“The show isn’t about politics, and I don’t want it to be topical,” says Grace and Frankie co-creator Marta Kauffman about her Jane Fonda- and Lily Tomlin-starring series that launches its third season March 24 on Netflix. “Once you make it topical it gets very, very difficult to have it continue to air at all times and not feel dated,” the Friends executive producer adds. “I’m in the business of entertaining people.”
With the success of Friends during its nearly decade-long run on NBC and now the wide appeal of Grace And Frankie — in production on Season 4 right now — Kauffman has proven very good at entertaining people.
The end of Season 2 last year saw Fonda’s more straight-laced Grace and Tomlin’s Emmy-nominated, free-spirited Frankie take the plunge and decide to meld the former’s business pedigree with the latter’s creativity and start making vibrators for older women. To that end, the 13-episode third season of the series that co-stars Sam Waterston and Martin Sheen is very much a deliberate evolution in motion, the EP notes.
In that vein, Kauffman chatted with me about how the Skydance Television-produced show co-created by Howard J. Morris and from her Okay Goodnight company has changed since its debut on May 8, 2015, and where its going in Season 3 and Season 4. The unabashed Hillary Clinton supporter also got into why overt politics are not her bag for Grace and Frankie, bucking a Hollywood trend, and the state of upcoming projects with Natalie Portman and others. Additionally, Kauffman revealed what it will take to get Dolly Parton on Grace and Frankie and why it won’t be a 9 to 5 reunion.
DEADLINE: With the debut of Season 3 of Grace and Frankie on March 24, is this still the show you envisioned when you and Howard took it to Netflix a few years ago?
KAUFFMAN: It is, although I have to admit that certain things had to change because we had a very strong engine for the first two seasons in terms of dealing with the divorce and your husbands are gay. By the time you get to the third season, it’s time to now deal with them living their lives and how do you live your life in the aftermath of all this, and included in that is the idea of these women becoming self-determined women in their late 70s.
DEADLINE: Stepping off the Season 2 ender where Jane and Llly’s characters decided to truly go into business themselves with their sex toys for older women, where does that idea of self-determination take us in the new season?
KAUFFMAN: Where it takes us in Season 3 is the truth of aging in the world and how the world looks at you, including in business. How do you deal with the contemporary world when you aren’t used to things like disruptors and tech companies and starting business and getting a loan at this age.
DEADLINE: So continuing the evolution that has seen the two of them go from sworn foes to best friends…
KAUFFMAN: Yes, but they are still two very, very different women, even though they’re going off on this together, and they can see how they help each other. We also have some other episodes that deal with a real difference between these two women.
DEADLINE: We all know Reed and the gang at Netflix don’t make viewership numbers public, but it is pretty clear that Grace And Frankie has attracted a wide audience beyond its assumed target market. It’s become, and pardon the obvious, the new Golden Girls in that sense. Why do you think that’s the case?
KAUFFMAN: When we did Friends, we were told we have to have older characters in it so it would appeal to a broader audience. What we said then I think applies now, which is if you tell a universal story, people are going to watch. I also think in the case of this show, they feel good. It’s a positive message, which is that you can start your life over at any time, at any point in your life.
DEADLINE: Speaking of your former Big 4 life, and with the perspective of now working on Grace and Frankie Season 4, what has it been like for you planting your flag in the streaming universe?
KAUFFMAN: You know, it’s really a couple things. The biggest change in the process was not doing a pilot. That was weird at first because you don’t get to learn from your mistakes — you just have to sort of learn as you’re going. But the best thing for me as a writer is the story tells you how long it’s supposed to be. It doesn’t have to be 22 minutes and 13 seconds or whatever it is, with here’s a break here and you have to have a break after this many minutes and a break after this many minutes. The story gets to organically tell you when the scene ends and when the episode ends and when the story ends. It also allows you to not tie everything up perfectly neatly and let things be in two parts and three parts and stuff like that – and I like that, a lot.
DEADLINE: Not that you didn’t certainly make your mark with Friends, but you’ve got Grace and Frankie, and now several new multi-platform irons in the fire. So would you go back to do a Big 4 show at this point in your career?
DEADLINE: Really, why?
