There’s an undeniable chemistry that permeates Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie,” almost entirely due to the affable back-and-forth between its title characters, played by longtime collaborators Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, respectively. This central relationship is what elevates the show beyond its very standard sitcom formatting and some of the more cliched tropes it occasionally relies on. Buoyed by Fonda and Tomlin’s well-honed characterizations, “Grace and Frankie” remains a satisfying watch, even in a fifth season hindered by its secondary characters and uneven pacing.
Season four of the Netflix hit series ended with the realization of the titular characters’ greatest fears — after a series of medical scares, Grace and Frankie were pushed into a retirement home, upsetting the independence they had so painstakingly built in the aftermath of their respective divorces.
The move to the retirement home reflected a major obstacle for the pair, who had previously been thriving as an independent twosome. Unable to run their vibrator business, the women decided to make a break for it, eschewing the well-intentioned insistence from their children for them to remain in the home. With a toaster and fondue pot in hand, Grace and Frankie made a run for it, joy riding a golf cart back to their beachfront abode.
The current season, released on Netflix Jan. 18, picks up immediately where the previous one left off. Hand in hand, Grace and Frankie sit momentarily in peace, staring out at the ocean in solidarity, only to realize that their shared home has been sold. A blunt is lit (by Frankie, of course), and the women start off on the season’s first major plotline: Getting their house back.
The recurring plot of this season is Grace and Frankie’s attempts to return to normalcy. In light of the upheavals of the retirement home, this proves easier in theory than in practice. Conflicts arise, including Grace’s reunion with boyfriend Nick (Peter Gallagher) and the challenges their relationship presents to her and Frankie’s tried and true dynamic. Also present is the spectre of both women’s health, and who will take care of whom in any worst case scenarios.
The show is at its best when it gives Fonda and Tomlin the space to riff and simply enjoy each other’s company. There are a few fun cameos this season, including Nicole Richie as a wealthy celebutante and RuPaul as her assistant, but these pop-ups are brief and don’t really amount to much plot-wise.
There’s something indelibly pleasing about returning to a show in full understanding of who its characters are. In this fifth season of the series, there’s a worn-in energy that makes the show feel cozy and comfortable — nothing comes as too much of a surprise anymore, for better or worse. The side plotlines this season are consistent with previous ones: Grace’s role in the Say Grace company, Frankie’s crusades against ageism in her community and both of their negotiations with their identities in their elderly years.
Where the show falters is in its side characters. Sol (Sam Waterston) and Robert (Martin Sheen), Frankie and Grace’s former husbands, respectively, have often provided welcome levity and insight into Grace and Frankie’s former lives. Unfortunately, this season Sol and Robert were engaged in a grating back-and-forth with Robert’s awful theater director, Peter. Similarly, the going-ons of Grace and Frankie’s children fell flat, piquing interest only when Grace and Frankie would actually get involved.
This season also lagged in its second half, particularly due to some structuring issues that confused the emotional arc. The season ends on a standard “what if” style episode, appropriately titled “The Alternative,” where an alternate timeline is presented where Grace and Frankie never became companions. In this parallel universe, Grace is a chilled, Botoxed parody of herself, in a second marriage to a man who essentially ignores her. Frankie is still living with Sol and Robert, attached at the hip to a life she is no longer a part of. This alternate future is grim for both women, who return to reality grateful for each other. This episode wasn’t bad in itself, but it would have been more satisfying as a bottle episode mid-season. In the end, it felt like a departure from the climactic scenes of the previous episode, “The Wedding.”
The season ends after this peek into the future with Grace and Frankie again at the beach, reunited but facing further challenges on the horizon. This is where the show is at its best: the focus on these two women, whose growth and banter makes this show compelling in the first place.