Gay then vs. gay now: Will and Grace clashes with a world it helped change
Where the revival gets vital and interesting is when it deals — with honesty and humor — with the passage of time and the show's own place in it
Will and Grace, the sitcom about an uptight gay lawyer named Will, his best friend and interior designer Grace, and their vaguely sociopathic friends Jack and Karen, comes back to America's TV screens Thursday night after 11 years away. The first three episodes ignore the sitcom's finale, reset to its defaults, and prove that the series is (fittingly, given its amusingly self-involved characters) more interested in itself than in modernizing to better fit contemporary comedic sensibilities.
In its original run, Will and Grace used its wacky foursome to make much that was outrageous not just sayable but funny. It pushed the boundaries of what sitcoms could show and discuss and — because sitcoms are structured to reassure — it rendered the result pretty anodyne. That in no way diminishes the show's achievement; quite the opposite. Will and Grace excelled at using the safety of its genre as a kind of Trojan horse for the radical idea that gay people are just people, flaws and all. It achieved that largely by jokingly pushing some of the slippery slope thinking that characterized the moral majority's opposition to gay marriage ("What's next? Bestiality?") to its raucously amoral conclusions.
To put it bluntly: These were pretty hilariously unprincipled characters. If Will and Grace was mild when it came to showing sexual content — and conventional in its joke structure — it was irreverent and game when it came to pretty much anything else. Karen's value was that she would say anything. Jack's was that he'd do anything. Their bond consisted of a shared disdain for the shared consensus on what's moral, sayable, doable, and correct. The show's true antagonist wasn't conservatism or bigotry but boredom. In lieu of launching a dreary public relations campaign about how good and decent and helpful gay people are (they're just like you!), Will and Grace went nuclear with its characters' quirks and flaws. (No, really: They're just like you.)
The show's hedonism was inventive and unapologetically outrageous for the late '90s and early '00s, when the Colbert strategy of using outright racism and misogyny to double as jokes on themselves was still relatively new. Audiences loved Karen despite (or because of) her selfishness, narcissism, and gift for saying shocking, despicable things.
These days, that approach to comedy — and politics — has ripened. It's even, arguably, started to rot. One of the big questions about the revival, then, was how it would deal with this part of its DNA. In a time defined by President Trump, would the show continue to render Karen's rich-lady conservatism amusing rather than toxic? Would it still play Jack's apolitical solipsism for laughs?
The answer, on all counts, is yes.
Creators Max Mutchnick and David Kohan recommit hard to their initial strategy. It sometimes makes the show feel like a well-preserved relic, with mixed results. If Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life took its characters to dark, degraded new places, Will and Grace has done the precise opposite: It pretended its own finale never happened and reset to the status quo. Everyone is still behaving badly — Karen's still popping pills, Will and Grace are still way too close — with no discernible ill effects. These truly feel like old episodes of Will and Grace, right down to the hammy joke structure and telegraphed punchlines; the actors have aged well enough that you can almost, almost buy that no time has passed.
If you love Will and Grace for its rhythms and jokes, you'll be pleased. For this viewer, it feels like there's not a ton of meat left on those bones; the show's outrageousness feels less fresh than slightly passé. Where the revival does get vital and interesting is when it deals — with honesty and humor — with the passage of time and the show's own place in it.
This is certainly true for the characters: This has always been a vain foursome, so it's a joy to watch them wrestle with the fact that the world no longer sees them as they see themselves. There are hints that the bouncy illusion of immortality that made their misbehavior in the first run possible and charming is slipping: Jack gets called a "daddy" at a club. Grace has a medical scare.
But the more interesting reckoning comes at the level of the show's relationship to the conversation around gay rights. One episode features a character dating a much younger man who grew up gay in a pretty different world from the one the show's protagonists knew. The struggles are different, and so are the expectations, ushering in some tension between the protagonist's "second-wave" approach to gay issues and the new generation's thinking. The show doesn't just take the opportunity to lecture or reflect (though there's some of that, and it's delightful). It also lets its characters' core qualities illuminate something about the time the sitcom itself came from and belongs to. Further — some unfortunate uses of "woke" notwithstanding — that episode contextualizes the show's refusal to bend further than it can to the trends of the present. Identity does, in the end, have quite a lot to do with age.
Will and Grace is from the time it's from. That's what makes the show what it is, and if it won't depart from itself or apologize, maybe that's all for the best.