Film & Television

‘Grace and Frankie’s’ Final Season: More Laughs and a Few Tears

Seven seasons ago, Mrs. Robert Hanson and Mrs. Sol Bergstein — despite a sincere and mutual dislike for each other — went out for dinner together with their law firm partner husbands. However, this was no ordinary dinner. Mr. Robert Hanson and Mr. Sol Bergstein had an announcement to make. They were no longer in love with their respective wives; they were, in fact, in love with each other. And, as soon as the law would allow, they planned to divorce those same respective wives and marry each other. Nursing their wounded hearts and pride, Mrs. Robert Hanson and Mrs. Sol Bergstein retreated to their shared beach house and the genuinely odd couple (and soon-to-be dauntless dynamic duo) of Grace and Frankie was born.

The series was created by Marta Kauffman (Friends) and Howard J. Morris (Home Improvement), and from the beginning, Kauffman knew she wanted to do something different. Approaching the real challenges facing older women in both comedic and dramatic ways felt risky but  important. “The kind of television I want to do has some sort of depth,” she told Forbes when the series premiered. “It isn’t just about jokes and being funny, but is about the human condition. It was also really important to me that we walk a line where the how has a reality to it, but we can make it funny. The vulnerability is what makes you want to get to know them.”

Jane Fonda (Grace) and Lily Tomlin (Frankie) were attached to the project from the beginning, and their characters are perfectly suited to each actor’s strengths. Grace is a retired beauty products CEO, who dresses in crisp designer clothing, is well-spoken and perfectly coiffed. Frankie is a free spirit, an artist and activist, who wears ethnic robes and statement jewelry à la Iris Apfel. While Grace drowns her sorrows in Grey Goose martinis and Ativan, Frankie deals with life’s ups and downs with marijuana, junk food, vision boards, and wiccan rituals. One of the greatest delights of the early seasons of Grace and Frankie was watching the two women — who reveled in their oppositeness — evolve from bitter enemies to reluctant comrades-in-arms to true companions to dear friends. By the end of season seven, it’s clear that Grace and Frankie are the loves of each other’s lives.

When I first reviewed Grace and Frankie in 2015, I found that the scenes between the two husbands were less satisfying than those between the two wives. Seven years on, that hasn’t really changed. While Grace and Frankie feel contemporary in every way, Robert and Sol, portrayed respectively by Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston, and their cohorts seem like stereotypes, someone’s very dated idea of how a gay couple would act. Robert is obsessed with musical theatre;  Sol is a sentimental dope. Together, they enjoy every media-reinforced trapping of an affluent gay couple: good wine, good food, a Greek chorus of younger men. The more intimate scenes between the two actors are stiff and awkward. While this may be the result of bad writing, bad directing, or bad acting, it may also be the result of two straight octogenarian men feeling awkward. Sheen has been married to wife Janet for 60 years; Waterston to second wife Lynn Louisa for 46. 

The cast is rounded out by a colorful crew of friends, lovers, and family members. The Hansons and the Bergsteins have two grown children each. June Diane Raphael is the surly and self-absorbed businesswoman Brianna Hanson to Brooklyn Decker’s mother of four Mallory Hanson. Both Baron Vaughn’s Nwabudike Bergstein and Ethan Embry’s Coyote Bergstein are adopted. Other series standouts include Lindsey Kraft, Millicent Martin, Marsha Mason, Mary Kay Place, Swoosie Kurtz, RuPaul, Sam Elliott, Michael McKean, and the late Martin Mull. Over seven years and 94 episodes, Grace and Frankie provided work for hundreds of actors, many past Hollywood’s typical expiration date.

For those fortunate  enough to be involved in the series — and for those of us fortunate enough to have watched it — Grace and Frankie has been a unique opportunity to examine the good, the bad, and the cosmetic surgery of getting older. The fact that Grace and Frankie still have (or even still want to have) sex is fairly new territory for entertainment. And, while they’ve gotten into some pretty ridiculous situations (escaping the nursing home their well-meaning but sorely mistaken children conned them into moving to comes to mind), there have been at least as many scenes that rang poignant and true.

So, if you’re already a Grace and Frankie fan (or if I’ve convinced you to give it a try), what can you expect from the final episodes?

More of the same, but with a looming awareness that sooner or later (and with the four main characters in their 80s, sooner is more likely), someone’s going to face their mortality. Unless they “pull a Thelma and Louise,” as Frankie says, admitting that she’d be willing to consider it, either she or Grace will eventually be left alone.

In the last 12 episodes (the first four of season seven were released during the pandemic), there is appropriate attention paid to failing health. Grace suffers panic attacks. Frankie’s arthritis prevents her from painting. Robert’s memory loss is getting worse. 

At the same time, though, there are sequences of clever silliness. Grace’s second husband Nick (Peter Gallagher) is on house arrest (and annoyingly underfoot). Frankie is planning her own funeral complete with ice sculptures and mandatory 12-minute eulogies from one and all. Grace and Frankie become the “Boniva Banditos,” smuggling prescription drugs out of Mexico for their osteoporotic friends. Brionna accidentally shares her recent sexts with her boyfriend’s disapproving parents. Japanese mogul Mr. Fujibayashi (Keone Young) will invest in the Rise Up toilet only if Grace sings karaoke. 

And the list goes on.

The highlight of the season (and a treat that the producers have teased for months) is a cameo by Tomlin and Fonda’s 9 to 5 costar and friend, Dolly Parton. I won’t spoil where and when she appears, but suffice it to say, she has been divinely typecast.

In announcing the seventh and final season of Grace and Frankie last fall, the show’s stars put out a joint statement:

“We’re so grateful that our show has been able to deal with issues that have really connected to our grand generation. And their kids, and amazingly, their kids as well! We’ll miss these two old gals, Grace and Frankie, as much as many of their fans will, but we’ll still be around.”

That’s good news. We could all use a Grace or Frankie.

All seven seasons of Grace and Frankie are available to stream on Netflix.


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