Netflix’s programming landscape has changed a great deal in the year between Grace and Frankie’s first and second seasons. It became one of Netflix’s first original comedies when it premiered in May 2015, and even that designation depends on how you characterize shows like Orange Is the New Black and BoJack Horseman. (You can make the argument its only true comedic predecessor was Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a show that premiered two months earlier.) That timing meant there was considerable pressure on Grace and Frankie to appeal to a wide range of viewers. When it ended up a broad, low-stakes show about a peculiar group of old people, it was easy to understand the mild critical disappointment that followed.
Fast forward a year, and Netflix is stuffed with original comedies that are smarter (Master of None), dumber (Fuller House), weirder (Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, W/ Bob and David) and younger (all of them). What does that mean for Grace and Frankie? It doesn’t have to bear the weight of a billion-dollar comedy program on its own. It’s free to be as silly, sweet, and relaxing as it can manage, and it’s still finding its way to an audience just as it makes a classic second-season leap.
When the season starts, the great shock of Robert and Sol’s long-term secret relationship has been replaced by a host of other concerns: Robert’s health, Sol’s one-off relapse into heterosexuality, Brianna and Frankie’s blooming business relationship, and Grace and Frankie’s romantic futures. The distance from the show’s inciting incident makes it easier for the show’s four core characters — Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin as Grace and Frankie, and Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston as Robert and Sol — to explore a single complicated question: what does it mean to be satisfied? For Grace, it means feeling valued and finding the passion she never had with Robert; for Frankie, it means being loved and taken seriously. Robert and Sol try to navigate the world as out gay men and end up disoriented by other people’s openness after hiding in the closet for so long.
The show's only real villain is time
The show’s only real villain is time. Mortality looms over every character’s decisions like a shadow. When they try to make meaningful changes to their lives, there are four unspoken words at the end of every sentence: "before it’s too late." Robert’s heart attack blinks like a beacon through the season’s first half, giving him and Sol a sense of urgency. And when the studly Sam Elliott enters the picture as Grace’s great love that never was, he does so with baggage: a wife sick with advanced Alzheimer’s who demands a great deal of his time and attention. It’s an unsettling reminder that everyone on the show is racing against the clock. (Of course, it gets played for laughs too: when Frankie is struggling to pass her driving test, it has less to do with failing memory than her pot habit.)
When the show’s at its most serious, it plays like a hybrid of Transparent — people figuring out what it means to be queer after keeping a secret within themselves for so long — and Brett Haley’s masterful 2015 movie I’ll See You in My Dreams, a stunning Blythe Danner-led meditation on love and age. Because Grace and Frankie doesn’t take itself that seriously, there are also healthy dashes of Nancy Meyers’ aspirational dramedies and The Golden Girls. (Fonda plays Grace like she’s jamming Dorothy’s brain into Blanche’s body.) The show is fundamentally relaxing, even when it’s at its most tense. It’s devoid of malice. All of these people love each other, and they’re trying to do right by each other while still carving out space for their own happiness.
Extremely chill vibes
So who is this show for? It was renewed (somewhat infamously) for a second season after Miley Cyrus tweeted about loving the first; we can start there. Twitter doesn’t always provide an accurate cross-section of the public, but searching for the show suggests its audience is composed of drag queens, YouTube comedians, and people who work in the media; almost all of its devotees are women and gay men. But I’m less interested in demographics than the vibe, which is uniformly positive and extremely chill. The Grace and Frankie Twittersphere might be one of the few remaining relaxing places on the entire internet. Watching the show feels like gaining entry to a club full of people who dream of days spent sipping red wine in beach houses and cavorting with hunky yam farmers. And because it’s just one show among dozens and dozens now, that club can stay the perfect size.