I’ve always found Grace and Frankie uniquely disturbing. At first, I couldn’t quite pinpoint why. I initially chalked it up to me watching 100% of the first five seasons while 100% stoned. In this Netflix series about two women and their ex-husbands who left them for each other, there are plenty of opportunities to think too deeply about mortality. Lily Tomlin (who plays Frankie, a freewheeling Deadhead) and Jane Fonda (who plays Grace, a type A, martini-drinking entrepreneur) are now 80 and 82, respectively. So it makes sense that I might fixate on the too-close-to-real-life quality of Grace getting a knee replacement or Frankie having a stroke. The possibility of dying at any moment isn’t so much a conceit of the show as it is a sobering reality.
Then the sixth and penultimate season dropped in the middle of Dry January or, in my case, 100% Sober January. In this latest season, Grace is married to billionaire Nick (Peter Gallagher) and her insecurities about being much older than him lead her and Frankie to develop a hydraulic toilet for seniors. Much like the vibrator business they launched at the end of Season 2, this business pushes them to get creative with fundraising, culminating with them pitching the idea on Shark Tank. Other than that major development, the two best friends are up to all of their usual antics involving romantic misunderstandings, social media snafus, and minor run-ins with the law.
I was surprised to find Grace and Frankie even more unsettling without psychoactive drugs in my bloodstream — far more unsettling than anyone gives it credit for. It’s easy to get lulled into only seeing the upsides of Grace and Frankie: On the surface, it’s a funny, lighthearted portrayal of twilight-years reinvention and friendship that gives seniors more visibility, and that deserves celebration. But is it also a labyrinth that gets increasingly dark the deeper you venture into it? Yes.
Let me explain, starting with the positives. In our youth-obsessed culture, it’s not every day that we get to see older people living exuberantly. Retirement-age women actors get almost no screen time to begin with, but when they do, they’re typically cast as the butts of jokes (as is the case in Book Club) or zen masters dispensing their accumulated wisdom to younger, more narratively central people (see General — neé Princess — Leia in the latest Star Wars trilogy). The Golden Girls may have bucked this trend in some ways, but for all its popularity, Grace and Frankie is the first sitcom in 30 years to focus on older women. The idea of what constitutes an “older woman” has changed, too. If The Golden Girls gave middle-aged women hope that there’s life after 50, Grace and Frankie is giving women hope that there’s life after 70.
It scares me to think we might miss out on the opportunity to relish our sagging bodies and overstretched tattoos because we’ll be too busy working until the very end.
The show does this partly by letting Grace and Frankie leverage outdated assumptions to their own advantage. In one scene in the first season, a grocery store cashier refuses to pay attention to Grace, infuriating her. She slams her fists on the register, screaming, “Do you not see me? Do I not exist?” and Frankie drags her out by the arm. Later, as they’re cooling down in the parking lot, Frankie reveals she’s stolen the pack of cigarettes they were trying to buy. “I’ve learned something,” she says. “You can’t see me, you can’t stop me.” It’s exciting to think there’s something to be gained after you’ve been discarded by capitalism. A friend of mine signs up for streaming services as a 95-year-old woman for precisely this reason. When advertisers don’t see you, they don’t serve you ads.
The show takes place in image-obsessed San Diego, which makes their refusal to fade into obscurity all the more electrifying. I grew up two hours north of San Diego in Orange County, where Botox is a given and teenage girls get nose jobs for their 16th birthdays. I was 15 when the Real Housewives of Orange County first aired, but by then I was all too familiar with the bleached-blonde aesthetic standard. The Season 5 finale of Grace and Frankie let us imagine how our heroines might’ve caved under these pressures, had they not moved in together and relied on each other post-divorce. In a bizarre alternate-reality ending that feels at odds with the show but in line with the setting, Grace is plumped and stretched beyond recognition while Frankie has gone full hippie, rejecting aesthetics altogether and committing the cardinal sin of being a white woman with dreads.
