The first time in my life I spent a significant chunk of time in front of the television was a period of truancy in junior high school. For reasons that aren’t relevant to the topic at hand I spent about ten days watching daytime drama and have acid-etched memories of Judith Light’s performance on the witness stand on One Life to Live. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, your education as a human is incomplete and you need to get out to Youtube and find it. I consider that performance to be a moment in history, if not world history then at least in my own. That performance inspired my life in the theatre.
But I have witnessed in real time many, many significant moments in actual history because of the time I’ve spent glued to the tube. Televised moments of history I remember:
The announcement of Judy Garland’s death
News of the Stonewall riots
The moon landing
The Carol Burnett Gone With the Wind sketch
Chuckles the Clown
Roots (the original)
Edith Bunker’s 50th birthday
Luke and Laura’s wedding
The final episode of M*A*S*H
The Twin Towers
For better or worse, television has shaped my artistic sensibilities among many other cornerstones of my personal ideology.
This is all a long, pretentious way of saying I know my shit when it comes to television, and in this time of Covid that education continues. I’ve succumbed to cultural pressures and subscribed to Netflix, and in less than a week I’ve devoured nearly everything Ryan Murphy has produced for the streaming service (I have some issues and questions,) and I’ve begun consuming the backlog of meatier episodic offerings. First on the menu has been Grace and Frankie
Jane Fonda’s work as an actor has always been a bit hit or miss for me. Mad respect for the woman and her achievements. But some of her performances can be a bit creaky. That said, she’s doing the best work of her acting career in this series. And Lily Tomlin is simply a god. Matin Sheen does what he can to keep up.
But surprisingly, I’m most deeply impressed with Sam Waterston’s performance. I was addicted to Law & Order, and I’ve studied The Newsroom, (literally diagramming Aaron Sorkin’s structure, characters, and stylized writing,) and now Grace and Frankie. Television doesn’t necessarily promote nuanced, old-school acting, the kind where the actor’s persona takes a backseat to the character’s. In a Fonda performance, you still always see Jane Fonda. Tomlin’s character work is honest and arresting, but there are moments the craft peeks through. Much like Streep, Tomlin sometimes finds a way of letting the audience know she’s performing and that we’re loving it. (And in those moments, I tend to blame the writing and direction. Tomlin is a god.) But Waterston is an actor’s actor, and even his dedication to “the craft” his hidden to all but the most devoted of students.
Law & Order was a fun crime drama that didn’t tax the acting muscles of its cast. Almost all expository writing, you couldn’t even call the series plot driven. It really was twenty years of some of New York’s finest actors standing in front of a camera telling the audience what had happened off camera. Yet Waterston manages to give Jack McCoy some depth and emotional resonance with just a whisper of character information in the script. His devotion to right and wrong permits him to skirt legal ethics. He carries on a number of office romances, and struggles with a difficult relationship with his daughter. All of this is conveyed with literally a half-dozen lines of dialogue sprinkled over his entire run in the series.
Sorkin gave him more to work with in The Newsroom, in which Waterston’s Charlie Skinner is even more virtuous and dedicated to fighting the good fight, and here he’s working with the opposite type of material. Aaron Sorkin slathers the screen with character and emotion that might make Euripides blush, and yet Waterston takes the thick material and turns it into froth. He makes Sorkin look almost nuanced.
But in Grace and Frankie Waterston is given froth and puts some meat on the bone. To be honest, few straight actors can convincingly portray a gay man. Waterston is more successful than most. That might suggest that on some level he fails, and that’s not entirely true or fair. As the series progresses, his performance becomes more sure. His character, Sol is more fragile than McCoy or Charlie. Whether it’s artistic integrity or just simple age and experience, Waterston doesn’t seem to need to defend his own masculinity by making Sol and an effeminate cartoon, (which the writing could support) but a slightly goofy, delicate soul just trying to live an authentic life while minimizing the damage that might cause to others. Let’s put it this way: Waterston can almost make me believe Martin Sheen can act, and in Grace and Frankie he gives a performance that I would say compares to Judith Light’s Karen Wollek and then some.
If you’ve not seen it, make a point of finding Grace and Frankie. It’s good television.