Amazing Grace, et al


I noticed that I’d announced on Facebook eight years ago today that we’d finally ditched cable TV. I thought it had been closer to 10 years, but whatever. It’s funny to read between the lines and see some hesitancy, uncertainty about taking this big step. I’m not sure what I was thinking (and I was driving this particular boat), except that medical bills had been piling up and I was probably, primarily, looking to cut costs.

But I also knew what I knew. I was the only one who dipped into television, and that was maybe an hour a week when there wasn’t a sporting event on. I can’t remember our bill at the time, probably around $100, probably would be much higher now.

The era of uncertainty has passed, obviously. If I stay in a hotel room, I’ll turn on the TV for maybe three minutes, if I do. It’s always the same.

It’s not quality. There’s too much quality, in fact. I can’t watch all the good stuff, or even come close.

But first, that’s scripted television (of which there are currently around 500 weekly series). The reality stuff, the talk shows and the dating shows and the dancing shows, and particularly the news—that’s where it gets depressing. As I’ve said a million times, you probably won’t notice it unless you back away for a period of time. It begins to look bizarre.

Streaming had become my preference anyway, by the time I cut the cord. That’s really the divide, the break between the past and what will be and already pretty much is—either pick your entertainment, the way you might choose a movie or a loaf of bread, or let someone else make those decisions and be a passive observer of whatever comes across your screen.

And that, my friends, is the problem with America. I have no solutions.

I just wanted to mention Grace & Frankie, the fifth season of which has just dropped today on Netflix. It’s not my favorite, but it’s entertaining and oh-so ephemeral. In a perfect world, my wife and I would watch an episode or two for a few weeks until we saw the entire run of 10 or 12. After a couple of seasons, though, she was less interested and had less time, and at first I just watched ahead and tried to hide it from her, watching again when she had the time. Now I don’t really try to hide it. She saw one episode from last season. She’ll never catch up, or not any time soon.

Frankie and Grace (Tomlin and Fonda, left to right)

Frankie and Grace (Tomlin and Fonda, left to right)

And no reason to, really. If you don’t know the show, it has an impressive pedigree. It was co-created by Marta Kauffman, who also co-created Friends. It is co-acted by Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, as well as Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston. It had some class out of the gate.

I thought the idea was stupid; I still do. Two 70-year-old law partners admit to their wives—at dinner, at a restaurant—that they’ve been having an affair for years, that they’re in love, that they’re gay (well), and that they intend to marry each other. Once they work out those pesky we’re-married-already details.

Waterston and Sheen

Waterston and Sheen

It’s not offensive, to me. People get divorced. People have affairs. Lives change, people change.

I just never bought the premise, that these two men of a very certain age would wait until retirement to come out of their closets, in the 21st century. In 1990, maybe. Not in 2015.

Then again, maybe it’s happened more than I know. At any rate, premises are often kind of dumb, and in fact these kinds of shows were staples when I was a kid (when astronauts found genies in bottles and advertising executives married witches). I can let that go.

And once I do, then it’s obviously just a modern take on The Odd Couple. Can a couple of divorced men share an apartment and not kill each other? Can a couple of divorced women, in their 70s and with completely opposite world views and attitudes, get their Felix and Oscar going?

There are certainly things to be offended by, if you’re that kind of person. You might be offended that these two men are in love and (eventually) married. You might be offended at the language (not particularly profane, but not shying away). There’s a lot of sex talk, if not a lot of sex. Drugs are treated casually and comically, even as one of the supporting characters is a recovering addict trying to put his life back together (and doing it well, and comically, and not unrealistically).

And then there’s just the fact that these people are all wildly affluent. Money comes up but only in rich-people ways, and I don’t have a problem with that. I like movies about people who travel in space, too. I can suspend my disbelief, or whatever needs suspending.

The actors are all playing slightly younger characters, but only slightly (the characters now all appear to be around 75; the actors hover closer to 80, with Fonda the eldest at 81). The four main actors are all aging A-listers, so good for them to have work to do.

The kids are always the last to know.

The kids are always the last to know.

The younger actors are spectacular, the four offspring of these two marriages, two men and two women, each dealing with their parents’ strange lifestyle changes as well as their own personal issues, and they’re just excellent.

It’s really Fonda and Tomlin, though. Much comedy is drawn from Grace’s (Fonda) obvious vanity about her looks, along with a pretty realistic depiction of how much work that takes at her age.

And Tomlin has a variety of age-related problems, including some cognitive problems and hearing loss, and these are also treated comically (and why not). Frankie is a Jewish polytheist with artistic sensibilities and a stoner ethic, and she’s really the backbone of the show if there is one.

The two women never got along when they were just wives of partners, but forced into living in their communal (both families bought it together) beach house they (wait for it) find more in common than they thought. Grace loosens up. Frankie gets a tiny bit more responsible. They take care of each other.

They take care of each other. I love the clever writing, the superb acting, the familiar faces popping up in guest roles, now decades older (hey, Marsha Mason! Hi!), but that’s the appeal, for me. The show feels political (as does everything, now) but rarely mentions politics; it’s a show about culture, our culture, and specifically about aging in this era.

You either end up alone, or you learn to take care of someone. And hopefully they take care of you, and I honestly don’t know why else we’re here. I think the premise maybe isn’t so dumb.

Chuck SigarsComment