The penultimate season of Netflix’s long-running sitcom recycles dynamics and arcs, but that doesn’t stop it from being a joy to watch.
For the past five years, the cast of Grace and Frankie has become a comforting presence to Netflix subscribers. (This is fitting given that its showrunner, Marta Kauffman, is also the showrunner for Friends.) But while one of the hardest parts about friendships is having to say goodbye, the series’s sixth season is good preparation for its seventh and final one, setting up some new character arcs while being a fun ride in its own right.
Of course, one of the advantages of being on a streaming service is that since syndication isn’t the goal, characters can grow in ways they can’t on network TV. That said, Grace and Frankie has a tendency to stick to the status quo: lovers rarely stick around for more than a season; friends or relatives outside the main cast don’t make second appearances; and anytime Grace or Frankie move out of the beach house, they find a way to come back. Thankfully, the show seems ready to make more permanent changes this time.
The biggest change is that Grace (Jane Fonda) is now married to mega-rich businessman Nick (Peter Gallagher). She’s since moved out of the beach house, and unlike when Frankie (Lily Tomlin) moved to Santa Fe or when the pair went to an assisted living community, this sticks throughout the entire season. The other big change is Grace and Frankie working on their latest product: a hydraulic toilet called the “Rise Up,” which lifts to helps seniors get up with minimal effort.
Outside the eponymous pair, the rest of the cast is also preparing for major shifts. Sol (Sam Waterston) and Robert (Martin Sheen), for one, are fighting due to money issues and a health scare for Sol. Meanwhile, Brianna (June Diane Raphael) is feeling friction with her partner, Barry (Peter Cambor), who’s agreed to donate sperm to his lesbian friends. Add in the facts that Bud (Baron Vaughn) is dealing with married life, Coyote (Ethan Embry) is dating Bud’s ex, and Mallory (Brooklyn Decker) is becoming more involved in Say Grace, and suffice it to say that a lot’s going on here.
It’s no wonder fans of Netflix shows like to binge previous seasons in preparation for new episodes. But while this can help viewers get up to date, rewatching all the episodes makes it obvious that Grace and Frankie has a tendency to recycle plots; this is most evident in the “Rise Up” plotline. The focus on the duo trying to get funding and market research is reminiscent of the third season where they try to get Vybrant off the ground, as well as the first season, in which Frankie tries to get Say Grace to buy her lube.
The side cast’s plots are also echoes of previous seasons. Sol, for one, has health issues just like Robert did, and Barry’s frustration at Brianna’s emotional distance remains a defining trait of their relationship. Another example includes Joan Margaret (Millicent Martin) who, having become a live-in assistant in season 5, plays like a retread of Sheree (Lisa Kudrow) in season 4. There are some new ideas and the season finale sets up a huge twist for the final season, but the series is too content with treading familiar ground.
It’s clear that the show creators have found their groove in previous seasons, and they’re staying on course with aplomb.
That isn’t to say the repetition in and of itself is a bad thing, though. Familiarity is one of the aspects of sitcoms that people enjoy the most, and there’s a reason why the writers keep the characters in similar situations. Simply put, it works. The jokes are well written, the emotional moments are endearing, and the pacing distracts from the recycled dynamics. It’s clear that the show creators have found their groove in previous seasons, and they’re staying on course with aplomb.
Plot aside, the real appeal of Grace and Frankie are the characters, and they’re still the same lovable, dysfunctional bunch viewers have grown to love over since 2015. The cast is top-notch, and it’s obvious they all still have the same level of passion for the characters and the show that they had in the first episode. Commendably, Fonda and Tomlin have managed to keep the core of their characters intact without flattening them. It would have been easy to turn the all-business Grace and the hippy-dippy Frankie into caricatures over six seasons, but they give their characters depth and nuance to keep them from self-parody.
Just as big of a draw as Fonda and Tomlin is the supporting cast. Peripheral characters such as the Bergsteins and the Hansons have a loving sort of antagonism towards each other that can only be found in families, and the cast has an electric chemistry that bolsters that dynamic. Especially of note is Raphael’s work as Brianna, whose deadpan delivery makes her the funniest character in the show.
Her relationship woes with Barry also give her a vulnerability not previously seen, and Raphael’s portrayal makes a normally unbearable person oddly charming. Waterston is also a treat as the neurotic Sol. It would have been easy for his needling and clingy personality to become annoying, but his performance is so charming it’s impossible not to fall in love with him. By the end of the seventh season, Grace and Frankie will be Netflix’s longest-running series with 94 episodes. It’s not hard to see why: it continues to deliver the same level of humor and heart every season, and this one is no exception. While I’m not excited for the show to reach its final conclusion, I am excited to see how it gets there.
Season 6 of Grace and Frankie hits Netflix this Wednesday, January 15.