“I’m leaving you”: Works of entertainment have lobbed those sad Three Little Words at everyone from Dustin Hoffman to Tina Fey. The life-after-divorce genre is so robust—how many films has Woody Allen made?—that when Martin Sheen’s character, Robert, breaks up with Jane Fonda’s Grace over dinner in the first moments of the new Netflix comedy Grace and Frankie, viewers can already guess what’s to come: scenes of the recently jilted scarfing Ben & Jerry’s and treating her ex’s possessions in a less-than-respectful fashion.
But there’s a twist to this relationship’s end. Robert’s leaving his wife for the man who’s across the table: his law partner Sol (Sam Waterston), sitting next to his own wife, Frankie (Lily Tomlin). The two men have carried on an affair for 20 years, while the two women have done all they could to avoid each other: Grace is a pill-popping former businesswoman who disdains even the sight of carbohydrates; Frankie is a muumuu-clad artist known to meditate on dining tables. Having ex-husbands who’re in love might be the first significant thing they’ve ever had in common.
The conceit helps Grace and Frankie to not feel redundant even as it trades in well-worn breakup tropes, odd-couple hijinks, and writing that’s as broad and nonsensical as the ‘90s sitcoms that co-creators Marta Kauffman (Friends) and Howard J. Morris (Home Improvement) worked on. In fact, the interplay between the relatively novel premise and the all-too-familiar material gives the show some edge. Is being ditched in your golden years because of sexual orientation all that different from being ditched because passions have dimmed, or because your husband was sleeping with another woman? At first, it doesn’t seem different at all. Both Frankie and Grace are devastated and embarrassed like spurned lovers of TV show eternal; at no point in the first three episodes I’ve seen do they express any empathy for their exes’ decades-long identity struggles.