Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re starting our coverage on the Will & Grace revival (2017-2020, NBC), which is currently available on DVD and streaming.
Will & Grace stars ERIC McCORMACK as Will Truman, DEBRA MESSING as Grace Adler, SEAN HAYES as Jack McFarland, and MEGAN MULLALLY as Karen Walker.
Last year, I looked at three “reboots,” or revivals, of popular ’90s multi-cams that premiered in the latter half of the 2010s — Roseanne, Murphy Brown, and Mad About You. I gave them Sitcom Tuesday treatment despite considering them entirely separate from their originals. That is, despite boasting the same titles and recognizable cast configurations, there were several decades disrupting their continuities of production — not to mention their continuities of storytelling (and, yes, they all ignored specific elements of their initial runs) — so I don’t think it’s right to call any of them a true continuation of their series, for that very word implies “ongoing,” and ongoing those shows, for a while, weren’t. No, these are “reboots,” or revivals (as I prefer), because something once formally ended was resumed, and with that in mind, you could call the three new seasons of the second Will & Grace “Nine, Ten, & Eleven.” After all, our knowledge and awareness of the original’s first eight seasons does have some bearing on what happens here and influences the way we discuss this revival. However, it would be just as appropriate to label them seasons “One, Two, & Three” of a new series, for what happens here has NO bearing on what happened in the original or what we should think about it. In other words, “I don’t hold whatever happens in these reboots against the original series, where it’s fair to talk about narrative decisions that are made in Season One versus, say, Six, because of the maintained continuity,” for, again, that continuity has now been disrupted. Accordingly, I tend to view all these new shows as distinct — as a bonus. And that’s why it’s okay that I’m finally coming around, after nearly four years since covering the original, to the second Will & Grace — which I’ve long promised to highlight. But, make no mistake, it won’t be the last; as previously noted, “at a time when the most critically lauded shows [are] single-camera and often dubiously comedic, the ‘rebooted’ 1980s and ’90s sitcoms with a nostalgic appeal […] [are] indicative of their original eras: […] multi-cam live audience efforts, very committed to big laughs. Thus, this [isn’t] just a wave of content catering only to certain properties, it [is] a wave of interest in resurrecting the multi-camera style, which, by this time, [has] developed its own […] nostalgia.”
I was mostly referring then to “reboots” from the late 2010s, but nostalgia will forever be a draw in this “niche buffet” market. Heck, 2023 alone has seen (or will see) revivals of Night Court, That ’70s Show, and eventually Frasier, which I suspect I’ll have to examine at some point. Will & Grace, meanwhile, was definitely part of the reboot wave inspired by the Trump presidency and the country’s implied cultural shifts. To wit, demand for a Will & Grace revival was sparked by a “Get Out The Vote” video its cast made in 2016, with the characters taking various stances on Trump vs. Clinton. The excitement over this reunion became the springboard for a new series… Now, as a show with LGBT regulars that couldn’t avoid controversy in its 1998 run, there was always a sociopolitical charge to the original Will & Grace. But this revival was more explicit than ever about its belief in the culture’s need for these characters anew — responding to the Trump administration and the corresponding social climate was its “why now?” (beyond the simple nostalgia that motivates all these ventures). It was a very idea-driven impetus for a return, exactly the same as we saw with Roseanne and Murphy Brown, both of which followed. Fortunately, of the three, Will & Grace manages to move away from this gimmicky and non-character raison d’être the best, with only a few episodes in its three-year run acknowledging its sociopolitical origins. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that this makes it one of the most successful revivals from this era (next to Fuller House), while Roseanne and Murphy Brown, with highly political narrative engines, both only survived half-seasons. (Of course, I’d put an asterisk next to Roseanne, which was forced to turn into The Conners, but in a way that was decidedly disconnected from the “reboot” and its initial reason for existing.) I also think, of all the revivals we’ve covered here (including the more character-based Mad About You), the new Will & Grace most feels like the original — meaning, it does the best job of recapturing the old spirit and therefore delivering, with regularity, the nostalgia that remains its core hook. And this isn’t just because it has many of its original writers — so did Roseanne and Murphy Brown — this is because of its chosen storytelling, which, for better and for worse, evokes the Will & Grace we knew.
