The challenge for any series that manages to make it past the first few seasons, when cancellation lurks like some sort of televisual predator (yes, even for streaming shows) is balancing the twin competing demands of delivering up characters and situations that audiences have come to love while still forging some new narrative territory.
It’s a big ask – tip too far in either direction and you risk either sounding like a sclerotic broken record whose characters are effectively parodies of themselves or losing the very thing that made the show so beloved in the first place.
Grace and Frankie, the sixth season of which arrived on streaming giant Netflix on 15 January 2020, is a show that seems to be have landed in the sweet middle spot, offering up time well-spent with characters who feel like good friends alongside the kinds of changes which are big enough to cause a narrative ripple but not to change the tenor of a sitcom that is feeling very comfortable in its own appealingly heartwarming skin.
It helps, of course, that the show was co-created (with Howard J. Morris) by Marta Kauffman who did rather nicely a while back with a small, barely-noticed sitcom named Friends and who has an eye for comedy that feels familiar and yet not so familiar that you switch off before the credits are finished, convinced you know exactly what’s coming up.
Starting with the familiar, it’s reassuring to see that Frankie (Lily Tomlin) is still as daffy and off-the-wall loopy as ever, blaming her lateness to meetings in the house she lives in on heavy traffic on the stairs, and that Grace (Jane Fonda) is still as driven as she ever was and all to ready to defer to a man’s wishes though she hates herself for doing so.
In other words, one of the gloriously funny odd couples of recent television history are in fine form, displaying many of the characteristics we have come to know and love, with Frankie is particular offered some of the best lines of the season.
If she isn’t assigning various situational personalities to her fondue sets, of which she has many, indicating one as family friendly and another as brazenly sexual, she’s desperately bidding on a pair of Jerry Garcia’s (from The Grateful Dead) shoes at charity event’s silent auction, quirky competition with a man called Jack (Michael McKean), a retired record company executive who ends up as her season 6 boyfriend (for most of it, anyway).
In a season that is less about the big seismic changes that play havoc with the status quo and more about the shifting sands of interpersonal relationships, the constancy of Grace and Frankie and their enduring friendship that anchors the show, is a joy to behold.
Change comes more in smaller doses although the effect on the characters is no less significant.
Bud (Baron Vaughn) meets his long-lost biological cousin when wife Allison (Lindsay Kraft) signed him to a genealogical testing site to see if their daughter might have unknown genius antecedents while brother Coyote (Ethan Embry) meets and falls head over heels in love with Bud’s 20-years-ago college girlfriend Jessica ( ) with the two finally deciding to either marry or move in together (no one is sure what’s been agreed).
Meanwhile over at the Hanson’s Brianna (June Diane Raphael) struggles to work out just what kind of relationship she wants with the much put-upon Barry (Peter Cambor) amidst changes on the work front at Say Grace all while sister Mallory (Brooklyn Decker) discovers she might have what it takes to rise up the ranks (cue an awkward moment with Brianna) as she discovers her new boyfriend may have more than a few ribs-related anger management issues.
To be fair, the storylines of the kids, in common with previous seasons, do feel a little tacked-on and rushed, but then they aren’t the beating heart of the show and while they’re fun to watch, we’re really here for Grace and Frankie.
They are going through some big changes (for them at least).
Grace, you may remember, married the handsome, very rich Nick (Peter Gallagher) at the end of season 5 in a very un-Grace ceremony in Vegas with a Filipino Elvis presiding (naturally he’s a friend of Frankie’s) and after telling her shocked roommate she’s no longer single, she moves in with her husband, leaving Frankie all alone, save for occasional visits from visa issues-laden Joan Margaret (Millicent Martin), at the beach house.
If that’s not big enough, the two entrepreneurs are trying to sell a new toilet called the Rise Up, which offers elderly people who haven’t got the lift required to get up from the toilet themselves the chance to regain some bathroom independence.
They try everything to get their hydraulic loo seat to market, an idea inspired by Grace’s inability to get off the toilet in her flash new home, including going on the US show Shark Tank where their quest to get the funding they need runs into some unexpected obstacles (and where Frankie turns out not to be the unpredictable liability Grace feared but an asset who charms the real life hosts of the show).
Quite how they eventually get the money they require to kick their invention along the road to fruition is a matter for the finale, in which things change quite a bit more than either woman was expecting, but suffice to say it’s funny, shocking and inspiring all at once.
And what of their onetime respective husbands, Sol (Sam Waterston) and Robert (Martin Sheen), who ditched their wives back in season 1 for gay wedded bliss with each other?
They really don’t get to do anything much of anything – Sol has a cancer scare, Robert spends their honeymoon nest egg on keeping the local community theatre going – a minor piece of unbelievable narrative contrivance is that the two men, successful lawyers both, retired with just $20,000 to their name; um, really? – and they are forced to leave their home when events take a rising watery turn.
It’s amusing enough and the two actors make the most of what they’re given but in the end, the lion’s share of time and emotional gravitas in Grace and Frankie go to the show’s two leading ladies – though one of the standout scenes of the season belongs to Robert and Frankie confessing some less than stellar life moments to each other – with Tomlin and Fonda continuing to share a rich, easy chemistry, assisted by finely-honed, comedically on point dialogue, an eye for the narrative silly and absurd alongside the meaningful and the heartfelt, and a renewed sense that come what may, what makes their lives worth living is the depth of friendship and mutual understanding that is no less potent now than it was in season 1.