness, have sex, get high, build bonfires, and, in one particularly incredible scene late in the season, dance on top of a bar to Lil Jon. Grace wears skinny jeans, Frankie twerks, they get kicked out: “That’s right, motherfucker,” Grace says. This is not only a generous vision of life post-divorce, it’s a generous vision for everybody: you have your whole life to try new things. It might seem trite to say that we’ve never seen old ladies acting like this on TV, but it’s true, and that makes Grace and Frankie some kind of milestone. And if this sounds a little touchy-feely, that’s because it is.

Then there’s the sexual politics. Grace and Frankie explores a new reality for people around the world: the ascent of the domesticated gay couple. In a flip that only seems possible in 2015, while Grace and Frankie are out partying it up, it’s the gay couple that is the picture of monogamy and stay-at-home, comfortable marriage. While Grace and Frankie are getting drunk, Robert and Sol are calling each other “honey,” “sweetheart” and living in suburban bliss. It’s gayness as normal—boring even. The single girls just want to have fun, but even when the gays have a bachelor party, it's so tame and stuffy that the straight men invited find it lame. The more I watched, the more I started to think that the show was a sly critique on the fight for gay marriage. You want wedded bliss and the musty routine of a regular old marriage? You got it, pleated khakis and squabbles over home decor included. But there are also incredibly sweet moments between them, a kind of intimacy between two men—old men—that I’ve never seen before on television, with the exception of the recently-canceled HBO show Looking. I love watching Robert and Sol fight about flowers and cufflinks and make inside jokes about sitting on Ryan Gosling’s face. I just do.

More important than the politics of the show, I like how funny, almost slapstick stupid, Grace and Frankie is. Maybe it's better for the intellect to watch biting satires about Washington politics or dramas about Baltimore drug life, but I don’t just watch TV to learn terrible truths. Television used to be proudly escapist, and sometimes I like it when it still is. Grace and Frankie is unlikely to spark the big conversations at your next dinner party or on your next Tinder date, and maybe that’s what makes it special. Golden age or not, it's a show that’s happy just being a show. A very funny one.

Why A New Show About Old Age Is The Most Refreshing Thing On TV