‘Grace and Frankie’ Is Ending. How Did It Become Netflix’s Longest-Running Show?

September 5, 2019, 9:52 PM UTC

Netflix’s comedy Grace and Frankie is ending after seven seasons—but, before it does, it will become the streaming service’s longest-running series to date.

The sitcom, which premiered in 2015, stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin as two women confronting their own tangled personal dynamics even as they combat ageist stereotypes. It’s earned Emmy nominations and warm reviews throughout five already-released seasons; season six is coming in January, with a 16-episode swan song set to follow.

Despite its acclaim, and the presence of beloved stars also including Sam Waterston and Martin Sheen, Grace and Frankie has largely flown under the radar throughout its time on Netflix, serving for the streamer as something of a comfort-food sitcom akin to network bulwarks Cheers and Friends (albeit minus the notorious $100 million price tag that was affixed to the latter).

That seems unlikely to change in its two forthcoming seasons, which quietly underlines just how impressive a feat Grace and Frankie will have pulled off once the curtain fully closes on its grand total of 94 episodes.

Without a super-sized production budget, genre flair, megastars on loan from Hollywood blockbusters, or even a clearly “binge-able” cliffhanger-heavy model of storytelling, Grace and Frankie outlived every last one of the bigger, buzzier series it premiered around.

For a show about aging gracefully, there’s of course a terrific irony to Grace and Frankie‘s longevity. But its endurance also begs larger questions of Netflix, around its general approach to small-screen storytelling, and relative dearth of homegrown flagships.

The service’s early days, at the very outset of the streaming era, were rife with passion and uncertainty, an unmistakable zeal for greenlighting “event” series—and a then-slightly-less-obvious lack of savvy around how to effectively market them.

Marco Polo, now a remember-that punchline in discussions of the decade’s prestige TV, was the highest-profile swing-and-miss of Netflix’s first few years; the streaming service took a $200 million bath on the historical epic, a Game of Thrones aspirant that opened to dismal reviews and curiously little buzz, given that it was then Netflix’s most expensive production by leaps and bounds. It lasted two seasons, more than some critics predicted.

The Get Down fared even worse, with just one season of the Baz Luhrmann hip-hop origin story getting split into two parts as Netflix struggled to justify how much money they’d sunk into a series that barely moved the needle for viewers. In fact, only one notably high-budgeted show has ever really succeeded for Netflix: The Crown, one of the most expensive shows ever made and among the streamer’s most acclaimed. Its third season premieres this fall; six are planned, for a total of 60 episodes that change over cast members every two seasons. By the time it finishes (provided it does), it will have been host to the boldest storytelling structure Netflix has architected.

House of Cards, an inky political drama and Netflix’s first hit, helped early on to legitimize the streaming service as a Hollywood-disrupting entertainment powerhouse, rather than the mail-order DVD distributor it had been known as. But of course, that’s before House of Cards got lost in the wrong kinds of dramatic morass, collapsing in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against star Kevin Spacey. A sixth and final season that foregrounded co-lead Robin Wright’s first lady was largely seen as an evasive measure, a way to let the rest of the cast and crew write their own ending after Spacey’s shocking downfall.

One popular Internet theory claims that the double-knock Netflix subscribers hear when starting up any of the service’s shows is a reference to the series’s dramatic season two closing shot. Even if the service would dispute that now, Netflix’s identity was and in many ways still is tied to its tale of vicious political animals at war. With 33 Emmy nominations under its belt (not to mention Netflix’s first Emmy win), House of Cards remains the Netflix series most awarded by Emmy voters. No series, either comedy nor drama, has truly since matched its ability to bring Netflix into the awards conversation, though a few have come close.

Orange is the New Black is one, and it may be the series Netflix prefers to stand by from its younger years; the ensemble-led prison dramedy was a watercooler hit in its premiere, becoming Netflix’s most-watched series, and it launched the careers of stars like Taylor Schilling, Uzo Aduba, and Natasha Lyonne (whose own Russian Doll is one of Netflix’s best-received recent entrants). Narratively, the show’s worldview grew darker as it went on, culminating in a powerful and heart-wrenching fourth season; but then the show continued for three additional years, its decline in quality dovetailing with increased apathy from both audiences and Emmy voters. Still, considered one of Netflix’s influential shows, it ended just earlier this year, after seven seasons. It came the closest of any show on the streamer to catching Grace and Frankie, with 91 episodes.

As Netflix hit its stride creatively throughout its first half-decade—with programs like Bloodline, Sense8, Narcos, The OA, 13 Reasons Why, and Marvel Cinematic Universe shows—none (for a variety of reasons, admittedly) have proven long for this world. Out of that lot, 13 Reasons Why will finish with the most episodes, ending a controversial run after four seasons and 39 episodes.

More recent debuts still airing on the platform could end up faring better: ’80s sci-fi hit Stranger Things is as close to a golden goose as Netflix has right now, as its darker third season was well-received by critics and devoured by audiences. The question will be whether Netflix can keep showrunners The Duffer Brothers and the show’s young cast—rapidly aging out of the time-capsule show’s Amblin glow, mind you—interested (and adequately compensated, in the case of its rising stars) for long enough to warrant more than a couple additional seasons. Ditto for GLOW, an acclaimed comedy-drama set in the world of women’s wrestling whose ensemble cast and period setting have brought both solid viewership and critical adulation to Netflix’s library. Could it be the service’s Mad Men? Only time will tell.

Animation, cheaper to make and a stated focus at Netflix moving forward, also have the potential to yield shows with longer legs than Grace and Frankie.

The likeliest culprit would be not Bojack Horseman, which seems to be bringing its anthropomorphic antiheroes’ arcs toward the sense of an ending heading into season six, but Big Mouth, Netflix’s surrealist growing-pains comedy from Nick Kroll and company. It’s aired only two full seasons but been renewed through season six, which will put its episode count well past the big 5-0 mark.

Given Netflix’s multi-year pact with Brutus Pink, composed of the Big Mouth creative team, there’s no reason to suspect Big Mouth won’t go beyond season six. Additionally, ‘70s-set sitcom F is For Family and high-fantasy spoof Disenchantment, which have been steady but small-scale performers in animation for Netflix, have new seasons on the way; if Netflix wants Futurama and King of the Hill-style lifespans from those series, it could easily (and cheaply) allow for that.

Still, Grace and Frankie may hang onto its title as Netflix’s oldest series for the foreseeable future.

It seems nigh-impossible that current prestige titles like Mindhunter, Ozark, The Haunting of Hill House, Sex Education, Stranger Things, and The Crown will last upward of 90 episodes, and the comedy series Netflix could have worked harder to make mainstream hits, from One Day at a Time (living on at Pop TV) to Tuca and Bertie (yanked after one acclaimed season), and American Vandal (only just getting its due critically when canceled after two), have largely died on the vine through no fault of their creators.

Even the more successful comedies, like The Ranch (ending after what will be a total of 80 episodes in 2020) and Fuller House (which will hit 75 in its season four finale), have been somewhat short-changed as Netflix leaned heavily on content from outside its production wing, like NBC hit The Office and the aforementioned Friends.

And with streaming competitors like Disney+, Apple TV Plus, HBO Max, and NBCUniversal’s unnamed service fast closing in, Netflix is facing a content issue of its own creation. Grace and Frankie may be riding off into the sunset, but with it goes one of the few remaining—if ever-undervalued—perennials in Netflix’s garden.

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