On the new Netflix series “Grace and Frankie,” the title characters’ husbands get tired of lying to themselves and their wives and decide to leave the women for each other.
The funny thing is the series — which debuts Friday May 8 and comes from Marta Kauffman (“Friends”) and Howard J. Morris (“Home Improvement”) — undergoes its own awakening of sorts as stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin and their producers slowly but surely stumble into profundity.
In the first two episodes, for instance, Kauffman and Morris struggle to give “Grace and Frankie” a real sense of purpose and identity. Fonda’s straight-laced Grace and Tomlin’s free-thinking Frankie are clearly angry and brokenhearted but come across as cranky lady versions of odd-couple kings Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.
When they’re not annoying or insulting each other, they’re lashing out at their soon-to-be ex husbands Robert and Sol (the delightfully against type Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston), who also happen to be law partners, and their befuddled adult children. Even strangers get a taste of their wrath as Grace curses out a delivery man and Frankie verbally attacks a fellow shopper at a convenience store.
On one hand, hearing and seeing how these women handle loss and rejection is more humorous than sad. Frankie’s offbeat rant about Ben & Jerry being more than partners in the ice cream business is particularly hilarious in the pilot.
But when the pair drink peyote tea — Frankie intentionally and Grace unintentionally — and start having visions on the beach, the exchange feels like the marijuana scene from “9 To 5” and the only things missing are Dolly Parton and a plate of ribs. In the equally derivative second episode, the two are roommates and Grace’s Type A attitude and Frankie’s hippy dippy technological ignorance make them seem like a gray-haired Monica and Phoebe from “Friends.”
Sheen’s Robert and Waterston’s Sol, in contrast, are much more sympathetic and convincing initially as two men earnestly attempting to navigate the world as an openly gay couple. Waterston is especially winsome and truly shines in every scene he shares with Sheen and Tomlin. In one of the most touching moments in “Grace and Frankie,” Sol and Frankie lovingly cuddle in the bed unsure of how to proceed as they head for divorce. Sol still loves Frankie but his passion for Robert is stronger.
It’s during these glimpses of raw honesty, complicated love and unavoidable discomfort that “Grace and Frankie” feels more like Amazon’s heartfelt and award-winning series “Transparent” than a reheated take on CBS’ failed sitcom “Partners” — a show it dangerously resembles at first. The desire to binge watch “Grace and Frankie” happens a third of the way through its 13-episode run. Viewers just have to hang in there until then.
Thankfully, the path to “Partners” and “The New Normal” — and any other deficient comedy that failed to explore modern sexuality and love in deservedly honest ways — is avoided. And by episode three, Tomlin and Fonda find their comedic voices and cement “Grace and Frankie” as the candid and humorous series it truly is.
In episode three, Grace and Frankie learn just how invisible women over 70 are in society and in episode five, which is especially poignant, Grace learns the hard way that she needs Frankie a lot more than she lets on. A comical dating fiasco also punctuates episode six in refreshing ways.
Brooklyn Decker, Ethan Embry, Baron Vaughn, June Diane Raphael and Geoff Stults round out the cast and Joe Morton and Mary Kay Place guest star. But make no mistake, this is Fonda and Tomlin’s show and when their on-screen chemistry ignites, it is nothing short of golden.
“Grace and Frankie” begins streaming Friday May 8 on Netflix.