“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.
But soon, it sinks in that this is a very specific shock hitting very specific people. “I’m feeling like the last 40 years have been a fraud,” Grace says as she maniacally brushes her hair, to which Robert expresses mystification that she doesn’t take the breakup as a relief: She never loved him in the first place. Frankie and Sol, on the other hand, really did have a deep bond; for them and their kids, the end of the marriage might mean the end of blissful times spent at farmer’s markets, movie nights, and “Jewish Christmas.” Meanwhile, the men excitedly start a new life together. Sol at one point tells Robert he feels guilty for leaving Frankie, saying, “You know what makes it worse? I’m so fucking happy.” But Robert refuses to agonize; he did enough of that when he was playing straight.
Grace and Frankie joins a pop-culture boomlet of stories about people coming out as something other than what their loved ones thought they were, late in life. In the most recent season of Girls, Hannah Horvath’s father abruptly exits the closet; Amazon’s Transparent tells of a family’s patriarch who starts living as a woman; in the non-fiction realm, Olympian and reality-TV dad Bruce Jenner has transfixed the nation by revealing that he’s transgender. As queer acceptance rises, the frequency of tales like these in real life and on screen is bound to rise as well; in Grace and Frankie, the uncloseting happens as the direct result of same-sex marriage becoming legal (“I hosted that fundraiser,” Grace moans). Often, the people affected by the coming-out receive as much or more attention than the person who’s actually coming out: Loreen Horvath rages bitterly against her gay husband; the Transparent kids shift the drama from “moppa”—mother and papa, in one—to themselves; the Kardashians’ reactions to Jenner’s announcement get their own TV segments. This focus on how LGBT liberation affects everyone else might strike some as insensitive, but it’s probably necessary when society has led so many relationships to be built on repressed truths.
In Grace and Frankie, the emphasis on the title characters allows the show to be somewhat radical on yet another front: portraying the tough position that single older women can find themselves in. Boomer icons Fonda and Tomlin play into some grandmotherly stereotypes—there are ongoing gags about hearing loss, bad backs, and the difficulties of text messaging—but also fiercely defy toward how circumstances and society treats them. At one point, they flip out at a supermarket employee who ignores them to instead help a younger woman, with Fonda roaring “What kind of animal treats people like this?” The moment is hammy but also poignant, well-earned after the show has methodically chronicled the stages of the women's nightmare: First, they face emotional shock; then, financial and legal indignities; then, boredom, lack of purpose, and invisibility. How will they overcome? The question feels fresh, even if not all the jokes do.