One of the first rules of sitcom writing is that comedy needs conflict. And judging by the premise alone, Grace and Frankie should have plenty of it. When season 2 begins, Grace (Jane Fonda) learns that her ex-husband, Robert (Martin Sheen), suffered a heart attack right before his boyfriend, Sol (Sam Waterston), could confess to cheating with Frankie (Lily Tomlin), who is Sol’s ex-wife and Grace’s roommate. (Yes, we realize the plot is almost as complicated as Game of Thrones.) Suddenly, Grace realizes that she doesn’t want Robert to die before she comes to terms with his leaving her. “I have 40 years of anger stored up!” she seethes. It’s the moment the show has been building toward since its premiere: This repressed society wife is finally going to lose her composure. Will she smother Robert with a throw pillow? Strangle him with one of her many silk scarves? Nope. She takes a deep breath and…calmly walks away. Sigh.
For a story about two women who’ve been betrayed, abandoned, and forced to rebuild their whole lives in their 70s, Grace and Frankie is a remarkably Zen show—and, not coincidentally, a remarkably dull one. Aside from Grace’s big anger speech, the two leads express very little bitterness toward their exes (seriously? c’mon!), to the point where they actually delight in helping to plan a wedding for Robert and Sol. The two women don’t even really fight. Frankie and Grace are supposed to be the ultimate odd couple. It’s the vape-sucking, rasta-beanie-wearing guru versus the pearl-clutching, pantsuit-sporting straight woman—but they hardly ever disagree about anything more controversial than whether Grace should pursue a crush from her past (Sam Elliott). They don’t challenge each other, and they won’t challenge your preconceived notions as a viewer. The old-person jabs are expected: Grace has an errant chin hair, Frankie has never heard of Vin Diesel. And the jokes about their gay exes are worse, trading in every stereotype: In one scene, every other gay man in the room ends his sentences with “[Insert declaration], bitch!”
It’s disappointing that a comedy so radical in concept—four septuagenarians as stars!—is so conservative in tone. Co-creator Marta Kauffman spent her glory days writing for Friends, and Grace and Frankie still has that dated multicam sensibility, luckily without the studio audience—though it does need someone to laugh at its failed punchlines. (I only laughed once the whole season, when Frankie is decked out in a crazy amulet necklace and Grace quips, “Are you returning a ring to Middle-earth?”) Kauffman has said this season is about Grace and Frankie trying to figure out who they really are, now that they’re no longer their husbands’ wives. But at a time when series like Transparent and Getting On have explored later-in-life identity crises with greater depth, it’s hard to watch these women’s serious problems defused with sad spinster humor. Vin Diesel aside, the problem isn’t that Grace and Frankie are old and out of touch. It’s that the show is. C–