Grace, Frankie, and the Difference Between Hijinks and Jokes
Grace and Frankie, created by Marta Kaufman of Friends’ fame and Howard J. Morris, is the Nancy Meyers sitcom of my personal dreams. It has top-quality kitchens, AARP romance, the absurdly-named children of hippies, beautiful sweaters, uppity people getting their due at fancy parties, statement necklaces, good wines I’ll never get to drink, not one but two type-A business ladies learning how to love, colorful caftans, a difficult dog, four of my favorite actors (Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, Sam Waterson, and Martin Sheen) from the 70s, 80s, 90s and today, and women of a certain age doing drugs. This is a warm bath of a program and I love it in a deeply biased way. This show is made for me.
If you’ve ever watched Something’s Gotta Give with your parents on a Sunday afternoon, you’re familiar with the “Nancy Meyers Movie” genre. They’re MomRomComs wherein wealthy, older white people fall in love. They’re Woody Allen movies without the nuance — or baggage. There’s Its Complicated, and the non-Meyers copycat And So It Goes, which I could have sworn was either called It Is What It Is or maybe And Then Again, but nope, it’s called As We Are, or whatever I said earlier. All these movies have vague nonsense titles and only incidental plots — instead they’re really about the luxurious natural fibers that money can buy; the cashmere in their cardigans, the marble of their countertops, the ocean in their ocean views, the oak-y aroma of their Napa Valley reds. They sell capitalism and retirement and the fantastic good that can still happen to people who have already experienced unbelievable fortune.
But the fundamental problem of pretty much all RomComs, from Mom down to Prom, is that they usually aren’t that funny. I say that as an acolyte, but basically there’s five to ten When Harry Met Sallys, and then there’s everything else. Romantic comedies don’t have to be funny; the audience isn’t there to laugh — they’re there to swoon and aspire. Nancy Meyers’ movies are especially hijink-heavy and joke-light. The extra nice-trappings aren’t just throw pillows and over-stuffed couches, they’re a cushion to keep you from noticing that Jack Nicholson wiggling his eyebrows at a twenty year old isn’t a real punchline.
The difference between hijinks and jokes is simple: hijinks are really just set-ups — splashy, high-concept set-ups the audience wants to see. In romantic comedies, set-ups are all you need; the only payoff that matters is a big final kiss. But for a show like Grace and Frankie, without the luxury of a ninety minute runtime, the hijinks and the jokes are equally important.
Luckily, despite being the Nanciest Meyer that Meyers never touched, despite all its wonderful, distracting indulgence, Grace and Frankie isn’t just charming, it is often genuinely funny.
You have to want to see the Aaron Sorkin Players do a beach house version of Manhattan Murder Mystery with iPhone jokes and no murder. You still have to appreciate the hijinks. But while Grace (Jane Fonda) dressing Frankie (Lily Tomlin) and vice versa is a hijink, Grace marveling at wearing “a t-shirt at night!” is a joke. Grace setting up an online dating profile is a hijink, but stoned Frankie telling her that the self-description “cultured” makes her sound like yogurt is a joke. Grace and Frankie taking peyote on the beach is a hi-jink, but the joke is — actually, that scene is mostly emotional, an unusual turn for a hijink. But it’s resonant and sad and Lily Tomlin still gets in a good line about Jane Fonda’s anger “frightening the sand.”
The presence of real, winning humor comes thanks to the following: a team of sitcom-vet writers, this beautiful genius named Lily Tomlin, Sam Waterson’s line-reading of “I love shooting dears in the face,” and best of all, June Diane Raphael. How Did This Get Made’s Raphael plays Brianna, one of Fonda and Sheen’s daughters, and the best and most prominent of the foursome’s adult children. The whole group — stand-up Baron Vaughn, Can’t Hardly Wait’s Ethan Embry, and model/actress Brooklyn Decker — is charming (Decker won me over by saying “broseph” with her mouth full of food and contempt), but as the unmarried daughter, Raphael makes and takes both the lonely and the slut jokes well. Brianna somehow feels more like a complicated, interesting woman than a dumping ground for single lady jabs. It might be the writing, it might be Raphael, it might be a miracle, but Brianna is always welcome on my streaming service.
The problem with Grace and Frankie, if there is one, is the framing plot. Media aimed at older people has an extra burden of staying relevant to both its own audience and a younger one — this usually means thrusting our mom and dads into an unfamiliar territory. If there isn’t a joke about misunderstanding Twitter or trans people or the cloud, no one is doing their job. In Grace and Frankie’s case, it means our heroines have been betrayed by new, understanding America’s relaxed gay marriage laws: their husbands, Grace’s Robert (Martin Sheen) and Frankie’s Sol (Sam Waterson), announce that they are marrying each other.
And this part just… isn’t the best, somehow. It’s hard to say why at first — old gay dudes are wonderful, everyone loves Nathan Lane and George Takei — but on Grace and Frankie, homosexuality feels like a clunky device. It’s not that the humor is homophobic (it is sometimes, but that’s part of the joke of struggling with difficult news), it’s that it’s dated. Hearing Lily Tomlin saying “doing blowjobs” to a convenience store clerk, or watching her ask a strange woman if she thinks that Ben and Jerry “make more than ice cream together” is the least comfortable part of a very comfortable show.
With each episode, however, the show’s awkwardness about its pair of gay husbands resolves itself a little more, and the real problem with the plotline becomes clear: Martin Sheen. I feel like my own dad when I say that I don’t buy Sheen as a late-in-life homosexual. Maybe it’s me! But as Robert he seems ill-at-ease. I feel like Sheen is going through the motions with Waterson as much as Robert was with Grace. Meanwhile, Waterson is fantastic — it’s easy to believe that Sol loves Robert and still loves Frankie. And it can’t be easy for Sheen: Robert, a prig who tends to disregard Sol’s feelings the way he used to Grace’s, is a thankless role, especially compared with Sol, a man which so much love to give. But there’s an unrelenting stiffness to his performance, and I can’t tell if it’s Robert who’s hiding or Sheen.
If the show isn’t always comfortable with its premise, it doesn’t really matter. The best bits grow from Grace and Frankie’s odd couple routine, not Robert and Sol’s. Fonda and Tomlin play expertly off of each other, with Tomlin’s old hippie spaciness grounding Fonda’s often broad type-A-ittude. These roles were made for them, and after 40 years of practice, they hit the familiar notes with aplomb. The only question is when Dolly Parton is going to guest star.
Anyways, in conclusion: Jane Fonda keeps it so tight it’s insane.