Grace and Frankie: What’s So Funny?

“’He is making a joke, no,’ Will said.
‘But he likes to think he is making a joke, yes.”
– John Flanagan, The Emperor of Nihon-JaGrace and Frankie

We’re think laughing at someone’s pain is nothing more than petty cruelty, and we think most people agree.

Granted, our taste in comedy doesn’t jive with modern trends. Today’s humor leans towards the X-rated, which plenty of people like but which we avoid, so in that sense, we know our idea of “funny” is a little old fashioned. But we still think people in general don’t appreciate jokes about tragedy. Terminal illness is and should be off-limits as comedy material. Ditto for death or violent assault. And for that matter, ditto for heartbreaking situations that leave people devastated and crushed.

So we were surprised to hear about Netflix new series Grace and Frankie, a comedy focusing on two 70-something women whose husbands, in the first episode, take them to dinner to announce they’re both leaving them, for
each other.

Yeah, that’s the punch line. Get it?
Neither did we.

We watched Episode One with some hopes. After all, the show features Jane Fonda and Lilly Tomlin, and remember how funny they were 35 years ago in 9 to 5 ? Maybe that alone would make it worthwhile. And the male stars, Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston, are no slouches either, as fans of The West Wing  and Law and Order  will confirm. So with a cast like that, we thought maybe the material would be elevated and the laughs would come.

But they didn’t, at least not from us. We made it through the first episode and have no plans of watching further, so we admit our take on this is from a very limited view. But because we work daily with couples impacted by homosexuality (and I, Renee, spend lots of time with wives who’ve gotten the same announcement these ladies did) we were interested in what this show might have to say, and very disappointed both in its message and its method. And, since both the series and the subject matter are currently hot topics, we thought we’d take some time today to co-write a post, and throw our two cents in.

Sympathy for the Devils
Comedies about wives abandoned by husbands can work, as hits like The First Wives Club and 9 to 5 prove. But generally they work because the adulterous husbands are viewed as jerks or buffoons, so we the audience aren’t asked to sympathize with a guy who selfishly discards his commitment, and the woman he committed to.

Not so in Grace and Frankie. Waterston and Sheen are portrayed, at least in Episode One, as earnest men who’ve had to keep their romance secret because of societal taboos but now, with the advent of same-sex marriage, they’re free to unite. The fact they’ve deceived their wives and invested in adultery for years is glossed over; apparently, “for better or worse” doesn’t include a realization that your sexual orientation is inconvenient to your happiness.

So hey, these boys don’t want to hurt anyone; they’re sensitive to their wives’ feelings, but just not enough to stay with them. So when Waterston, considering the misery their decision is putting their spouses through, asks Sheen, “Don’t you feel guilty?” the response is classic modern narcissism: “No, I’m tired of feeling guilty for who I am.”

At which point I (Joe) yelled at the tv, “Hey, nobody’s asking you to be anyone else! But being yourself doesn’t have to mean bailing on the woman who gave you her life.”

Which nobody heard and, these days, nobody would heed. Because, after all, if you’re gay and married to a woman, (warning: sarcasm ahead) what choice do you have but to leave her despite any vows you took, any number of decades she’s invested in you, any children you’ve raised or are raising, or any destructive havoc it will wreak on her?

Somehow, it seems to us, husbands leaving their wives for other men are given a pass their heterosexual counterparts are denied. When a straight man dumps his wife for a younger model, we boo. When a gay man accepts his sexuality and “courageously” leaves his family, we cheer. And while the wife may grieve, she’s also expected to eventually accept his choice as inevitable, healthy, and noble. As Sheen reassures Waterston in a future episode, “They’ll be fine; we’ll be fine.”

That’s the narrative they’d have us believe. From what we’ve seen, though, it sure doesn’t work out that way.

And that’s where we parted company with the show’s philosophy. Because according to Grace and Frankie, these guys are unsatisfied in their marriages, deeply satisfied with each other, and thereby entitled. There are no villains here, only victims, and we’re asked to sympathize equally with the abandoned and
the abandoners.

Quibbles and Bits
There are other points here and there we’d quibble about, too.

First, the dialogue was surprisingly unfunny, as were the performers. I (Joe) think Lilly Tomlin’s a comedy genius, so even though I knew I’d disagree morally with the show, I fully expected to get a few belly laughs from her alone. Not so. She and Fonda are stuck with a script calling for them to take dope, vomit, spout obscenities, and wander about like dolts. The spectacle of older women both talking and behaving badly is getting awfully cliché, and it really falls flat here.

Second, if this series is trying to enlighten the public on how a woman survives a husband’s rejection, it fails, because the situation it portrays is far from the norm. After all, these ladies are soon-to-be ex-wives of wealthy, accomplished men. They won’t have to worry about developing new job skills, pounding the pavement, borrowing from relatives, or fretting over unpaid debts. So at least in the practical sense, they’ll have the luxury of going to their beach house, processing, and self-actualizing for as long as they need.  (In fairness, we’ve only seen Episode One, so other financial or practical conflicts may come up in future episodes.)

