How ‘Grace and Frankie’ bucked the odds in the early days of Netflix
What becomes two legends most? A juicy comedy series that gives them space to play off each other, a stellar supporting cast and two creators who still can’t believe their luck in landing Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin to star in “Grace and Frankie.”
“I can’t tell you how many times at a table read that we’d look across the table and go, holy s—, will you look who we’re working with?” says Marta Kauffman, who created the show with Howard J. Morris. “Literally through the entire run of the series.” Morris adds that occasionally he would find himself talking through a script issue with one or the other star, “and you step back and you’re like, ‘How did I get here?’”
They got there seven seasons ago, just as Netflix was beginning to create original programming and gave the greenlight to the comedy about two women of a certain age whose husbands leave them for each other. “We came in at the right time, and the fact that we got seven seasons out of it is miraculous; it would never happen again,” Kauffman says.
It didn’t hurt that those two women were played by those two icons, friends since they starred in 1980’s smash hit film “9 to 5.” Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston played Grace and Frankie’s law-partner ex-husbands.
The first season focused on getting over their respective breakups before moving on to the burgeoning friendship between uptight businesswoman Grace and free-spirited Frankie. Seeing a friendship between two older women on a series was a rarity in itself, but “Grace and Frankie” didn’t stop there.
The show dove into issues facing women of a certain age with brutal, hilarious honesty. Did anyone expect vibrators and lube for post-menopausal women as plot points? “We all learned a lot,” Morris jokes, before adding: “We always wanted a big, juicy comic premise, but we hit a moment of truth in every story.”
They laud their stars as consummate pros. “They were so prepared and so focused,” says Morris. “They come to play, and you feel a responsibility to meet them on their level, and certainly to give them material that’s worthy of them. They never balked at doing anything, no matter how silly or funny or revealing or potentially embarrassing.”
“Or physically difficult.” Kauffman adds. “Sam and Martin as well.”
Even after their long friendship, the two actresses discovered more about each other on the set. “I learned the depth of her empathy,” says Fonda, at a recent red carpet event with Tomlin. “She’s a comedian that never makes her jokes at somebody’s expense, it’s always through ideas that expand consciousness.” Tomlin deadpans, “I’m an equal opportunity offender. I make it against all of humanity,” before going on to extol Fonda’s commitment to her many causes. “She’s totally tireless. Between takes she’s on her phone, raising money for somebody or something, or making an appointment to attend an event where she’s going to speak eloquently and knock your socks off.” Their real-life friendship gave the onscreen one an irresistible chemistry.
The audience response, from people of all ages, “has been incredibly gratifying,” Kauffman says. “I can’t tell you how many people have said to me, ‘I watch it with my mother. And then there are a lot of women who are also really appreciative of being honest about being that age and what it is to be marginalized ... and having a harder time having [an] orgasm, and arthritis, and knees, and all of that stuff. I feel like it has had a really positive effect.”
Kauffman, one of the creators of “Friends,” adds another reason the show means so much to her: “I needed to prove to myself that I could do something after ‘Friends.’”
Morris, who has long written on a variety of series, notes that it’s the first time he didn’t have to serve someone else’s vision. “It was the first time in my career I was able to be as good as I could be.” The show is about new beginnings, he notes. “The idea that it’s never over gave hope to people who watched the show, but as we wrote about it, it gave us the same hope.”
Until it came time to bid the show farewell. “Those were the toughest two episodes we’ve ever written,” Kauffman says. Adds Morris, “Ending a show that’s about beginnings is really hard, because you don’t want to sell out the show.”
They employed some absolutely divine inspiration. In a “9 to 5” reunion long hoped for by just about everyone watching and working on the series, Dolly Parton comes to Grace and Frankie’s rescue. Who else could move heaven and earth to set these two jokers back on their path? “It’s not just that Dolly came and joined us at the end of the season, it’s how they made it happen,” Fonda says. “How it’s written just blows my mind, it was so moving for us.”
In the last scene of the finale, aptly titled “The Beginning,” we last glimpse the two best friends walking arm in arm on the beach, secure in the knowledge that more adventure awaits them together.
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