Grace and Frankie is back on Netflix, and it’s not the first show to portray older women as whole, complex characters – The Golden Girls did it first!
Grace and Frankie is the kind of show that often gets overlooked when it comes to Netflix original series. Compared to the high drama of Orange Is The New Black, or the hype surrounding the interconnected Defenders series, this sweet sitcom just doesn’t make the same kind of headlines. Despite that, Grace and Frankie deserves a lot more attention than it gets, as a sitcom that pushes boundaries, mixes smart humor with dirty jokes, and balances tenderness and silliness to create something totally unique.
The series centers on two women, Frankie (Lily Tomlin), a pot-smoking artist, and Grace (Jane Fonda), an appearances-obsessed businesswoman. The two are connected by their husbands, Sol (Sam Waterston) and Robert (Martin Sheen), long-time partners in a law firm about to retire. Things fall apart in the first episode, however, when Sol and Robert reveal that they both want a divorce, because they have been in love with each other for decades, and want to finally be together in their golden years. In the fallout, Grace and Frankie end up living together in their jointly-owned beach house, struggling to cope with the situation and with each other. It may sound like a simple odd-couple set up, but it’s so much more than that… and it’s one of the only sitcoms that puts women in their 70s in the spotlight.
The Original Golden Girls
Of course, it’s not the first sitcom to focus on older women. Golden Girls takes that crown, having put the blue rinse brigade front and center since the ’80s. Golden Girls, like Grace and Frankie, is about women in their retirement years, living together without husbands (three are widowed, one divorced). There’s ditzy Rose (Betty White), man-eater Blanche (Rue McClanahan), stubborn Dorothy (Beatrice Arthur) and her mother Sophia (Estelle Getty). Despite being ‘older’, these women were not defined by being wives or mothers, but by their personalities, jobs, and adventures together.
Golden Girls was groundbreaking, and not just because it treated the women as individuals, not as wives and mothers only. The series dealt with queer topics, coming out, immigration, health care, homelessness, HIV, assisted suicide, and other controversial and weighty topics, but always with care and humor. Golden Girls also showed older women as sexual beings, sending them out on dates, talking about sex and aging, and never treating them like they were past their prime. Critically acclaimed, hugely successful, and one of the best shows of the ’80s and ’90s, Golden Girls laid the groundwork for Grace and Frankie thirty years ago.
Grace & Frankie Would Fit Right In
Although Grace and Frankie are actually significantly older than Rose, Dorothy and Blanche (who were only in their 50s and 60s), they would fit right in with the Golden Girls. In many ways, big and small, Grace and Frankie is an updated version of the original show, with more style, more sex, and more swearing.
Both shows were created by talented and experienced TV producers, and it shows. Susan Harris wrote and produced on Soap before creating Golden Girls, while Grace and Frankie has Marta Kaufman (who brought us Friends) at the helm. Both shows also star well-known actresses (Betty White, Jane Fonda) who don’t necessarily fit preconceived notions of how women ‘of a certain age’ should look or act. Brought together by circumstance, they live near the beach and challenge each other with their different personalities. Queer characters and new concepts of ‘family’ are also at the heart of both shows; in Golden Girls, the four women become ‘family’ (even though only two are actually related), and Grace and Frankie expands on that concept, blending their biological (and adoptive) families into something new. Grace and Frankie have the same kind of style, flexibility, and unwillingness to consider their lives over that the original ‘Golden’ four do, and while they do their fair share of bickering, they have the same kind of love and devotion for each other that held the original show together.
How Netflix Does It Better
Although these two shows have more similarities than you can shake a stick at, Grace and Frankie is more than just a modern re-telling of Golden Girls. It’s an improvement on the original, and does some things that Golden Girls never considered.
Several differences come from how much the world has changed in thirty years, and how much more is considered appropriate for television. As well as having boyfriends and relationships, Grace and Frankie covers sixty-plus sex lives in an incredible amount of detail. The show refuses to shy away from topics like vibrators and arthritis and vaginal dryness – the kind of conversations that make many cringe. This, of course, is a key part of the show. Bluntly (and hilariously) talking about their sex lives, these two women stride through their world, refusing to pretend that they don’t need to have good sex anymore. While the Golden Girls had their fair share of sexcapades, this goes into a whole new level of detail, and watching the other characters react to that is one of the best parts of the show.
Grace and Frankie also focuses much more on the entire convoluted family dynamic of the ex-husbands and children than Golden Girls did. With only two central women, instead of four, there is space in the show to explore these other stories in more detail, and it is done wonderfully. Coyote’s (Ethan Embry) recovery, Mallory’s (Brooklyn Decker) marital problems, and Sol and Robert’s navigation of being out after decades in the closet are all phenomenal stories that add depth to the series and make it so much more than just a silly show about older women.
It is this added depth that really makes Grace and Frankie stand out from Golden Girls – it’s a series that straddles the line between sitcom and drama. Unlike Golden Girls, there is no laugh track. There are as many poignant moments as funny ones (often at the same time), and there is a more complex and detailed world for Grace and Frankie to occupy. In addition, the relationship between Sol and Robert provides something that is missing on Golden Girls – an example of a happy, loving, marriage that continues into the couple’s retirement years. It’s the perfect balance to the complicated, sometimes unhappy, single lives of the leading ladies.
More Silver Sitcoms On The Horizon?
Although Grace and Frankie may not be Netflix’s best-known original series, it’s definitely finding success in its own corner of the TV-verse, and this may well mean more sitcoms starring older women in the future. As viewership changes and the way that audiences access shows shifts from air-times and prime slots to streaming and pre-recorded series, audiences themselves start to change. Older viewers are no longer only considered for daytime TV, but for bigger, streamable shows that they can watch whenever they like. And older viewers want to see more than teenagers and characters who are married with children. Like all of us, the retired viewers want to see themselves represented on screen. Even younger women want to see shows that put retired characters front and center – to remind us that life doesn’t end after children grow up or retirement comes.
Netflix is becoming known for creating content that steps outside the norm, and Grace and Frankie does exactly that. In a society where youth and beauty are held up as the ideal, and TV shows tend to focus on women as either twenty-something singletons, wives and mothers in their 30s and 40s, or businesswomen (also in their 30s and 40s), a series about women in their 70s is groundbreaking. A series about women in their 70s who are still confident, beautiful, dating, working, and creating is something that there needs to be more of, and the success of Grace and Frankie might just mean that more are on the way.