Six episodes were provided for review prior to release.
The third season of Netflix’s Grace and Frankie opens with Frankie (Lily Tomlin) dancing down the beach pursued by dozens of animated vibrators – an indelible image that sets the tone for the rest of the series. From there, things picks up right where season 2 ended: with Grace (Jane Fonda) and Frankie embarking on their plan to make a line of sex toys for older women, as the pair attempts to secure funding for and develop their project amid family squabbles, personal conflicts and their own complicated relationship.
Society’s insistence on the irrelevancy of older women is a major theme that runs through Grace and Frankie, coming to a head here in the third season. Having raised their children – and lost their husbands – the two main characters are meant to fall into comfortable obscurity, with nothing further to contribute to the running of the world. But they both react against it, rallying together in the aggressive joy of their friendship, their disagreements and their unwillingness to accept the roles that their families and their social world want to inflict upon them.
While the first season deals with women’s fear of irrelevancy through the simple act of trying to buy cigarettes and being ignored by a cashier, the second and third seasons shift the focus to sexual needs and desires. Grace learns to take charge of her own orgasms, while Frankie breaks out of her dependence on her ex-husband to begin a romantic relationship with her “Yam Man” Jacob (Ernie Hudson). But female sexuality – especially older female sexuality – is still taboo, something that even the women don’t really want to talk about. Obtaining loans to even create a prototype becomes something of a challenge for the two women, as they face rejection and raised eyebrows over two septuagenarians asking for funding to make sex toys.
The show uses the already comic concept of marketing vibrators to begin to break through the taboos surrounding the sexuality of older women, cannily setting Grace and Frankie’s increasing openness about sexuality alongside the more socially acceptable nature of Sol and Robert’s relationship. While their children reacted to Robert and Sol’s relationship with a certain degree of coy acceptance, Grace and Frankie discussing vibrators and clitoral stimulation provokes derogatory jokes, if not outright disgust. Whether or not the intentional, two married men coming out as gay caused less shock among the secondary characters in the first season than two older women marketing sex toys here in the third, a comparison brilliantly highlighted as the women become more independent from the world of their former husbands.
It seems no accident that the women of Grace and Frankie shape up to be more complex than the men, a factor which extends to the secondary characters. In this season, Mallory (Brooklyn Decker) and Brianna (June Diane Raphael) grapple with their changing emotional landscape. Mallory’s growing family, with her achievement of stereotypical femininity, has begun to make her feel oppressed and out of control of her life.
On the flipside of the coin, Brianna’s fierce independence masks emotional uncertainty, as things come to a head with her accountant boyfriend Barry (Peter Cambor). But rather than acting out a corollary their mothers’ drama – as a lesser show might have done – Mallory and Brianna are dealing with their personal fears, anger and needs, in their desires for family and companionship as well as the desire to function independently from men, and to not be defined by their fulfillment of female roles.
Meanwhile, Coyote (Ethan Embry) and Bud (Baron Vaughn), Frankie and Sol’s two sons, remain static. Coyote has been sleeping on his brother’s couch for three seasons now – clean of drugs and alcohol, but no closer to taking control of his own life. Bud continues to act as the stable point in the not midst of family chaos, managing his mother’s dependence and his brother’s co-dependence while making little strides in achieving the things that he wants in life. One of the more disappointing elements of the new season is the introduction of Bud’s girlfriend, a compendium of tics, allergies, and mental quirks that provokes some mean-spirited teasing. Hints of greater complexity to come pop up as Bud begins to enforce his independence, however, so the second half of the season might very well look at this young woman with greater sympathy.
Slightly edged out of the main plot in season 3 are Robert (Martin Sheen) and Sol (Sam Waterston), who, as the season opens, are just moving into their new house together. Having come through their coming-out in season 1, and their marriage and near-breakup in season 2, this outing sees them beginning to navigate a proper domestic world together, as they come to terms with each other’s quirks and fears. Much like their wives, who have spent the past two seasons learning how to live and work together, Robert and Sol face their own tribulations that include auditioning for a local theater group, and dealing with Robert’s mother (still unaware of her son’s sexuality and marriage). Yet, at least in the first half of the season, these elements feel perfunctory, a distraction from the more convoluted issues facing Grace and Frankie, and a storyline that fails to make use of the formidable talents of Sheen and Waterston.
There is a slight imbalance in the first half of this season, a sense of re-treading old ground and old jokes. We’ve known from the start that Grace is a control freak and Frankie is a flake, so the scenes that focus on those elements of their characters wind up falling flat simply because we’ve seen this before. Frankie’s art exhibition, touted at the end of season 2, opens season 3, and is glided over without much delving into either the comedy or the drama of putting on a major exhibition. More interesting is a subplot involving a break-in that takes up a good bit of three episodes, in a mini-arc that hints at some lovely character development and a deepening of the female relationship.
If there are occasional rough spots in Grace and Frankie‘s third season, they’re more than made up for by the deepening of the relationship and the charm of the leads. Tomlin and Fonda are the anchors of this show, their evident affinity for each other shining through even in their darkest moments. While not quite as immediately diverting as the first two seasons, season 3 actually has greater depth, a story in which two older women can live together, work together and love each other, independent of their families and the men that once defined them. Grace and Frankie is not a show for older women, but for everyone, a show that seeks to destroy the myths of irrelevancy, of sexlessness and of obscurity which women are so often forced to fulfill.
Oh, and it’s also funny as hell.
A little rougher than its previous two seasons, Netflix's Grace and Frankie still brings the laughs thanks to a stellar cast and the increasing depth of the central relationship.