I revisited my critiques of the original Will & Grace in last week’s rerun, and it’s interesting to see how this revival not only fails to ameliorate those issues but tends to emphasize them — lending credibility to its aesthetic association with the first series while also, to an even greater extent, impeding on episodic quality. For instance, this first year coasts on the basic novelty of Will & Grace‘s return, with most episodes featuring the “surprise” appearance of a former recurring player — Leo, Beverly, Lorraine, Elliot, etc. — and this kind of “oh, look it’s so-and-so” sounds a lot like the gimmicky stunt casting that plagued the original run, as so many episodes would be built around some external value, often timed for Sweeps and thus indicative of commercialistic and not character-based concerns. And yet, although there are still several gaudy guest star cameos here, this revival’s brand of casting is at least rooted in Will & Grace’s own lore, so it all feels less unearned. It’s just equally unsustainable, for it doesn’t suggest the kind of character-driven storytelling this series needs. After all, Will & Grace boasts four well-defined regulars in a low-concept “singles in the city” rom-com — the evolution of its leads in pursuit of their romantic endeavors is what we hope to follow in motivated story. The original run was bad about plotting their evolution, often pairing its leads in relationships that would start and stop without any real character-led explanation (and with partners who only sometimes had actual personality traits). And nobody would actually grow in the process, as they’d instead remain subordinate to Sweeps-timed narrative machinations. This type of storytelling is really on display in the revival’s second season, which goes back to the more arc-shaped structure that we saw in the back half of the original run, and with many of these weaknesses — a lack of motivation and little growth on behalf of character — crowding out some of its potential charms, like the recurring use of David Schwimmer as Grace’s new beau. As for the third and final season, the narrative focus shifts towards rewriting Will & Grace’s ending — the original of which this revival quickly negates in its 2017 premiere.
I will have a lot more to say about the finale and these last two seasons in upcoming posts. For now, let’s remember that the original thesis about Will & Grace was that its central couple loved each other and wanted to be together romantically… except they couldn’t, because he’s gay and they would both never be fully satisfied. So, to have the kind of satisfying romances they both claim to want, they’d have change the dynamic of their relationship, otherwise they’d just keep self-sabotaging other opportunities. In the beginning, aside from a few tacky narrative maneuverings and some not-well-defined love interests, the original Will & Grace did a good job exploring this idea — even bringing it to a head in Season Five when the pair had a mini-fallout. But the last several years basically abandoned this notion… well, until the original 2006 finale, when both were due happy endings. In order to get this, the show decided to have the pair separate completely for decades, reuniting only after they got everything else they wanted. In other words, the original finale insisted that the only way for them to be happy was to breakup for a while. It was an unpleasant thought for fans of the show, who loved them together and, because they loved the show, also loved the “status quo” of their codependence, which had allowed this premise to exist. Personally, I think the pair didn’t need to separate if we saw motivated growth from them, such that it was possible to exist healthily with each other and with other people. But that never happened… As for this revival, it reconnects with the original’s “status quo” — it denies the events of the first finale and even makes them roommates again — plainly doubling down on their unhealthy bond… Also, it’s now barely recognized as a conflict or something from which they’ll require evolution. As such, this gives the revival carte blanch to ignore the necessity of motivated growth, along with a major part of the “situation” that once made this a fascinating series, balancing its reputation for big comedy with a unique central relationship.
