Eight episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
“We don’t look a day over 350,” quips a deceptively sprightly Jane Fonda in the opening hours of Netflix’s sublime little coming-of-old-age dramedy Grace and Frankie. She’s mostly joking, of course, but her character’s steady growth towards some kind of understanding of a particularly hairy situation – her husband is leaving her, for her new best friend’s husband – is an arc that somehow hits a sweet spot in the show’s slow and steadily satisfying sophomore season.
Grace and Frankie, as a whole, finally feels willing to be what it should have been from the beginning: a non-patronizing ode to aging gracefully, with a heavy asterisk on your own definition of “graceful.” While amusing, season 1 slumped into some shticky shenanigans that belittled the cast’s insane charisma. Season 2 has a few similar dips – get ready for a lot of lube talk – but it’s also far more insightful in using the conditions of its characters to fuel interesting stories instead of one-off comedic punchlines, as well as more astutely balancing the show’s mash-up between old-school cliché and hyper-modern cable comedies unafraid of four-letter words.
Things pick up pretty much right where we left off last year, with Frankie (Lily Tomlin) in a guilt-spiraling turmoil over sleeping with gay former husband Sol (Sam Waterston) as the two attempted to pack up their old house together. The guilt is eating away at Sol, too, but he can’t bring himself to come clean when fiancé Robert (Martin Sheen) is found keeled over in the kitchen after a heart attack.
The opening episodes deal with the fallout of the subsequent visit to the hospital, where Frankie battles with Sol’s desperation to tell Robert the truth, Grace (Jane Fonda) worries over Robert going to the grave before he knows she’s gotten over his lies, and the couple’s quartet of kids stumble around with secrets and lies of their own, some more interesting than others. With a definitive and satisfying beginning, middle, and end, the opening two hours of the season have the air of a feature-length, close-quarters dysfunctional family dramedy.
Thankfully, the quality seeps into the rest of the season after that story is resolved. A big thrust of the season (pun intended) is the creative business partnership between Frankie and Grace’s daughter Brianna (June Diane Raphael), whose cosmetics company Say Grace has decided to mass market Frankie’s yam lube. Frankie’s eccentricities befalling a helpless straight-shooter is nothing season 1 didn’t cover in spades but, like the hospital arc, show creators Marta Kauffman and Howard J. Morris have managed to streamline the plot into a gratifying series of heightened set pieces and dramatic pulses that resonate far more than anything relating to “yam lube” should.
Of course, a lot of the season’s success comes as a result of the stacked cast, which continues to sell a few moments that would be downright groan-worthy if said by any other company of actors. As played by Fonda, Grace’s slow growth from appalled hypocrite (a past we learn more about in season 2 thanks to the perennially smooth-talking Sam Elliott) to acceptance of her situation never feels fast-tracked or false, although sometimes her opinion regarding Robert generates a show far more focused on comedic zen rather than neck-throttling aggression.
Frankie still occasionally suffers from an overly cutesy “crazy grandma” stigma (she decides she has to take her driving test whilst high, and later refers to the fleur-de-lis as a “French swastika”), but Tomlin can’t help but make her feel real, and an enduring flirt-fest with yam man Jacob (Ernie Hudson) is reliably adorable. And, of course, Tomlin and Fonda appear to be having a ball in every scene together. That’s even when Grace becomes far more of a truth-sayer later in the season once she begins questioning whether she should find new friends beyond Frankie (“Who wants to start to try and build history right before we’re history?”) and lands a job as an unexpected mentor of a tattooed truant, who feels as invisible to the world as Grace does post-retirement.
It’s a generation gap subplot that works better than some of those assigned to Grace and Frankie’s kids. Raphael has the buoyancy and daggers-first attitude that is screaming for someone to write her into her own subversive rom-com, but most of the other kids fall flat. Seemingly desperate to find something for her to do this season beyond being the orderly yin to her sister’s unfiltered yang, the writers saddle Mallory (Brooklyn Decker) with a pregnancy subplot that literally sequesters her to a bedroom and a Skype screen for most of the season.
Coyote (Ethan Embry) and Bud (Baron Vaughn) somehow fare worse than that. The former is finally over his drug addiction, but the show seems to forget about him until far too late in the game, and then trots out his biological mother search once again out of nowhere. Unfortunately, Bud is the least utilized and still the least compelling of anything on Grace and Frankie. Vaughn just doesn’t have the comedic timing and responsiveness to engage on the level of everyone around him, so it makes his stressful unraveling – he’s running Sol and Robert’s law firm essentially alone – ring hollow.
But it might be a good thing the kids sometimes feel like afterthoughts, because that means Grace and Frankie is focusing on something still largely unseen on modern television: four – sometimes more – 70-plus-year-old individuals as the protagonists of a show, who don’t obsessively fear the last chapter of their lives so much as neurotically scramble to make sure it’s the best that it can be. And it gets bonus points for the other minor televised miracle of having 50% of its main cast members comprised of a 75-year-old gay couple, who are simply trying to figure out if it’s okay to go out for a night of drag-themed showtunes bingo at their age.
Still, that’s not all Grace and Frankie is – it’s not just an “elderly show” or a “gay show” or exclusively an ironic twist on the coming-of-age story, at least not at this stage. It feels truly grown and matured in season 2, with plots that matter without feeling obvious or bloated to the brim with mawkish sentiment, and a humor that packs a warm lightness and vigor even within the skeleton of what is still, essentially, a buddy comedy sitcom. Grace and Frankie might be tripping and stumbling down the path of their golden years, but at least Grace and Frankie itself is showing some sense of gracefully aged – if predictably presented – wisdom.
Still slow-moving and unsurprising, Grace and Frankie's writing and humor ages better in a second season that feels more like a fully realized - and deeper-cutting - dramedy than its initial debut.