Most women in these cases aren’t that fortunate. Breakups usually add financial and practical burdens to indescribable heartache, leaving the wife not only asking herself “What now?” but also “And how, now?”

But our primary complaint about Grace and Frankie is not its pro-gay theme, lack or humor, or unrealistic portrayal of divorce. Its endorsement of unbridled self-centeredness is what gets our goad.

Because in the end, the search for fulfillment is likely to become a taskmaster which can never be satisfied. Breaking up a union which was less than perfect (in other words, like all unions) because someone is more attractive to you, more compatible, or because you’re more naturally aroused by one sex than the other, seems both self-absorbed and self-defeating. We seriously doubt that, on their death beds, the average women and men regret the sacrifices they made for the sake of the commitments they made.

We can only guess the level of regret so many feel over the sacrifices they refused to make, and the commitments they broke.

Perhaps, then, Grace and Frankie’s  greatest lie is that you’ll be happier saying “yes” to your passions and “no” to your vows and ideals. In the long run, a more selfless view of life might also be, paradoxically, the most self-serving path to take, one paved with solid trust, unbroken fidelity, peace of mind, and immeasurable returns on the day to day investments into the marriage over the years.

So we’ll skip the rest of the series.  We got the message.  And it’s not for us. -R & J


  1. Noelle DePaula says:

    The fact that you would wonder if it is ok

  2. Hi MT,
    Yes, absolutely ok to share your opinion, even if it differs from mine. :) I like to have healthy discussion!

    I’m actually in agreement with some of what you shared; the things a wife goes through were validated in many ways through this series, and it’s helpful to feel like someone out there actually gets it. I suppose where I part company is when the message being sent is that this is different from “regular adultery”, i.e., it wasn’t with another woman so you shouldn’t consider it a betrayal. I have heard from women who have had unfair expectations put on them and their families, insisting that they celebrate his coming out, and not feel betrayed. After all, he’s being true to himself, you should be happy. That just sets up unhealthy emotional dissonance. In a way, I this show it trying to do both–empathize with the women, and give the guys a free pass.

    Of course, not everybody sends out that message – I’ve just heard it too many times for it not to send up a red flag!

    Thanks for taking the time to comment! Blessings! -R

  3. I did not find it offensive at all. I watched every episode. My husband left me for his sexual sin and I’ve had to start over. I found this show actually VALIDATE the different emotions and responses that women have. I felt less alone knowing others would see the REALITY of this. It does happen and this show depicts it quite well. Just my opinion– I hope it is OK to share it even if it differs from yours.

  4. Noelle DePaula says:

    Great observation!
    I’m afraid all is permitted on the Gay Left.
    It’s straight men who are clueless, selfish and insensitive!
    The choices made by these errant husbands are deemed “courageous ” because they’re gay.
    Love the chemistry between Fonda and Tomlin, but I can never quite get past the milking of a tragedy for laughs.

  5. Thanks for your comment. I agree. It’s interesting that Jane Fonda and Lilly Tomlin, two icons of the feminist movement, famously intolerant of men’s sexist behavior when it’s heterosexual, give sexist behavior a pass if it’s done by homosexual partners.

  6. Cynthia says:

    I agree with you about the show, it is a show about selfish men who only think about themselves and used their wives to meet their own needs then discard them like trash. I was so disgusted by this show I could not watch the entire first show.

  7. Noelle,
    I agree that the writing probably is unintentional in showing the selfishness and insensitivity to the pain the wives are going through. There seems to be an entitled attitude and expectancy that everyone should accept their decision wholeheartedly. After all, I the Martin Sheen character says he’s tired of not being able to be who is really is. But who he really is (or was) during a 40 year marriage (and concurrent 20 year affair) was someone who misrepresented himself to his wife. I’m not feeling the “courage” in that, but I am feeling the narcissism. Thanks, Noelle!

  8. Noelle DePaula says:

    As an actress and great admirer of Lily Tomlin in particular, and fan of Fonda, Waterston and Sheen as well, I was really excited to find this show.
    I have now watched 4 episodes, and I have to say I am delighted with the performances of Lily and Jane, but made utterly uncomfortable and sad by the cavalier disregard shown by the departing husbands. Sheen is positively cold in his lack of concern for Jane, and Waterston acts as if he accidentally stumbled into his gay relationship and can’t be held responsible for anything his wife is now suffering. He actually goes to comfort her during an earthquake, they become closer, and rather than wake up and stay with her he takes off for his “boyfriend “, leaving her sadder than before.
    I think the writing is actually good- it shows the selfish world we have created as it is.
    Probably unintentionally good.
    Just sad.


  9. Wow! Great article! I am one of those discarded women by a gay man and it is not a place anyone would want to be in. Everyone, including the children, suffer in this scenario. I will have to watch the first show but I am sure I will feel the same way you both do. Thanks for speaking the truth!

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