Why It Took So Long For Dolly Parton To Appear On Grace And Frankie

"Grace and Frankie" is a cozy, comfy sweater of a series starring the incomparable Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin as perhaps the greatest TV odd couple of all time, forced to move in together after their husbands (Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston) come out and come clean about a decades-long affair. Grace (Fonda) is a type A former executive; Frankie (Tomlin) is a free-spirited artist. Grace has two daughters, Mallory (Brooklyn Decker) and Brianna (June Diane Raphael); Frankie has two sons, Coyote (Ethan Embry) and Nwabudike (Baron Vaughn). Grace is rarely without a martini in hand; Frankie sticks to weed, apart from the occasional peyote trip on the beach ("Your anger is frightening the sand!").

When the Netflix series co-created by Marta Kauffman and Howard J. Morris debuted in 2015, it felt radical in its portrayal of Healthy Adult Communication, which felt lacking both in the TV landscape at the time and the political climate that was already hinting at impending societal collapse. In those years, every time a friend visited me in Chicago for a weekend of debauchery, we'd nurse our Sunday hangovers and wounded souls with a "Grace and Frankie" binge. Over its seven seasons, the show included oft-ignored topics experienced by aging women — physical challenges and gallows humor in end-of-life planning, sure, but also sexism within ageism, sex, masturbation, and vibrator usage, to name just a few — at the behest of legendary activist Fonda, who, with Tomlin, was a part of the series' production team.

Saint Dolly Parton made her big-screen debut in the beloved 1980 comedy "9 to 5," starring alongside the pair in another groundbreaking story about three working women getting revenge on a misogynist boss. It would be another 42 years until the three would reunite on a scripted project — but heaven could wait.

A long time in the making

And wait it did. In the series finale of "Grace and Frankie," "The Beginning," after Grace spills a martini on a microphone Frankie's holding and the two inadvertently electrocute each other, we see them sitting in a waiting room in a white void, pamphlets in hand titled "So, you're dead." Grace notes an excerpt: "If you have a problem, talk to your case manager," and ever on brand, she is up to the task. Through a mysterious door we see an infamous blonde hairdo as a woman swivels around in an office chair. Is it God? Even better — it's Dolly Parton.

The reunion was a long time in the making, even since the birth of the series. "I've been trying to do 'Grace and Frankie' for years," Parton told the U.K. show "Lorraine." "We worked so well on '9 to 5,' but it's a crazy wonderful show, and we've been trying to write me in somehow." (As she expressed her love of the sitcom as the powerhouse trio took the stage together in a "9 to 5" reunion of sorts at the 2017 Emmy Awards: "I'm just hoping that I'm gonna get one of those 'Grace and Frankie' vibrators in my swag bag today.")

'Just a working-class angel'

As series co-creator Marta Kauffman told Tudum, she and Howard J. Morris were reluctant to bring the country star into the mix too early, as they didn't want the show to come across as "the two ladies from '9 to 5;'" they wanted the titular characters to establish their own personalities and wants and stories in their own right. Kauffman went on:

"But then, somewhere around the third season, we were like, 'OK, we can do it now. We've established these characters.' And then it took us four more seasons to make it work. The timing was wrong. The schedule was wrong. She was busy. We couldn't shoot when she was available. I mean, it was years of going through this."

Upon learning of Dolly Parton's interest in being a part of the show, they jumped on the opportunity for the final season.

In the episode, Parton introduces herself as Agnes. "Just a working-class angel," she quips, before reviewing their cases and sneakily letting them head back to their lives after the three cycle through the five stages of grief about the duo's stories coming to an end. It's a completely bonkers scene (though the series had previously bent its own timelines in an exploration of its own multiverse of sorts), but it works so well as an audience surrogate moment, holding the viewer's hand in letting the characters go and giving one last parting gift in tackling the ultimate tough topic: death. "You couldn't think of a better way to have Dolly appear," Jane Fonda said on "The Kelly Clarkson Show."

It's hard to say goodbye

I couldn't agree more. The last episodes premiered amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, years many of us have been hypersensitive to mortality and the prospect of having to say goodbye to loved ones too soon. It would have been bittersweet to bid adieu to Netflix's longest-ever running series with this real-life backdrop on its own, but the season's focus on Frankie's obsession with her perceived impending death via a psychic reading gave an added layer of dread and denial: This show can't really kill off our favorite wildchild Frankie Bergstein, can it? Instead, thankfully, we got a perfect ending with a match made in literal heaven.

All episodes of "Grace and Frankie" are available to stream on Netflix.