For a while there, I was beginning to feel sorry for Jane Fonda.
After a self-imposed 15-year exile from acting, the two-time Oscar winner returned in 2005 with “Monster-in-Law,” “Georgia Rule” and “All Together,” film work slightly less strenuous than “Jane Fonda’s Easy Going Workout.”
Thank goodness the 77-year-old actress found the light — the TV light.
First, she stole every scene in HBO’s “The Newsroom,” channeling her ex-husband Ted Turner as a cable news tyrant. Now, she’s one-half of “Grace and Frankie,” a bored socialite drifting through life with a steady stream of martinis and excuses to avoid her family and friends.
Then the stiletto drops.
Grace discovers that her longtime husband (Martin Sheen) has been practicing more than law with his partner (Sam Waterston) and that the two men are prepared to leave their wives, a devastating blow to Grace and her hippie-dippie counterpart Frankie (Lily Tomlin).
What results is yet the latest rendition of “The Odd Couple,” with Tomlin, 75, annoying her forced friend with incense, psychic predictions and china-shattering meditations, while Grace wallows in more self-pity than Debbie Downer.
“I refuse to be irrelevant!” Grace bellows after the indignity of not being served cigarettes at a grocery store ahead of a comely young woman.
Tomlin isn’t any more subtle. Her peyote-tea dance around a beach fire feels like an outtake from “Easy Rider” and the fact that she named her son Coyote should have been serious grounds for an intervention from child protection services.
But if the 13-episode series lays it on a bit thick, so be it.
How often do we get to examine the repercussions of separation, and the need to redefine oneself at a certain age? Amazon did so — and set the bar incredibly high — with its 2014 series “Transparent,” in which a professor (Jeffrey Tambor) changes his gender at retirement age. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for a more mature version of “Kate & Allie.”
Tomlin has rarely had a good film role since Fonda lifted her up in “9 to 5.” She performs some fine physical bits, including a scene in which she tries to forget her worries with a concoction of Jameson whiskey and ice cream. She’s also good at making goo-goo eyes at her ex even as she spits out her contempt.
But this is really Fonda’s comeback. Looking svelte enough to squeeze back into that Barbarella outfit, the actress shows she’s also maintained the brittle, emotionally detached edge that made her a star in “Klute” and “On Golden Pond.”
When her husband insists the split was just an attempt to find happiness for both of them, she gives him her patented withering glance and turns away.
“I was happy enough,” she says. “It’d be easier if you had died.”
Not all of the dialogue is this punchy. Creators Marta Kauffman (“Friends”) and Howard J. Morris (“According to Jim”) too often fall back on standard sitcom ways, most notably in an upcoming episode in which Grace may be facing hip surgery and realizes (sob, sob) that Frankie is her only friend.
Too much bonding, too soon. These two opposites require a lot more counseling — and perhaps peyote — before we’ll buy them as bosom buddies.
Kauffman and Morris have a dynamite cast that is more than ready to break barriers and take on challenging work. Give the actors a chance — or we may be forced to reckon with “Monster-In-Law II.”