Life & Culture

A Taste of TV’s New Aging?

Despite mixed reviews from critics, Netflix’s new original series “Grace and Frankie” has become the latest must-see cultural phenomenon. And it’s not just because it stars 70-something Hollywood legends Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda. The brainchild of Marta Kauffman, co-creator of the long-running hit “Friends” – who is now 60 herself – this is the first comedy-drama about older female characters that doesn’t make fun of them. We’re laughing with these women, not at them, and that’s a sea change that has got media types talking.

“Netflix is unashamedly targeting older viewers,” says Business Insider, which sees the new series as jumping on a bandwagon with Internet originals “Orange Is the New Black,” also from Netflix, and Amazon Prime’s “Transparent,” about an older man who comes out as a transsexual.

Now it’s older women’s turn: “Nobody is addressing them, that’s what’s unusual about the series,” Business Insider quotes Fonda as telling journalists during a pre-launch press event.

Fonda plays Grace, a blonde, impeccably coiffed uptight society matron, while Tomlin is Frankie, a new-agey Earth goddess type. They’re married to law partners Sol and Robert, played by Sam Waterson and Martin Sheen, who announce at dinner one day that they are leaving their wives for each other after having had a clandestine gay affair for the past 20 years.

Grace and Frankie reluctantly wind up sharing the spectacular beach house that the two couples own. Although they start out despising each other, they wind up becoming best friends when Frankie spikes Grace’s tea with peyote and they bond while tripping on the beach. These characters were young women in the ’60s. Acting “old” is not in their skill set. They may be elderly divorcees who’ve been dumped by affluent husbands, but they are in great shape, hip and often outrageous.

As Grace and Frankie, as well as in real life, Fonda and Tomlin are wrinkle-free and lithe. Grace claims she’s 64 in her Internet dating profile. Frankie performs squats in a scene at an assisted living facility where she’s applying for a job as an art teacher – and is outraged when she’s mistaken for a prospective resident. These women aren’t about to conform to stereotypical notions of what 75 looks or acts like. And for some critics, that’s a problem.

“Grace and Frankie” hedges its bets about the indignities of aging in more than the looks department. Grace slips in a yogurt shop, gets knocked out and hallucinates a broken hip and a small stroke. For many people in their 70s, a fall like that would actually be the beginning of the end, observes the Washington Post, “but Frankie catches Grace when she slips. Which means she never really fell; she merely glimpsed a flash of the horrors of being the sort of human who grows old.”

Maybe it takes an older woman – the show’s target audience – to notice that, as Joyce Wadler notes in the New York Times – Grace has “the universally dreaded Inner Upper Arm Wiggle Waggle.” Considered more repulsive to TV viewers than blood and intestines, this brazen baring of arm flab is revolutionary in itself, Wadler points out – a new “frankly-embracing-our-aging-bodies thing” that “Grace and Frankie” gingerly entertains.

The show has some sharp, funny humor about the invisibility of older women that is never at the expense of its characters. In one scene, a convenience store clerk ignores Grace and Frankie, who are trying to buy cigarettes; he’s too busy flirting with a buxom blonde. Frankie throws a fit, and when they get back to the car, she tells Grace that she stole a pack. “We have a superpower,” she says. “You can’t see me, you can’t stop me.”

Jane Fonda was recently on “Late Night with Seth Myers” explaining why she thought the show was important. “There is no face of older women in mass media, and both Lily and I wanted to give a face to us, and we wanted to do it in a comedy format.” Referring to the show’s take on sex over 70, she said, “Older women aren’t seen as sexual beings, but older women do want to be romantic and have lovers.”

Grace does find a lover, but Frankie worries about her vaginal dryness. Outraged by all the chemicals in commercial lubricant, she makes her own lube out of yams, which Grace unknowingly is putting on her toast. Frankie approves. “You should never put anything in your vagina that you wouldn’t put in your mouth.” This might be the first joke about vaginal dryness ever heard on TV.

Vaginal dryness jokes don’t sit so well with some younger folks, it seems. The Daily Dot considers it a “depressing study on loneliness and aging.” But social media does not agree. The show’s Facebook page has hundreds of comments indicating that Grace and Frankie has become a binge-watching guilty pleasure for both younger and older viewers.

