Welcome back old friends! Thoughts on the first 4 episodes of Grace and Frankie season 7

(image courtesy What’s on Netflix (c) Netflix)

You know that lovely feeling you get when you connect with old friends you haven’t seen in a while? How that long-established sense of familiarity and intimacy comes rushing near instantly and you find yourself talking as if mere minutes, not months or years have passed, and suddenly it feels like you’re home again?

That’s exactly what it feels like to have Grace and Frankie, starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin in the titular roles, back in our lives, with the first four episodes of season 7 released onto Netflix ahead of the final 12 episodes ever in 2022.

The episode split is yet another unintended consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, as Newsweek explained when announcing the surprise release of four new episodes to a pandemic-fatigued and rapturously delighted audience.

“While some series that closed down filming in March were able to restart shooting in the summer of 2020, those shows did not have four main cast members over the age of 80 … As such, Grace and Frankie took a much longer break, with filming not recommencing on the series until June 2021 and set to run until October.”

With season 6 released on 15 January, 2020 before COVID really took ahold, it’s effectively been a whole pandemic between new episodes with a great deal of separation from family and friends, loss of old routines and pleasures and a great deal of anxiety and depression marring the intervening months.

So, to have old friends back in our lives, and really that’s precisely what Grace and Frankie feel like as characters, is one of those rare, special pleasures, made all the sweeter by the fact that, rare in our hyper promoted digital age where we know everything’s coming months before they reach us, no one saw it coming.

The good news is that the four episodes – “The Roomies”, “The Arraignment”, “The Bunny” and “The Circumcision” – are all vintage Grace and Frankie storylines, a beguilingly happy mix of whit and whimsy, angst and worry, all held together by love, forgiveness and the kind of deep, abiding friendship that can well survive pretty much anything.

Which, joyously, includes the wrenching dislocation of a raging pandemic.

Season 7, recognising that we may have forgotten what transpired all those long months ago when life seemed like it would go on forever in its current form, gives us a pithy recap of how Grace and Frankie, and their ex-husbands, now mostly happy couple Sol and Robert (Sam Waterston and Martin Sheen) – it is the revelation of their two decade-long affair that spins Grace and Frankie into each other’s arms where a rich, wholly unexpected and mutually supportive friendship develops – have come to be where they are as the first episode kicks in.

Which is Grace grappling with the fact that her new husband, Nick (Peter Gallagher) has been arrested by the FBI for illegal financial dealings, leaving her sans her complete wardrobe of stylish outfits, the money she and Frankie need to get their Rise-Up toilet business up and running – save for a lazy $200,000 Nick indicates is hidden in a couch and which neither lady feels good about having, no matter how much advantage it might bring them – and a sense of trust.

After all, her first husband hid that he was gay from her whole her second husband disguised his criminality – you can well understand why Grace might be feeling a little betrayed.

But at least she’s back living with Frankie, whom she once despised, who has become her bestie, her soul mate and her family, and that is really where she wants to be.

Until, of course, Frankie decides to have a feelings check-ins or reveals that she hid the money they ripped out Nick’s couch in four places around the beachside home they share, with the locations of the purloined loot referencing something to do with each one of The Beatles.

Alas, Frankie hid it when she was high on marijuana – she has a huge stash but then of course, she does – and so finding it in a hurry, especially when the FBI are breathing down their necks is the source of much riotous fun.

Not so much for Grace and Frankie but for those of watching on from the other side of the screen? It’s all the hilarity and silliness we could ask for.

It sets the tone for the season which is similar in the best of all ways to all the seasons that have gone before; for most TV series that might be an issue but having the same vibe and feel, seven seasons in, speaks very much to the great strength of Grace and Frankie.

Which is the attention the show pays to sublimely-nuanced character development.

It’s so pronounced that while we are well used to Grace getting impatient and huffy and Frankie being daffy and idiosyncratically whimsical, and Robert and Sol good-naturedly bickering, and their respective kids dealing their respective small scale trials and tribulations – this season includes Mallory and Brianna (Brooklyn Decker and June Diane Raphael respectively) sorting out the pecking order at work, and adoptive brothers Coyote and Bud (Ethan Embry and Baron Vaughn respectively) dealing with everything from house buying, and the big steps that represents and, um, a very late in life, circumcision – it never feels old, tired or repetitive.

That’s because the comedy, rich, delightful and downright silly at times – there’s one scene where Frankie is trying to get rid of a U-Haul full of candy for reasons that will surprise and delight with its earnest silliness and underlying seriousness – is all sourced from the characters.

They are not the object of ridicule or cheap jokes but rather the ones who give rise to all the humourous situations that pop up because the comedy affectionately has fun with their foibles and their flaws rather than damning them for it and then kicking them while they’re down and making jokes about it.

That’s sophisticated sitcom storytelling right there – it makes sense it’s all over Grace and Frankie since Friends alum Marta Kauffman is one of the creators and executive producers – and it’s ongoing richness and attention to details means that for all the fantastical absurdity of the narrative, we always come back to who the four main characters are.

Or, if we’re being really honest, who the two eponymous characters are.

Because after all is said and done, what really matters to the show, and to us, is the deep and abiding friendship between Grace and Frankie, who found not just a haven in each other but fulfilling lives which matter more than anything else around them.

It’s why even when Frankie sets up a business meeting, with Joan-Margaret (Millicent Moon) in tow that doesn’t go well, or Grace is struggling to work out if she even wants to stay married to Nick (even though she still loves him), they always come back to each other.

That’s an intrinsic, unbreakable level of connection and it gives Grace and Frankie life, joie de vivre and warm-and-fuzzy hilarity, which season 7 continues to have in soul-affirming abundance, while giving the audience, who need to see that kind of relational robustness on display when there’s so little physically present in their lockdown-starved lives, a much needed reminder of how wonderful it is to have friends close by, friends in this case at least who are funny, silly, earnest and irascible at times but who mean the absolute world to each other and thus to us.

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