Grace and Frankie is a WB show.
You remember The WB, right? The short-lived TV network achieved considerable, if fleeting, fame in the late 1990s and early 2000s through programming marketed to teens and 20-somethings. It was the home of Dawson's Creek and 7th Heaven, of Gilmore Girls and the first five seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Eventually, the network was folded into The CW, where some strands of its DNA survive to this day. But the kinds of shows The WB produced in its heyday largely just don't exist anymore. They're too tiny, too low-conflict, for a TV universe that thrives on big, dramatic stakes. You can find shows that are vaguely similar on Freeform (formerly known as ABC Family); I'm thinking specifically of Switched at Birth and The Fosters. But for the most part, TV has moved past this kind of low-key programming.
Except for on Netflix, apparently. Grace and Frankie may not be perfect, but it has a gentle hangout vibe that sets it apart from most other shows on the air right now. There's little conflict, even very little angst. It's mostly an excuse to watch talented, older actors enact quiet tales of what life is like once reach your twilight years. It's as if, say, The WB's Everwood were suddenly remade with a very different target demographic in mind.
The show won't appeal to everybody. Indeed, its first season didn't really work for me. But I found its second season — which just hit Netflix this week — to be a mostly charming antidote to a lot of the rest of television. Here are five reasons why.
1) The dramatic stakes are low; the emotional stakes never are
Grace and Frankie centers on two older women (their names are in the title) who are forced to cohabitate when their respective husbands confess they've been gay lovers for decades and now wish to marry while they still have some time left on the planet. Grace and Frankie are understandably rocked by the news — they're all for marriage equality, but not necessarily if it has to apply to them.
That high-concept premise tanked roughly the first half of the show's first season. It was just so much for the characters to deal with, and the show's frequently sitcom-y jokes didn't help; it often seemed like they were written with enough extra space for a live studio audience to laugh and punctuate their banality. (Grace and Frankie was created by sitcom vets Marta Kauffman — the co-creator of Friends — and Howard J. Morris.)
In short, the series' premise didn't align with its tone. Finding out after many years of marriage that your husband is not only gay but divorcing you so he can marry the man he's been having an affair with — that's a pretty seismic event. And yet Grace and Frankie felt fairly small and low-stakes. Its plotting was straight out of the American sitcom playbook, reverting to the status quo most episodes and punctuating emotional outbursts with easy jokes.
However, as the series has progressed, it's slowly figured out how to handle its heavier material. In season two, as Grace and Frankie get further and further away from their divorces, they're able to see how much their exes love and care about each other, which helps them realize that remaining in their repressed marriages was hurting them as well.
Generally, the show is more soothing and slower-paced than most other TV. But the characters occasionally blister, erupting in anger or sadness, and that emotional honesty gives the show the weight it might otherwise seem to be lacking. Grace and Frankie takes its characters seriously, and its emotional stakes are finally in line with its tone.
2) This might be the most relaxing show on TV
Watching Grace and Frankie often feels like going shopping for apples at a New England farmers market, like living in a lighthouse with a gorgeous view of the ocean, or like being an elderly British woman who solves mysteries with her cat. It's a calming, charming good time, one that doesn't strain for effort. Even the jokes don't try too hard to make you laugh. They just fall into the rhythm of conversation.
In that sense, the series makes for one of the better binge watches in recent memory. It doesn't push its story too much, and you can turn off Netflix in the middle of an episode — in the middle of a scene, even! — and resume watching three days later without missing much. It's less about plot or character than it is about vibe, about feeling like you're hanging out with these people as they sit on the beach.
To that end, the series' visual palette is similarly tranquil. It uses mostly muted colors, and many scenes are shot in soft-focus wide shots, to let in more of the gentle ambience. When the camera zooms in for the close-up on a character in one of those blistering moments, the results can devastate, but most of the time the show is happy to just hang back and take in the good times.
3) Nothing much really happens, but that's okay
The big event of the first half of season two is that Frankie and her ex-husband, Sol, are dealing with the fact that they slept together near the end of season one, when they were cleaning out the home they shared as a married couple. In the midst of heightened emotion, they gave in to passion. Now both are afraid to tell Sol's soon-to-be husband (and Grace's ex), Robert, what happened, for obvious reasons.
This conflict drives much of Grace and Frankie's second season. Other storylines involve Frankie going into business with Grace's daughter, Grace considering reconnecting with a man she had a flirtation with in the past, and Robert dealing with a health scare.
None of these stories are hugely dramatic, but that's fine. Very few of us live lives filled with constant drama, and TV occasionally skews too far away from presenting these sorts of realistic scenarios. Even the show's jokes have gotten softer. They're still there, but the sitcom setups are gone; they're mostly just pleasant, like everything else.
4) The cast is stellar
I've so far avoided mentioning that Grace and Frankie's central four roles are played by Jane Fonda (Grace), Lily Tomlin (Frankie), Sam Waterston (Sol), and Martin Sheen (Robert). But if anything has kept me tuning in during the series' rough patches, it's the fact that these excellent actors rarely get material this meaningful or meaty as they age.
And season two allows them to dig in ever deeper. In particular, Fonda's portrayal of Grace is a lovely little thing, never pushing too far into outright brittleness while still allowing Grace to be incredibly hard to put up with. As the season goes on — and her life unravels more and more — Fonda plays Grace as someone who continues to struggle with the fact that she's been given a second chance at life, no matter how welcome or unwelcome.
I should also pause to recognize the show's younger, supporting cast members, including June Diane Raphael and Brooklyn Decker as Grace and Robert's two daughters. Grace and Frankie is rarely as interested in their lives as it is in the lives of its four main characters, but every time it drops in on them, they bring their best stuff.
5) It smartly articulates how social change can feel
Grace and Frankie's characters have witnessed huge amounts of social change in their lifetimes. Sol and Robert went from having to keep their affair a deep, dark secret to getting married in broad daylight, with most of their friends and family welcoming their relationship (once they came to terms with the inherent deception, of course).
Indeed, some of the most moving moments of Grace and Frankie's second season involve Sol and Robert resolving to not let more of their lives pass by without being with each other, openly and honestly. And yet that doesn't come naturally for them. They lived in hiding for so long that being out can feel like a kind of performance. The show even subtly emphasizes how neither feels entirely comfortable with the sorts of things that are considered the stereotypical pursuits of gay men.
At its core, Grace and Frankie understands that life is long, and that the sweeping societal changes that many younger folks view as a matter of course can feel like major upheavals to those who are older. By staying keyed in to its characters' emotions and remaining true to their psychologies, Grace and Frankie can open our eyes to how it can feel to suddenly, late in life, have everything change.
Grace and Frankie is streaming on Netflix.