By Spencer Coile
A good series is not born overnight. Oftentimes, the pilot episode is not indicative of the quality a show might have down the road. Even if it is incredible, the series still runs a risk of running off the rails in subsequent seasons (Desperate Housewives). Still, there is something especially rewarding about a series that, after two lackluster seasons, can come back swinging in its third. And after indulging in half of its third outing, it is safe to say that Grace and Frankie has carved out a very unique space for its viwers.
Picking up shortly where season two left off, season three to Grace and Frankie finds its two leading characters developing their own sex toy business geared toward older women. Of course, this is all easier said than done. After all, they still are an odd couple. Meanwhile, their ex-husbands Sol and Robert, neogotiate issues of retirement, gay culture, and coming out at such an old age. And of course you cannot forget all of their children, grounding all of the "adult" happenings with a strange twinge of immaturity.
But what makes the latest offering from Grace and Frankie better than its previous two seasons?
You would think that a Netflix comedy featuring two acting legends sparring off after their husbands come out as gay to them would have hit the ground running with its series premiere, back in 2015. For some reason, though, something felt off. Could it be that Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda were not given the best material to work with? Or could it be the comedy wasn't flying the way it could have? Were Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston shortchanged when it came to their secondary plot points? Clearly, Grace and Frankie was not the sum of all of its parts.
What works in season three is the series' insistence that these significantly older characters have the right to storylines that discuss ageism, sexism, and homophobia without making their age a spectacle. Whereas the first two seasons treated the characters' ages as a big ol' joke, simply something to laugh about, season three turns that around and creates stories that puts their age at the forefront-- but in a way that allows for exploration, rather than exploitation. For instance, a central story features Robert and Sol coming to terms with coming out as gay men so late in life. Robert wishes to hide the fact that he was once married to a woman to all of his new gay friends, but upon Sol's insistence that it is not something he can hide, Robert then decides to come out to his mother.
Seasons one and two might have treated this as merely something amusing. "Look everyone, a 76 year-old man is coming out to his strict and uptight mother! How hilarious is that?" But here, there is a sense of melancholy, as Robert cannot seem to reconcile his gay identity with his older age. And even for Grace and Frankie, their vibrator business is not just funny. There are moments of sheer hilarity (hosting a vibrator-based focus group for a room full of devout Christians), but the commentary is key: older women still experience desires. In a sense, the series has grown up with the characters. Before, it was a series of gags and pointing at the older women cracking jokes. Now, there is something beneath the surface, which makes the humor of the series work even better.
Importantly, this means that Fonda and Tomlin are afforded the best material to work with. Gone are the loosely based caricatures of seasons past. We get it; Tomlin is the pot-smoking hippie and Fonda is the uptight shrew. Season three attempts to play with these, muddy them up, and give these two acctresses something far more dynamic and engaging to play with than what we have seen from them in recent years. And really, that is the gift that keeps on giving.
For those watching, what are your thoughts on Season Three of Grace and Frankie? Is this its best season, or were you already a super fan?