Yawning is a natural occurrence in bed, but never a good sign during sex. In the upcoming season of Netflix’s Grace and Frankie, Jane Fonda’s 80-year-old Grace is worried that the bedroom routine with her new (and significantly younger) husband, Nick, has already gotten boring. She turns to her 77-year-old bestie, Frankie (Lily Tomlin), for advice on how to pleasure him — a relevant and on-brand plot line for the five-year-old comedy. In fact, frank and funny discussions like that were the main reason creators Marta Kauffman and Howard J. Morris wanted to make the streaming series in the first place. “There were no shows about older women on air at the time — certainly not about older women and sexuality and starting over,” explains Kauffman. “It’s very real. I mean, people have sex their whole lives, it doesn’t just end because you’re a certain age.”
That authenticity was certainly one of the elements that lured the former 9 to 5 costars to play two suddenly single seventy-somethings who become reluctant allies after their husbands (Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston) reveal they’ve been sleeping with each other for years. In an industry where the concept of ageism refuses to grow old, Grace and Frankie bucks the trend by telling ridiculously entertaining stories (like Frankie’s attempt to create organic yam lubricant) while unspooling a relevant buddy comedy for the 21st century.
It isn’t the first time we’ve seen a strong bond among mature women on the small screen: The Golden Girls’ friendship lasted from 1985 to 1992 on NBC. But Dorothy and Rose would never have dreamed of creating an arthritis-friendly vibrator for the senior set (although Blanche might’ve considered buying one) — a particularly buzzy plot point during Grace and Frankie’s third season. “That was some pretty funny stuff,” says a laughing Fonda. “There was a time when women just thought they weren’t supposed to be friends,” says Tomlin. “They were supposed to be competing for some man’s attention. That was the general consensus back in the ’50s and before, so I think it’s very good that we’ve shown they can.”
Grace and Frankie may not have graced our screens at all had it not been for what Kauffman describes as a “lucky accident.” Seven years ago, the Friends executive producer was having lunch with Marcy Ross, then the president of Skydance Television, when Ross mentioned she’d heard Fonda and Tomlin were interested in doing television again. Incorrectly assuming this meant the iconic actresses were intent on a collaboration, Kauffman promptly called her agent to verify the news. Cue a surprised Tomlin receiving a call from her own rep. “I knew somebody must have called him and inquired about us working together,” Tomlin recalls. “So I said, ‘Well, we certainly are now!’”
Six seasons (with one more to come) and 11 Emmy nominations later, the kooky comedy will be, rather fittingly, Netflix’s longest-running original series. Although the streaming service never reveals viewership numbers, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest it’s definitely a hit for all ages, including a supportive tweet from Miley Cyrus: “I found my show! #GraceandFrankie on a bender! Jane & Lily are so bad a$$!” Kauffman credits that surprise tweet for securing them a second season. Tomlin just thinks it demonstrates the series’ far-reaching appeal. “That was exciting for us,” she says of Cyrus’ shout-out. “I think it’s partly that they love seeing people their grandparents’ age being naughty,” says Fonda of younger fans. “And then they love to watch it with their grandparents, too.”
Though the ladies show no signs of slowing down — Fonda credits healthy sleeping habits for her abundant energy (“I damn well better know how to take care of myself”) — Netflix had other ideas for the series. It announced in September that the show would wrap after its seventh season. “Life after Grace and Frankie is a big question that’s looming over me,” confesses Fonda. “I try to understand Netflix’s thinking. I guess they have all kinds of algorithms that indicate when it’s time to say goodbye to something, but I don’t like it.” Tomlin, who plans to steal her trailer so she can live in it later, agrees. “I feel pretty sad, pretty let down. We’re going to miss the show and working together terribly.” Though equally disappointed, Kauffman is relieved she has a final season to end the story the way she wants. “It’s always really sad to say goodbye to one of your children,” she says. “You always want to keep going, but once they say, ‘This is the end,’ you’ve got to get used to it. But we have a great season 7 planned, so I’m not mourning yet.”
Especially since there are plenty more adventures to enjoy. This season, Grace tries to make a new home with her trophy husband, played by Peter Gallagher, in his ultra-fancy house (keep an eye out for the elderly-unfriendly toilet), and she and Frankie make an appearance on Shark Tank (yes, really!). Meanwhile, Robert (Sheen) and Sol (Waterston) contend with health and money issues while Grace’s daughter Brianna (June Diane Raphael) has an awkward run-in with a turkey baster.
Off camera, the cast’s real life is just as action-packed. Fonda and Tomlin have assembled, along with Kauffman, Waterston, Raphael, and Brooklyn Decker (who plays Fonda’s other daughter, Mallory), on the Capitol steps — and some have even gotten themselves arrested — to rally support for the proposed Green New Deal during Fonda’s “Fire Drill Fridays.” “Oh my God, I was so proud of them and moved that they would do that,” says Fonda, who admits they’ve found a few fans along the way. “While Lily was in detention, apparently a woman was talking to her about how Grace and Frankie saved her life. Things like that are the best of it.” Adds Tomlin: “You make a lot of friends when you go to jail, because they’re like-minded people.”
Whether in lockup or on set at 5 a.m. cracking up over their lines, it’s Fonda and Tomlin’s friendship and chemistry that have allowed the show to grow old(ish) with its audience and given a new definition to the expression going out with a bang. “A lot of people tell us how the show gives them hope — that they’ve been very spirited by it and see that it’s not so awful to be older,” says Tomlin. “You can still have a lot of fun. It’s not over until it’s over.”
Grace and Frankie season 6 arrives on Netflix January 15.