However, the nature of the revival and how it handles its storytelling means that this first year — also known as Season Nine — is the best, for although it traffics in way too many stunts that would usually be off-putting to anyone looking for ideal sitcommery, most of these stunts are meant to connect the new series to its predecessor, and in that regard, elements associated with Will & Grace are being utilized. And this is affirmative for our definition of what satisfies the genre: using known aspects of a “situation” in story and for the purposes of comedy. What’s more, the show’s comedic ideas are more episodic — less bothered by the heavier arcs and cumbersome narrative maneuverings that will indeed make the series less funny in the two years ahead, where concerns are dredged up about the characters’ dearth of motivated growth. In fact, there are a few episodes this year that actually do mention the original thesis of Will and Grace’s undesirable codependence. That won’t be addressed at all in the following two seasons. Season One (or Nine), in general, does the best job of giving us the sincerest, and therefore most enjoyable, version of the Will & Grace that we remember. Specifically, it gives us a lot of Big Laugh burlesque, enlivened especially by Sean Hayes and Megan Mullally as Jack and Karen, the latter of whom is the least served narratively by this revival but then typically contributes (as usual) many of its greatest hahas. And in being a fairly accurate sample of what the original Will & Grace was — not at its best, not at its worst, but closer to the middle — this year is enjoyable. There’s nothing as classic as what was produced in the early ’00s, but there are a handful of episodes that I truly like and am glad to spotlight. So, with 16 outings produced for this first season, I have selected my seven favorites. They are listed below in airing order.
01) Episode 196/2: “Who’s Your Daddy?” (Aired: 10/05/17)
Will and Jack feel old on the dating scene, while Grace and Karen get stuck in a shower.
Written by Tracy Poust & Jon Kinnally | Directed by James Burrows
After a terrible premiere that indulged sociopolitical stories where the characters were sidelined in favor of topical humor, Will & Grace’s sophomore episode is much better, with a fun setup that addresses the obvious: both Will and Jack are much older now, and they’re having difficulties in a dating scene that’s especially youth-focused (as evidenced by Will’s latest pickup, played by Ben Platt). Meanwhile the ladies re-engage the former series’ penchant for physical comedy in a routine with a shower that feels like an homage to The Lucy Show, but more importantly, cements the new Will & Grace as comedically interested in offering the same kind of big, broad laughs as the original. So, this entry’s connection of the series’ old ethos with the regulars’ updated realities is smart. (Mary Pat Gleason also appears.)
02) Episode 198/4: “Grandpa Jack” (Aired: 10/19/17)
Jack tries to stop his grandson from being sent to gay reform camp.
Written by Alex Herschlag | Directed by James Burrows
Utilizing some continuity from the original series, this installment reveals that Jack has now become a grandfather — a development that’s amusing because of his character’s vanity and what we know of his attempts to stay young. But the story also has some dramatic weight, as the kid clearly takes after his granddad and is thus being sent to a gay reform camp, led by a married couple played by Andrew Rannells and Jane Lynch (a casting stunt that’s, frankly, hysterical). There are a lot of big laughs there, but it’s really a showcase for Jack’s emerging multi-dimensionality that makes this a highlight of the season (and revival).
03) Episode 200/6: “Rosario’s Quinceañera” (Aired: 11/02/17)
Karen mourns the loss of Rosario.
Written by Tracy Poust & Jon Kinnally | Directed by James Burrows
One of the year’s most popular, this excursion addresses why the “reboot” is without Karen’s great sparring partner Rosario (Shelley Morrison, who had retired), and it’s meant to intentionally emphasize the bond they had, via Karen’s grief over her passing. I personally find some of the emotion forced and not totally congruent with the series’ usual tone, but the focus on Karen is unusual for this revival series (she generally gets the weakest material of the four) and I find it necessary in the context of her character having some actual exploration in story. Also, it’s fun to see Minnie Driver back as Lorraine, for even though her inclusion is another casting stunt typical of this particular season, she’s a reminder of the old series’ charms. (Mary Pat Gleason appears, as does Charles C. Stevenson Jr. as Smitty.)
04) Episode 202/8: “Friends And Lover” (Aired: 01/04/18)
Will and Grace have sex with the same celebrity chef; Jack and Karen struggle with a song.
