Netflix's latest original comedy series, Grace and Frankie, is an oddly airless thing. It's the sort of show that you might nod off to during a warm weekend afternoon, waking up a few episodes later to realize very little has changed but feeling sort of pleased by that fact. (You can watch the first season here.)
The two older women in the title (played by Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin) learn that their husbands, Robert and Sol (Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston), are gay and having a relationship with each other. The series struggles to feel like it has any dramatic weight at all, constantly at threat of floating off into the ether. But that, paradoxically, is what makes it so good to take a nap to.
I don't know if I mean "TV that's good to take a nap to" as a compliment, but there's something weirdly appealing about a show so ephemeral. It floats right by you, best consumed in a couple of large gulps, as most Netflix shows usually are.
And somewhere around episode eight or nine of the first season, I realized that Grace and Frankie was a hangout sitcom about older people. In and of itself, that's not a bad idea, but the show is constantly defeated by some of the hangout sitcom's worst qualities.
But what do I mean by a hangout sitcom?
The "hangout sitcom" is just about people hanging out and telling jokes
The progenitor of the genre is probably Seinfeld, though that show's tricky storytelling structure doesn't make it an easy fit with the many, many shows it has inspired. A more likely inspiration is Friends, a series where the drama rarely got too thick on the ground and the primary storytelling style could be best described as "easygoing."
That series also introduced the idea of romantic relationships between the characters acting as the primary engine driving conflict in the show. Just when viewers were tired of Ross and Rachel, it was time to switch over to Chandler and Monica, and then, later, Joey and Rachel. The show ran for 10 years based almost entirely on these various romantic permutations.
And lo and behold, Grace and Frankie's co-creator (with Howard J. Morris) is Friends' own Marta Kauffman. And similarly to her earlier show, Grace and Frankie eventually turns into a series of relationship plot lines, balanced with overwritten jokes that don't feel like the characters talking but, rather, the writers behind the series dropping those words in their mouths, straining to be as clever as possible.
The show Grace and Frankie is most like is probably the late-1990s sitcom Dharma and Greg, in that it's about a kooky free spirit paired with a more uptight, conservative type, but the show makes less of this than you might expect.
Because of its premise, Grace and Frankie can't really be about the characters trying out the many different romantic dynamics of their little group. Outside of Grace, Frankie, and their ex-husbands, the only other characters are the women's four children (two sons for Frankie, two daughters for Grace).
And even there, things have been set up to minimize potential romantic connections as much as possible. Grace's daughter Mallory (Brooklyn Decker) was once the obsession of Frankie's son Coyote (Ethan Embry), but that's all in the past. She's (seemingly happily) married now, minimizing the chances of potentially dramatic ruptures.
So despite the high-concept premise at the show's center, Grace and Frankie eventually settles into a low-level hum, rather than a pitched roar. It doesn't want to be anything too exciting. And therein lies the problem.
This is a show where all conflict dissipates almost instantly
In the first episode, Grace and Frankie learn that their husbands have been sleeping together for 20 years and now wish to get married to each other. To the show's credit, it mines some of the inherent tension in the two women feeling wronged, while still attempting to understand their husbands' wishes to be happy. In the show's best scenes, it finds a way to feel for all of its characters and treat them humanely.
The problem is that the series drops much of its conflict throughout. It's not that Grace and Frankie immediately forgive their husbands, but in trying to be at least somewhat understanding, the pair's anger is more of a low simmer than anything that boils over. Similarly, the two women — presented as polar opposites in the pilot — set aside their differences so quickly that the show barely bothers to examine the inherent conflict in their attempts to live together in the beach house their families co-own.
Meanwhile, their exes, Robert and Sol, are trying to finally live in the open together, but because of the show's weird, bifurcated structure (split between them and their ex-wives), neither story of moving on with life as an older person gets as much time to really breathe as it needs.
There are individual episodes where things land. The show's fourth episode, written by the great comedy writer Alexa Junge, takes place at a funeral and gives full weight to everybody's emotions, as does the surprisingly lovely seventh episode, centered on all of the characters watching the National Spelling Bee, whether together or apart.
On the whole, however, the show simultaneously feels like it has too much going on — in that there are eight regulars to service, all with their own season-long story arcs — and too little — in that there's rarely any real conflict between the characters. In the grand tradition of hangout sitcoms, most of the conflict is suggested, rather than outright presented to the audience, lest the breezy, beachside vibe of the show dissipate.
Even that might be okay if the show truly committed to its internal drama or came up with great jokes, delivered at a lightning-fast pace (which is how most good hangout sitcoms handle their lack of conflict). But Grace and Frankie tries to split the difference here, too, and that's what ultimately hurts it.
By far the thing that most gives Grace and Frankie its peculiarly airless feeling is the fact that it's obviously written by writers who are used to working with a live studio audience. The punchlines come on such a regular schedule (particularly in the earlier, weaker episodes) that you could set your watch to them, and there are frequent pauses after them, the actors holding for laughter that never comes.
The problem here is that the show is shot not like a stage play (as, say, Friends was) but like a movie (as many other hangout sitcoms, including New Girl and Happy Endings have been), and when a sitcom is shot like a movie, it has to compensate for the lack of audience laughter somehow. Most sitcoms do this by amping up the pace to blistering, then patching over the spaces between jokes with lightning-fast editing and quirky music or sound effects. This has the subconscious effect of making the audience feel like it should be laughing, even if the material isn't all that funny.
But Grace and Frankie can never decide if it wants to be an outright sitcom or more of an HBO-style dramedy. Of the two styles, it has more success with the latter. At the very least, there are some affecting scenes as the characters struggle to understand what their lives will be like going forward.
But a dramedy usually needs a stronger story hook, and Grace and Frankie's is simply endless repetitions of its premise, then a reminder that Frankie is kind of a hippie and Grace is buttoned-up. Any moments with genuine feeling are quickly undercut by lots of hacky jokes followed by a silence meant to be filled by laughter.
There are certainly worse sitcoms out there than Grace and Frankie, and it's pleasant enough to watch. But its ultimate effect is similar to the frequent sounds of ocean waves that play in the background of many scenes. It's simply a constant, undulating presence, one that eventually and ultimately lulls you to a peaceful sleep.
The first season of Grace and Frankie is now streaming on Netflix.