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How ‘Will & Grace’ Achieved The Impossible… Twice

“W&G” has become a sort of next-generation “Golden Girls.”

11/09/2017 09:11 EST | Updated 11/10/2017 08:53 EST
Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

Now that the “Will & Grace” reboot is on temporary hiatus—did we always have Fall Finales?—it’s a great time to assess the merits of what would seem unthinkable: a revival of an 11-year-old, eight-season sitcom that, wait for it, works!

Most were skeptical of renewing a show that audiences had thought overstayed its welcome the first time around. Add a TV renaissance that largely avoids the live-studio-audience, 22-minute format, and a pop generation that now features gay characters on pretty much every show, and you’ve got a recipe for failure. If “The Walking Dead” can have two zombie apocalypse men French kiss, then why on earth bother with gay characters’ foibles on the Upper West Side of New York City? Ooh, rebels!

To understand why “W&G” works now you need to understand why it worked then. While it centered around two gay characters, one female best gay friend, and one drunken sexual enigma who pretty much served as Bitch Brunch With Breasts, it was first and foremost a traditional sitcom that harked back to “I Love Lucy,” with a little “Carol Burnett Show” and “Absolutely Fabulous” thrown in for twisted-fun measure. It also served up more pop culture references than a Sandra Bernhard stand-up set.

It wasn’t just that we didn’t have many gay TV characters back in 1998, when the show first aired, it was that we didn’t have them on prime time, and with almost zero controversy. By being firmly planted in the mainstream, “W&G” managed, as if by magic, to stay off the hateful radar. The NBC position also meant that every risqué joke was handled the same way they are in the company of conservative folk; deliciously under the table.

None of this would have worked had it not been for the simple fact that “Will & Grace” was fabulous fun, one of the smartest sitcoms of its generation, and one that improves with each marathon viewing. The casting was also brave, as none of the four actors were “names.” Heck, they weren’t even in their early twenties. It was that rare sitcom that chose talent over celebrity, and should be a gentle reminder every time network television wants to push a sitcom but doesn’t think it will fly unless an ex-hit-sitcom star is attached.

So far, “Will & Grace” in 2017 has worked, first and foremost, because it still manages to be extremely clever and at times hysterically funny. Genius director James Burrows is still at the helm, and the cast chemistry holds up like someone just released the actors from their decade-long formaldehyde cages.

It’s also evolved in its writing to be about characters navigating life at the dawn of Trump World. In a mere six episodes, it’s covered gay millennials and “gay dinosaur” Madonna, Daddy’s, political correctness, conversion therapy, Power Gays, Melania, Puerto Rico paper towels, and everything else rotten in the state of Washington.

In its last, and best, episode, the show gave a bittersweet send-off to Rosario, eliciting, in fewer than 30 minutes, more laughs and tears than most movies muster up in two hours. Megan Mullally is a brilliant actor whose strength is in her ability to move from sarcasm to empathy faster than she swigs a Smitty martini.

Perhaps by default, “W&G” has also become a sort of next-generation “Golden Girls,” itself a perennial rerun favorite of gay men. The actors, now in their late forties or fifties, are playing characters adjusting to life on the other side of fabulousness, and it’s most likely a contributing factor to returning audiences—the show’s a hit.

Will and Jack are no longer young men (Just Jack is now Just Grandfather), and ours can be an unforgiving ageist world. Will and Grace are both single, again, and this time around she’s the one who can’t get a date. The only action she’s experienced thus far is having Karen put a mirror to her vagina and ask why it’s not breathing.

Nothing’s perfect, and “Will & Grace” still has its faults and critics. If you thought the two leads were too self-absorbed the first time around you’re doubtful going to find them much changed. Of the two, she’s given the whiniest jokes and the writers would be wise to give her a smarter streak.

Jack has consistently been the subject of stereotypically gay criticism, something I can’t disprove. But I’ve always seen him as more of a clown—in the good sense—than anything else. He’s from the school of Jerry Lewis, not Liberace. Karen is his exaggerated match, and they both run their segments of the show like pinballs gone amuck. Neither character is entirely mortal. The show’s writers have also recycled bits from the first decade—Grace pimping out Will, Jack’s Terms of Endearment parody—forgivable offenses that only make me wonder how long the show can last.

The best, and biggest accomplishment of the new “Will & Grace” is that it’s brought the water-cooler comedy back to a new gay age. In an era of binge-watching and streaming, and comedies that are more idiosyncratic than instantly gratifying, people are actually running home or dropping their scheduled viewing habits to watch the show at airtime, the better to flood social media with the best one-liners afterward. I haven’t seen this much gay chatter since Cher joined Twitter.

The collective, 22-minute laugh has been a staple of television since its beginnings, and during dark times a reminder of just how wonderful TV can be. When everything seems to be lost in the “catch it for Instagram instead of enjoying the view” social media age, immediacy isn’t such a bad thing. We’re witnessing a new Golden Age, and I doubt anyone thought it would include a reboot of Will, Grace, Jack, and Karen. With any luck, the show will inspire Hollywood to focus some serious energy on creating more traditional, clever TV comedies. That would be a revolution I’d love to see televised.

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David Toussaint often writes about subjects affecting older gay men. If you’ve got a “Daddy Issue,” let him know about it. --DRT