LOS ANGELES — Age rarely catches a break in pop culture. But when Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin lend their outsized talents to a sitcom, expect something far removed from old-lady cliches and self-negating punchlines.
“Grace and Frankie,” the 13-episode Netflix comedy debuting Friday with the two longtime friends in the title roles, is striving to be funny, honest and, to use Fonda’s description, “really fierce.”
As might be expected from actresses who are also activists, the series has points to make about older women — who, the 77-year-old Fonda pointedly notes, are an increasing part of the population.
“Grace and Frankie” represents “a chance to blow away the stereotypes and give a poignant but also fresh and new and hopeful image of older women,” she said.
It’s an opportunity that Tomlin, 75, said she’d come close to when she played Reba McEntire’s mother in 2012’s “Malibu Country,” but the comedy was short-lived.
With the Netflix series, said Tomlin, “I knew Jane would be politically in the right place and want to do what I hoped would get done. … Getting to the bottom of an older woman’s relationship to herself, to her friends, to the culture.”
Adds the ever-glamorous and fit Fonda: “What do you do when your body starts to weaken but you still feel young? How do you deal with problems with adult children? With grandchildren?”
She contributes a political filip to the equation: “And older women tend to be more radical. And why not?”
That opens the door for Tomlin, who can’t suppress her wonderfully mischievous streak.
“What about the Red Hat ladies?’ she says, referring to the Red Hat Society that encourages women of all ages to pursue, among other things, fun and freedom.
“And the Gray Panthers?” Fonda said, parrying with the social justice group.
The women’s relationship, formed during the making of the 1980 movie “9 to 5,” is cited as important and rewarding by both. Not so with their characters Grace (Fonda) and Frankie (Tomlin), who have barely tolerated each other over the years despite the closeness of their law-partner spouses.
When those husbands, played by Sam Waterston and Martin Sheen, announce that they’re in love and want to marry, the spurned wives share shock and then the bumpy quest — sometimes comic, sometimes touching — for new lives.
The series was created and written by Marta Kauffman (creator with David Crane of the megahit “Friends”) and Howard J. Morris (“Sullivan & Son,” ”Home Improvement”).
Kauffman and Morris brought the idea to them and they jumped, the stars said. Fonda says her character echoes her in some respects.
Grace was compelled to settle down with the “right man” and then allowed her spouse to define her, said the thrice-married and divorced Fonda (who at one point observes that most of her male friends are feminists, but “not my ex-husbands”).
“That’s an important issue to get into for women, because I’m not the only one that’s tied myself in pretzels so I wouldn’t be alone,” she said.
Fonda and Tomlin said they are boosters as well as pals, showing up to support each other’s causes, including fighting violence against women and aiding adolescents. Both express a fervent desire to protect animals and the environment and espouse the value of sisterhood for women young and old.
In conversation, they show how it works.
Fonda compares Tomlin at one point to “this wild, free spirit floating in the cosmos …. I watch her on the set and she just comes up with things from left field. That’s her charm and her brilliance.”
“Oh, stop it,” Tomlin said.
“I’m too anal,” continued a self-chastising Fonda.
“No, you’re not. You’re so good,” her friend replied.