May 8, 2015

Channel Surfing: Grace and Frankie - "The End"

Left to right: Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin
Welcome to a new column called Channel Surfing, in which I sporadically look at current TV shows and talk about them. These are not ones that I care to write weekly recaps for and are instead reflections either on the episode, the series, or particular moments. This will hopefully help to share personal opinions as well as discover entertainment on the outer pantheon that I feel is well worth checking out, or in some cases, shows that are weird enough to talk about, but should never be seen.
Nobody can really underestimate the impact that Netflix has had on viewer programming in the past few years. From their politically charged House of Cards to the ethnically diverse prison series Orange is the New Black, they started their brand with enviable power and have only continued to corner the market with more diverse programming and shows that appeal to almost everyone. With two modern hits being Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Daredevil, it seems like the service has managed to cover a lot of bases in its run. However, there is one market that doesn't seem to be on their radar just yet. Or at least until today.
Grace and Frankie is a show that feels like it is rooted in novelty. The general appeal of the show is that it is teaming up old gal pals Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin for a new show. For fans of 9 to 5, this seems like an immediate watch regardless of quality. It also feels like a stunt that NBC did a few years back with The Michael J. Fox Show and Sean Saves the World by having big stars returning to TV. In fact, that is likely what is going to get audiences to tune in initially, especially since it is the second-highest profile casting (behind Kevin Space in House of Cards) that the service has ever had. Luckily, it works.
The premise is simple: Grace (Fonda) and Frankie (Tomlin) are two elderly women whose husbands divorce them and marry each other. With LGBT programming on the rise thanks to Orange is the New Black and Amazon's Transparent, it is interesting to see this series tackle it from a side that is less explored. While the caricature of elderly people is to assume that they are conservative in world views, the series doesn't find its humor in this. It more finds it in the bigger truths that have nothing to do with orientations. It has to do with the genuine sense of loneliness and the inability to live a fulfilling life, specifically in the autumn years. Yes, there's some reactionary humor to the husbands (Sam Waterson and Michael Sheen), but even that is more geared towards a feeling of deceit from 30+ years of marriage than the idea of two men kissing.
While it is unclear how much of the series will be based around the gay characters, especially since they are more of a driving force than a central plot device, it is interesting to explore this dynamic. If there's one thing that "The End" does phenomenally well, it is establishing the immediate insecurity that the characters face following their new found freedom. What is their life going to amount to now? The results are at times comedic and the ventilation process is often priceless with Frankie going off on a stranger after assuming that Ben & Jerry's ice cream was also implying their romantic entanglements. The disconnect between the character and reality allows the moments to feel absurd yet real. Thankfully, it has two great leads in its fold.
What probably sells the show by its closing moments is in fact the reason that you tuned in initially. While Fonda is playing a more conservative type, Tomlin is a former hippie whose ideal lifestyle is to change for the better - if there ever stops being distractions. The two bond over a vision quest on the beach that is more of an excuse to watch two elderly women act crazy than establish any deeper bond. However, by the time that they wake up in a crazed hangover, we understand why we should be rooting for them. They are two women who seek acceptance and have just lost it from what felt like their core resources. We don't see much of the two together, but longtime fans of Tomlin and Fonda will not have trouble getting into the swing of things.
There are questions as to where the show will go from here. Will it be about the grieving process? Will it be more about two women enjoying their autumn years? There's additional family members that are entered into the picture,  but they have yet to make an impression. For the most part, the series needs to convince us why we should care about the picture beyond, as the title says, Grace and Frankie. However, the first episode comes strong and with a sense of maturity and class that is unexpected for a pilot episode. I am unsure if the rest will be great, but everything as of the first episode is in place to make for one really strong series that not only appeals to its target audience, but a more general one as well. 

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