Written by Suzanne Martin | Directed by James Burrows
Megan Mullally’s real-life husband Nick Offerman (best known by this point from Parks And Recreation) guests as a celebrity chef who sleeps with both Will and Grace and then tries to persuade them to have a threesome — an idea that makes implicit acknowledgment of the pair’s already unusual and potentially dysfunctional dynamic. Meanwhile, I really appreciate this installment’s nevertheless flimsy subplot, where Jack and Karen can’t get a TV jingle out of their heads — “Trucks 4 Tykes” (a takeoff of “Kars 4 Kids”). It’s the kind of thing that allows those two funny performers to merely play, just like in the old days. Appealingly simple.
05) Episode 205/11: “Staten Island Fairy” (Aired: 02/01/18)
Will and Grace argue when they go on QVC, while Jack’s new cop beau comes out to his wife.
Teleplay by John Quaintance | Story by David Kohan & Max Mutchnick | Directed by James Burrows
Much like the original series, offerings that depict Will and Grace as essentially a married couple in every way but sexually do a fine job of reinforcing the thesis without actually calling dramatic attention to it, and that’s what I most enjoy about this entry’s A-story, where the duo ends up arguing when they go on QVC to sell their wares (now that they’re temporarily in business together). Additionally, there are some good laughs in the subplot, which continues Jack’s romance with Drew, a closeted police officer who wants to come out to his wife (against Jack’s better judgement) — a scenario complicated by the playful Karen. (Andy Buckley appears.)
06) Episode 206/12: “Three Wise Men” (Aired: 03/01/18)
Grace realizes she’s had sex with a father, son, and grandson.
Written by Tracy Poust & Jon Kinnally | Directed by James Burrows
My choice for this season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Three Wise Men” feels the most like a classic Will & Grace, utilizing all four regulars well and with big laughs most reminiscent of the original. The A-story where Grace learns that she’s slept with three generations of men in one family — a father, a son, and a grandson — is hilarious, and it plays well with Jack, who has heretofore considered Grace relatively prudish and unimaginative… until she earns his respect with this accomplishment. Meanwhile, I also enjoy the Karen/Will subplot, as the two use her security camera to spy on her kitchen staff. They spot a potential romance brewing between two of the chefs and then intervene, all to goose their voyeuristic delight. Both ideas are loaded with hahas that work for these characters, and in the sense that the first season of this “reboot” is most concerned with recapturing old magic, this installment is tops because it actually manages to do just that. (Guests include Barry Bostwick, Matt Letscher, and Dan Bucatinsky.)
07) Episode 208/14: “The Beefcake & The Cake Beef” (Aired: 03/15/18)
Grace and Karen try to get a political cake baked, while Jack cautions Will about an ex.
Written by Suzanne Martin | Directed by James Burrows
Outside of the misguided premiere, this is the only entry in Nine/One that engages a deliberately topical story to make a political statement and therefore wink about the series’ social relevancy. I ordinarily wouldn’t highlight an offering like this, for such ideas often crowd out character, but in this case, I think the notion of Karen and Grace fighting for the right to get a cake made in celebration of the president utilizes both of their personalities well, and with a guest appearance by future recurring player Vanessa Bryant, those scenes are laugh-laden. Also, I appreciate the character-value in the subplot, where Will’s ex Matthew (now played by Cheyenne Jackson) accuses Jack of being in love with Will — a familiar charge that nevertheless emphasizes their unique bond and an important part of the “situation.”
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Crying,” where the delightful Leslie Jordan returns as Beverly Leslie and the A-story toils to put Will and Grace in business together, “Emergency Contact,” which I only note because it features Leo, who blames his breakup with Grace on her friendship with Will (thereby invoking the original thesis about their relationship), “There’s Something About Larry,” which includes the return of Molly Shannon’s Val but doesn’t do anything fresh with her, “Sweatshop Annie & The Annoying Baby Shower,” which has some funny moments with young girls counseling Will at a baby shower, and “It’s A Family Affair,” which I cite only because it’s the other installment to acknowledge the possibility that Will and Grace’s dynamic is unhelpful and unideal. Lastly, I just have to mention “A Gay Olde Christmas,” a memorable fantasy show that is amusing but has no value for character at all.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One/Nine of Will & Grace goes to…
“Three Wise Men”
Come back next week for Season Two (Ten)! And stay tuned for a new Wildcard!