To see the “real” Grace and Frankie care less about appearances and more about their authentic selves is inspiring, but only because we’ve been brainwashed into thinking that old age is a pre-death death sentence. And looking outside the US as a frame of reference, it’s clear that what may be thrilling in one context is mundane in another. I visited the Philippines recently with my girlfriend, Melissa, to attend her aunt’s massive 70th birthday celebration. While there, I learned that senior citizens aged 60 and older get VIP treatment and unrivaled discounts. On our last night in Manila, we went out drinking and dancing with Melissa’s parents, aunts, and uncles, and we could barely keep up. Not once did I get the sense those seniors felt inhibited by their advanced age.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Grace and Frankie takes place in a region where the residents make taboos out of totally normal activities like getting wrinkles or eating carbs. Without this background tension, the expectations they rail against wouldn’t feel half as satisfying. It’s funny to think that in California in 2020, a man leaving his wife of several decades for her friend’s husband isn’t as shocking as a woman of the same age proudly eating a trough of junk food (as Frankie often does). It’s also horrifying. Watching this show is a constant reminder of how brutally we critique each other while we’re young, or youngish — so that once we’re deemed valueless and discarded, we can finally live freely, knowing no one’s watching.
OK, so here’s what really bugs me: Let’s say you do make it to seniorhood relatively unscathed and find yourself living a financially comfortable retired life, like Grace and Frankie. As we’ve established, these characters have been alive for nearly a century. And yet each season we watch them struggle with the same issues around identity, self-worth, and purpose that a woman of, let's say, 29 might face.
The first season of the series ends with Frankie sleeping with her ex-husband Sol (Sam Waterston) in a moment of weakness and nostalgia — a specific brand of stupidity I’d hoped was confined to youth, but I suspect isn’t. In Season 2, Grace also sleeps with an ex, only to realize he’s still married, resulting in a massive bender and hangover — a timeless method for dealing with disappointment. Grace and Frankie get scammed by a bad contractor in Season 4, and anyone who’s ever been catfished can relate. And in this latest season, Sol accidentally publishes a public Facebook post that leads Frankie’s ex-boyfriend to think she’s dead. Swap that out for a raucous Instagram story you intended for close friends only but accidentally broadcasted to all your cousins and coworkers, and we’re basically on the same struggle bus technologically, too.
Giving Grace and Frankie the space to be humans may make for a relatable and often thrilling show, but it also leads me to believe that my dream of having it all figured out one day may be futile. I’ve always looked forward to my golden years, imagining they’ll feel like a lazy picnic on a sunny afternoon: low-effort, happy, and a little bit sleepy. But if I’m picking up what this show is putting down, it sounds like old age entails more growing, more doing, more figuring out unanticipated twists and turns on a never-ending journey of self-realization. And that, frankly, sounds exhausting.
Which brings me to the darkest level of this Grace and Frankie–fueled thought spiral. Life expectancy in the US is no longer on a reliably upward trajectory, jobs are requiring more education even though wages are staying about the same, and the cost of housing continues to go up. I can’t help but wonder if my generation will ever have the opportunity to flail and find ourselves in our old age — or if we’ll get the opportunity to retire at all. My anxiety around this show may be less about personal failure and more about the inherently unequal system in which we find ourselves drowning. It scares me to think we might miss out on the opportunity to relish our sagging bodies and overstretched tattoos because we’ll be too busy working until the very end.
Most worthwhile experiences — falling in love, getting a job you really wanted, tripping on shrooms — provide some combination of comfort, thrill, and terror. I found all three in Grace and Frankie, which signals (to me at least) that it’s worth watching. I wouldn’t want to miss out on the delights of this show just because there’s a rabbit hole of darkness awaiting those who sit with it long enough. But the price of my entertainment is having to accept that the uncertainties of real life may be too pressing for scripted television — or old age — to ever really provide a reliable escape. ●