Meanwhile, Tomlin and Fonda are putting their money where their mouths are by publicizing their unhappiness with their paychecks from the show, which has the two female leads earning the same amount as their male supporting actors. “The show is not ‘Sol and Robert,'” says Tomlin, referring to Waterston and Sheen’s characters. “It’s ‘Grace and Frankie.’”

Is there a taste of things to come in “Grace and Frankie”‘s model of older women as… well, just older women? Will today’s notable exception become tomorrow’s staple of TV entertainment as we age and mix a little of this and a little of that – Botox, peyote, sex, workouts, bare-armed waggle – to create our own version of growing older, without necessarily breaking a hip? Will TV venture next into the lives of less privileged older people who have more wrinkles and fewer options, but who still own the ways their older age plays out?

What do you think?

Watch the Trailer

(Video link for mobile)

“Grace and Frankie” is available for viewing on Netflix 


17 responses to “A Taste of TV’s New Aging?

  1. It’s a shame you don’t have a donate button! I’d certainly donate to this
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  2. Love the show and all the subject matter.

    Tomilin is right, no one is addressing dry vaginas and sexuality in the older set. While I’m only 54 I “binge watched every episode” and loved it all. Sheen and Waterson becoming lovers and working their way through their own sexuality with a pink phallus on the front lawn and letting their old mentor know that they are a couple now. Fonda, and Nelson and their love making being not quite what was expected, with Fonda teaching Nelson how to “please her in bed”. Tomlin and Hudson, not quite in sync with one another but knowing while now isn’t the right time maybe later will be better for them.

    The extended family of sons and daughters having their own issues with rehab, new baby, and experimentation with the new product [the yam lube Tomlin cooks up in the kitchen].

    Good show good acting.

    It would be nice to see more of this show with Tomlin showing us more of her limber joints and the Ex-Convict [Brian] loving on Fonda some more.

    Again loved it and wished there was more of it on television.

  3. I adore this series. It’s about female empowerment without forsaking the family in the process. It illustrates the emergence of the male protagonists’ self-revelations without a “big deal,” yet triggers a transition for the wives and adult children with which many of us can relate.

    I’m 58–not 70–and a widow, but this really resonates. I love it!

  4. As usual, Erica is astute and engaging! However, I was disappointed with G & F. Unlike Transparent, which is brilliant and original, the Fonda/Tomlin show is just another sitcom. New subject, maybe, same stale format. Can’t imagine binging on it.

    1. Also: the love affair between the two men is wildly implausible! OK, so maybe there’s no “chemistry” between them: but aren’t ACTORS supposed to supply this chemistry? That’s what they’re paid for: to ACT!

  5. This show is great! All the things that actually happen to your body are fodder for jokes and rightly so. A book that dealt with this years ago as “Getting Over Getting Older.” I was young when I read it but still remember the woman photographer who was leaning out of the plane to shoot something and saw her arm flop and said she felt like throwing herself out at the sight. I really appreciate that these two women make me laugh and reinforce my feeling that all of us in our seventies are OK>

  6. Most of us are old enough to remember Jane Fonda sitting on a Vietcong tank,mocking American troops…and she essentially is unrepentant today,despite a few politically correct statements to protect her commercial image.As one who served in the armed forces,I cannot forget.As far as I’m concerned,she should have received the same sentence as Toyko Rose in WW11.

    1. How about fixing the blame on Nixon, Kissinger, and Johnson, the people who sent those boys to war knowing “victory” was impossible, body counts inflated, and withdrawal destined to be the same no matter when it happened. I love people who blame a young girl for being naive (and who later apologized) rather than the leaders whose misguided war was responsible for the deaths of nearly 300,000 allied fighting forces and 1.2 million total civilian and military deaths.

      1. wait a second. demonstrating against the war was not naive. it was necessary. i don’t see why jane had to apologize.

      2. For being photographed in an NVN tank when American kids were being killed by them – not just demonstrating against the war

  7. ‘“You should never put anything in your vagina that you wouldn’t put in your mouth.” This might be the first joke about vaginal dryness ever heard on TV.’

    Somehow I think this isn’t a joke about (or just about) vaginal dryness…

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