Tuesday, November 24, 2015
November 24, 2015: Cultural Thanks-givings: Grace and Frankie
[One of the best parts of being an AmericanStudier in 2015 is the abundance of impressive cultural works with which we’re surrounded. So for this year’s Thanksgiving series, I wanted to give thanks for five great works and artists about which I haven’t had the chance to write in this space. Share your own cultural thanks in comments, please!]
On two ways the Netflix sitcom pushes our cultural boundaries, and one way it happily does not.
The Netflix original sitcom Grace and Frankie (2015) features one of the more distinctive and yet appropriately 2015 premises I’ve seen: two lifelong male friends and law partners come out to their wives as gay, in love with each other, and leaving their wives for each other and a planned gay marriage. The premise alone would make the show one of the more groundbreaking on our cultural landscape, but the fact that the two men are played by two of our most prominent and respected actors, Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston, makes this nuanced, complex, warm, and so so thoroughly human portrayal of a same-sex relationship even more striking. It seems to me that a greal deal more has been written about Transparent and Jeffrey Tambor’s portrayal of that show’s transgender protagonist than about Sheen and Waterston in Grace and Frankie—and without taking anything away from Tambor’s equally nuanced and impressive performance, I would argue that seeing Sheen and Waterston in these roles represents an equally significant step forward in our cultural representations of the spectrums of sexuality, sexual preference, and identity in America.
What’s particularly interesting about Grace and Frankie, moreover, is that Sheen and Waterston’s characters and storyline represents only half of the show’s primary focuses—and the other half, focused on the responses and next steps and identities and perspectives of their former wives Grace and Frankie, is in its own ways just as ground-breaking. Played to comic, tragic, human perfection by legendary actresses Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, these two characters represent to my mind two of the most in-depth and multi-layered portrayals of older women in television history. That there has been some behind the scenes controversy about the paychecks of Fonda and Tomlin in comparison to those of Sheen and Waterston, while of course frustrating and tied to broader current issues and arguments, also seems to add one more pitch-perfect layer to the ways in which the show asks us to think about the experiences, lives, and worlds of older women in a society that tends (as this scene highlights with particular clarity) not to include them in our cultural landscape much at all. In a year when the single leading candidate for the presidency (I refuse to consider Donald Trump for that title) is herself a woman over 65, Grace and Frankie engages with our current moment in this important way as well.
At the time that it’s four main characters and their storylines are thus so groundbreaking, however, I would argue (to parallel things I said about Longmire in yesterday’s post) that in its use of the conventions and traditions of the sitcom form Grace and Frankie feels very comfortably familiar. That might be one reason why Transparent, which blends genres much more into something like a dramedy, has received more critical attention and popular buzz (of course the parallels to the Caitlyn Jenner story are another such reason). Yet just because Grace and Frankie stays more within those familiar sitcom lines (featuring everything from physical comedy and wacky misunderstandings to recurring catchphrases and jokes) doesn’t make it less stylistically successful—indeed, I might argue that using such familiar forms yet making them feel fresh and funny is itself a significant aesthetic success, and one that Grace and Frankie most definitely achieved for this viewer. Moreover, there’s a reason why the sitcom is one of television’s oldest and most lasting forms—it taps into some of our most enduring audience desires, our needs for laughter and comfort that not only continue into our present moment, but have an even more necessary place alongside the antiheroes and dark worlds that constitute so much of the best of current television. Just one more reason why I’m thankful for Grace and Frankie.
Next cultural thanks-giving tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Cultural thanks-givings you’d share?