KAUFFMAN: Because I really love the freedom of the story organically unfolding. I mean, as a writer, why wouldn’t I just want to chew on that? Now that doesn’t mean that if something were to cross my path that was incredibly delicious that I wouldn’t try it, but it wouldn’t be my first place to go at this point
DEADLINE: Well, with all the guest stars you’ve had on Grace and Frankie so far and Peter Gallagher joining this year, it does seem that a place to go, at least casting-wise, would be to Dolly Parton. Now that the show is solidly established, is there a plan to finally get her on the series like Lily has indicated, and bring the 9 To 5 gang back together?
KAUFFMAN: We have talked about it and hopefully we’ll find a way to do it someday. She’s got a very, very busy schedule, so when we can make it work we’ll try to make it work if it fits in the story. Honestly, I’ve really given this a great deal of thought in terms of Dolly. The truth is, at first I was hesitant because I don’t want it to feel like a 9 To 5 reunion. On the other hand, if we can find a way to do it where it doesn’t feel to us it’s like the reunion of these three people but we have a special way in, then sure. Absolutely.
DEADLINE: In terms of another cameo of sorts, you, like most of Hollywood, were a Hillary Clinton supporter, as was Jane. Are we going to see those politics play a role in Season 3 or perhaps next year’s Season 4?
KAUFFMAN: The show isn’t about politics and I don’t want it to be topical. Once you make it topical it gets very, very difficult to have it continue to air at all times and not feel dated. I’m in the business of entertaining people. Of course, I have a certain ethical approach and my own value system. Hopefully that value system will be intrinsic in the show. But the truth is, we’ve got two characters. One would have been a Hillary supporter and the other one would have been a Trump supporter. We don’t deal with that directly but, for instance, this season we have an episode talking about gun ownership and how the two characters feel about that. So, indirectly in terms of their presence to life, it has I think a certain metaphorical magnifying glass.
DEADLINE: Which feels natural to the balance of comedy and drama that you and Howard have tried to walk since the show started. Do you see it like that?
KAUFFMAN: It is a very fine line to walk, you’re absolutely right. But, I do believe that if a comedy is real and not broad and based in reality, the show then allows you to go to those places because you’re not coming from big pratfalls to then having real moments. We try to keep it as real as possible. It is a very fine line to walk, you’re absolutely right. But I do believe that if a comedy is real and not broad and based in reality, the show allows you to go to those places because you’re not coming from big pratfalls to then having real moments. We really do try to keep it as real as possible.
DEADLINE: Keeping it real for a sec, this is a female co-created, highly popular show with two female leads who are also executive producers – far from an industry that often laments inequality and discrimination but takes few real steps to counter them.
KAUFFMAN: It’s not an inevitable part of the industry, it is a choice that people make. We have an incredibly strong group of women, not the least of which are Jane and Lily. My company is women, a lot of department heads are women, and we have some women on the camera crew. It’s important to me personally that we represent, and I feel like we do a good job of that. We have found some amazing female directors. We’ve also found some amazing male directors, but we have been really trying to get a measure of equality in all departments.
DEADLINE: In that department, and it might sound premature with Season 3 about to launch, but with a couple of episodes already filmed, where is Season 4 headed?
KAUFFMAN: Ha! Well, Season 4 is dealing with the real process of aging in terms of what happens to us. By that I mean, not just in the world but also within our own bodies and how that affects our independence.
DEADLINE: Four seasons in is an accomplishment already unto itself. How long can you see Grace and Frankie going? Did you have a set idea of how many seasons you wanted when you guys started?
KAUFFMAN: I’ve never done that. I’ve never thought about how long the show needs to be, the show will eventually tell us. Truth is I hope it lasts even longer. I mean, I have no real control over that, but yes, I think the show can go on further.
DEADLINE: Where are things with the We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves HBO miniseries you’re doing with Natalie Portman and the stateside adaptation of Israeli TV family drama Shtisel that Okay Goodnight has inked with Amazon?
KAUFFMAN: Don’t forget we also doing a documentary about attorney Gloria Allred called Seeing Gloria.
DEADLINE: And that…
KAUFFMAN: The show at Amazon is about to go to script, and we are working on the draft script for the miniseries at HBO.
DEADLINE: That’s a lot of juggling and running Grace and Frankie too…
KAUFFMAN: This is where I will say it’s great to be a woman because we’re very good at multitasking. I could nurse and cook dinner at the same time. It is juggling. It’s juggling and you’ve got to commit to working on the weekends – I do both.