One of the great delights of Grace and Frankie from the very start has been the wonderful friendship between the two titular characters that underpins the entire show.
In contrast to many other sitcoms that present friendships with all the depth of a shallow Petri dish, with about as much inherent angst, Grace and Frankie has always given us two very real people, polar opposites who are forced into involuntary close company when their husbands, Robert (Martin Sheen) and Sol (Sam Waterston) come out as gay and as lovers in what has to count as one of the worst joint date nights ever.
While Robert and Sol can finally be free about their hithero hidden love affair of 20 years standing, Grace (Jane Fonda) and Frankie (Lily Tomlin) are understandably devastated, 40 years of marriage apiece effectively rendered a lie, the fabric of their day to day lives ripped unceremoniously asunder.
With no other choice than to move into the beach house that the two then couples bought together, they must negotiate some sort of workable relationship, a task made all the more challenging by their utterly divergent personalities and approaches to life.
Grace is the ultimate society pin up gal, a country club luncher who is always fashionably dressed, at all the right functions and seen with all the right people; Frankie, by contrast, is a quintessential hippie chick, free and easy with her opinions, prone to one too many “too much information” divulges (particularly regarding sex) and extravagantly emotional and artistic.
Coming together then, while precipitated by events beyond their control, a challenge that neither is especially enthusiastic about at first, but which slowly and organically takes place as each negotiates a new life that features none of the certainties of the old.
Refreshingly, rather than making their coming together as steadfast friends, which is exactly what they become, a trite and inauthentic development, the show’s creators Marta Kauffman and Howard J. Morris have gone to great pains over the last two seasons to show how hard it can be not just forging a new life, but doing it in close proximity with someone you previously had no friendship with.
It’s not even remotely easy, and Grace and Frankie has hilariously and yet with great sensitivity and insight, made this crystal clear, fully admitting that this sort of wholesale life change would be a challenge at any stage of a person’s life but particularly when you’re in your ’70s and getting ready to settle into a hoped-for comfortable old age.
Season 3 picks up in the wake of Grace and Frankie’s joint decision, after a great many shared and individual ups and downs, to independently their own distinct paths, one that disentangles itself as completely as practical from their ex-husbands.
Part of that decision to completely go it alone – although given the closeness of the two families over the years, a clean break simply isn’t realistic, especially with the couple’s four children, the standout of which is acerbic but heartfelt “maneater” Brianna (June Diane Raphael), still so closely intertwined – manifests itself in a new company the two women launch to produce vibrators for the older female adult.
While good for some fairly obvious laughs, some of which are entertained, Grace and Frankie chooses instead to concentrate on real substantive issues such as older women and their access to financial banking (banks, we find out, in the first episode, are ageist to the hilt), their sexuality and forging an identity as a single person after a life time as one half of a partnership.
As you might expect from a show that is as realistic as it is funny, it’s often a case of one step forward, quite a few back, as the two women grappled with bumps in the smooth path of their friendship, some of which can look almost irreparable (Grace says she doesn’t have a gun when they’re robbed, Frankie believes her and is horrified when the firearm is produced during what’s assumed to be a repeat break-in at the house), new relationships, career choices and relating to ex-husbands and children when all the older paradigms that once governed them have been well and truly blown to smithereens.
The show may be largely played for laughs but this is intelligent, character-driven comedy, where the oneliners aren’t the drivers of the comedy but rather in service to nuanced, well-articulated character interactions that are as serious as they are funny at times.
Much like Frasier, which always drew its longlasting comedic strength from its finely-wrought characters, Grace and Frankie milks situations such as mistakenly promoting their vibrators to a women’s bible study group, a robbery at the house and the perils and rewards of starting a business when most people are booking sedate river cruises in Europe or agonising over which bowls club to join.
That is why the show, which has just been renewed for a fourth, very much welcomed season, works so well and is so rewarding to watch.
It openly accepts the fact that life very rarely fit the standard tropes and routinely defies expectations, and that if you’re going to portray it, particularly for two older women who find themselves with their hands full of a thousand different complications they never thought would be theirs to handle, you better recognise that essential truth upfront.
Without that sage recognition, Grace and Frankie would be just another brainless show about ageing, playing the concept for cheap laughs and ill-placed oneliners with all the longevity of a wispy trail of vapour.
Instead it’s vital and alive, rife with all kinds of pithy, funny, true observations about life, which anyone of any age can relate to, but which are especially relevant to people entering, or in, the later stages of their life.
Yes, Grace and Frankie are joyous characters to watch and spend time with, and come what may, you always walk away from an episode, or this being Netflix where one episode at a time is never enough, with a smile on your face; but far more than that, they are rich, three dimensional characters who matter, whose lives have substance and resonance and whose are funny only because much of what they go through rings wryly true.
They are thoroughly, delightfully unique true, but they are also everywoman, the standard bearers for every woman who has found herself cast adrift by the whims and vagaries of husbands moving on to the next big thing without them, and it’s because they are so real and so authentically-detailed, that Grace and Frankie works and has much of its considerable appeal.
Season 3 continues all the good work of the previous two seasons, while doing an admirable of pushing events in these two remarkable women’s lives forward, always reminding us that no matter how tough the future may look, that a whole lot of tenacity and more importantly friendship goes a long way in making the impossible seem not just doable but a great deal of fun and emotionally rewarding into the bargain.