How Grace and Frankie rehabilitated the TV wife
TV wives aren't easy to love. When they aren't vain, they're whiny, petty, or just plain uncompelling. Ex-wives are worse, and old ex-wives are bitter and unsexy to boot. And bitter old ex-wives of closeted gay men? You could probably find a more easily loathed group, but it wouldn't be easy.
And yet this is whom Netflix's Grace and Frankie not only features, but embraces. In a thorny comedic premise, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda play septuagenarians dealing with the aftermath of a long-running affair between their former husbands (played by Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston).
In the first season, it wasn't entirely clear how Grace and Frankie was going to handle its "dramedic" setup — how it would balance its darks and its lights. But the show has firmly defined its angle in its second season, which dropped on May 6. Defying critics who found it disappointingly mild, Grace and Frankie has doubled down on an aggressive politics of lightness, of humor so black it's bright.
Compared to its competitors on television, this is revolutionary. Ambitious television these days isn't especially subtle when it comes to suffering. It tends to be darkly violent (Breaking Bad, True Detective) or existentially despairing (Louie, Mad Men, Better Call Saul). But these are shows whose manliness saves them from being called maudlin: We tend to see sad men as brooding but sad women as self-pitying. Male suffering is great TV, but female suffering is Lifetime.
That Grace and Frankie disrupts this is encouraging, not just because women — old women! — are of course more than saintly grandmothers or irritating nags, but also because it's specifically training us out of the sick, zero-sum viewing habits that encouraged fans to despise the Betties and Skylers of prestige TV.
We have been comfortable hating TV wives for a long time. We hate them in spite of the scripts and despite their creators' intentions. And we hate them because for years, decades even, the TV wife's structural function has been essentially restrictive: Marriage is comedy's age-old endpoint because wives are obstacles to plot.
This isn't mere malice or misogyny; it's a question of narrative architecture. Virtually every TV marriage of the last 20 years positions the wife not even as the straight man (because you can love a straight man), but as the narrow, chiding, and conventional opponent of her husband's broad-minded humor and fun. She is society and its rules.
These habits of viewership are reflexive. They're hard to retrain. But Grace and Frankie is doing it; it's redistributing the ballast of our fandom.
And it's doing so on particularly tricky waters: Coming-out stories are tough to build an ensemble comedy around. They're hard to make even-handed because they're essentially liberationist, and the family — the wife especially — is so often the intimate stand-in for the repressive society to be confronted. No one likes to think about the wife's feelings of betrayal or the gay man's residual nostalgia for his former life. If you wanted to explore late-in-life divorce or rehabilitate the TV wife, why not let us love the women by hating the husbands? Making the ex-husbands so sympathetic that they're essentially co-protagonists is a hugely ambitious move.
Consider — spoiler alert! — the finale of the second season, a sort of referendum on marital kindness.
In the scene, Grace (played by Fonda) discovers a box of wife-gifts that Robert (played by Sheen) had stashed away. She opens a Cartier box and is initially quite moved: "For Grace, thinking of you with love," she reads, and smiles. Then she sees another, labeled "Happy Anniversary." And another: "Sorry you had a bad day." "To Grace, happy birthday. Love Robert." "I miss you too. Love, Robert." The box turns out to be a very expensive Hallmark store or, in Grace's words, "a jar of treats for a dog."
"I used to think how nice, Robert went out and got me something because he knew I was sad," she tells Robert when she confronts him. "Or Robert got me something special because he knew I was right and he was wrong. But that wasn't it at all. It wasn't for me at all. It was for you! So you didn't have to deal with me. So you didn't have to think about me."
Fonda performed some serious heartbreak this season, but this is sadness of a different order: Grace losing the story of how her marriage worked is almost worse than losing Robert himself. He didn't talk in their marriage, so she thought he spoke through gifts. The box annihilated what she'd understood as a marital dialogue; it turned out she'd been talking to herself the whole time. "I never understood our marriage until right now," she says.
This is an intense scene; it is not the stuff of sitcoms. But then it takes an even more surprising turn. As with much of the series, a moment that would normally sharpen into unspeakable misery advances instead into a kind of furious comedy. Grace and Frankie end up shouting at their former husbands:
"Older women masturbate too."
"And we have vaginas!"
And, in what could easily be a manifesto for the show itself: "We're making things for people like us, because we're sick and tired of being dismissed by people like you."
You wouldn't have expected the earlier scene to conclude with a sex toy empire or spilled human remains. Realistically, it should have lingered on and explored Grace's pain. But Grace and Frankie isn't realistic, nor is it about marital grief as such.
It's about rehabilitation. Grace's discovery of Robert's wife-handling Kit is the climactic crisis (trumping the death of another, beloved character) because Grace in particular repeatedly refuses societal invitations to regard the wife as an obstacle — whether it's the wife of her new boyfriend or the wife of the friend her pals try to set her up with. She discovers that her marriage was a script and she was the placeholder, the obstacle, the dupe. The TV wife. But then wifely personhood becomes her strongest principle, upheld even at the cost of her own happiness.
Maybe the show transforms hurt into funny anger too fast, but it does so for a reason: In our vast media ocean of sad dark philosophical men, the project of affirming the humanity of wives might actually be more revolutionary, more experimental, than yet another melancholy ode to human misery.