Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re concluding 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.
The final season of the Will & Grace revival is essentially one long attempt to redo the original series’ ending, responding both to initial criticisms of 2006, and the updated social mores of 2020. Unfortunately, the show as a whole has basically run out of creative steam, largely because — as we saw last week — it’s stopped even trying to evolve the leads through story. It’s just throwing narrative arcs at them without having them motivate the plot points, and then giving little thought as to how they might actually grow — becoming more conducive to an earned happy ending, per our expectations in these rom-coms. The central issue is that Will & Grace, after a few cursory mentions in its return season, no longer readily acknowledges or accepts the original dramatic thesis: that Will and Grace are a de facto couple… who nevertheless can’t make each other fully happy, and therefore, must change the exclusivity of their bond in order to find romantic fulfillment. As discussed, the first half of the 1998 series really tried to explore this idea until it reached a crescendo — then it was mostly forgotten until the 2006 finale, when the core duo literally separated for decades so that they could have the full lives they wanted. A lot of fans didn’t like this; it was upsetting that this iconic pairing was depicted as so unideal that they couldn’t progress without a literal separation. That almost felt against the very existence of the show — like the show itself was standing in their way… And, heck, the “status quo” was… But, given that the storytelling never meaningfully or trackably evolved the two leads out of their unhealthy dynamic, it seemed surprisingly honest and premise-affirming: for the sake of believability, they needed to split. Now, approaching 2020, the new Will & Grace had the opportunity to rewrite the finale — venerating the pair’s friendship as supporting, not prohibiting, their happiness… Yet, just like in the original, it didn’t provide any of the evolution in their rapport that could address this long-held thesis and make it look like they have indeed changed for the better and could then directly motivate their happy endings. As such, there’s not enough of a link between character and story here.
What’s annoying is that the series gives itself permission not to evolve the leads, because if it rejects the notion that Will and Grace’s friendship is limiting their total happiness — which the first show (and first season of the revival) appeared to believe — then there is no demand for their relationship to change, and they don’t have to either. Thus, the final year of Will & Grace is free to indulge whatever narrative maneuverings it wants — in particular, it gives them individual children that they’ll raise together as single parents who basically collaborate — with little concern as to how it’s motivated. Well, I want to be fair… you could say that Will and Grace deciding it’s viable for them to both have kids without romantic partners is a shift in their mindset that suggests change. But it’s only dubiously a result of their choices. In fact, the show makes it clear: if they both had paramours, that would be their preference. Accordingly, it’s almost like they’re settling by not pursuing lovers, and the show is letting them down by not challenging them to do so. This is where we get into updated mores, for as society has come to recognize more configurations of families that would have once been called “non-traditional,” permitting Will and Grace to keep their special relationship and also raise children is the kind of arrangement that also celebrates progress made, socially, with the LGBTQ community and their rights. In proffering this as Will and Grace’s actual happy ending, the show is also celebrating the revival’s raison d’être — i.e., the social value of its existence — and in this regard, I appreciate why this is considered happy (with Will, at the last minute, getting a romantic partner too — an attempt to correct previous charges that the original denied him love deliberately). But I still can’t condone this rejection of premise, especially when it lacks character support. It’s simply bad sitcommery, and as far as this blog is concerned, there’s no good excuse for that. What’s more, we see diminishing character-based rewards with Jack and Karen as well, proving that these problems are all-encompassing — so much so that, even though this revival was very much like the original, I ultimately come away believing that the negatives were greater than the positives. Nostalgia will always be a powerful force, but, frankly, so is disappointment. I could only pick five episodes here — that’s how rough this collection is.
01) Episode 230/36: “Pappa Mia” (Aired: 10/31/19)
Karen tries to help Grace figure out her baby’s paternity; Will worries about fatherhood.
Written by Suzanne Martin | Directed by James Burrows
After setting up the year’s major arcs with Will and Grace in a decent but labored premiere, this season’s sophomore entry provides a little more “character” and a little more comedy. The “character” comes from the Will and Jack subplot where the former is worried about being a gay father most likely raising a straight child. It’s a believable concern that speaks to his humanity and addresses some of the social raison d’être that undergirds the season. The comedy, meanwhile, comes from the homage to Mamma Mia where Karen tries to help Grace pinpoint her baby’s paternity. It’s just good campy fun. (Reid Scott appears.)
02) Episode 233/39: “The Grief Panda” (Aired: 11/21/19)
Will deals with a breakup; Grace feels Karen is becoming distant.
Written by Tracy Poust & Jon Kinnally | Directed by James Burrows
The invocation of the Grief Panda — a silly costumed character — is goofy, but it’s a memorable gag to transition Will out of his relationship with McCoy and into the rest of his arc, where he’ll continue the process of having a kid by himself. Also, I appreciate the subplot with Grace and Karen, which comments on a growing distance between them — a wink to the much-discussed rumors of off-screen tension with Megan Mullally and her costars during this final season, specifically Debra Messing. They don’t share a lot of scenes together this year — but Karen is pretty much sequestered from everybody, saddled with a “Karen wins a struggling baseball team” story that does absolutely nothing for her by way of character or laughs. (Although it does bring in Patton Oswalt and Vanessa Bayer as recurring players.)
03) Episode 235/41: “What A Dump” (Aired: 01/16/20)
Grace embarrasses herself on a date; Will cuts Jack off financially.
Written by Suzanne Martin | Directed by James Burrows
This is probably Grace’s funniest offering in a while, as she’s in a dating plot — a rarity for her at this point in the show — and it includes a unique comic idea (her attempting to cover the smell of a bowel movement she made in her date’s toilet) that plays to her general manic awkwardness and her consequential lack of romantic success. Of course, it also reminds us of her lack of growth, but there’s no avoiding that this season. Meanwhile, the Will/Jack story feels like it’s happening a little late, given that all these people are over 50, but again, there’s no avoiding that this season. (Matt Letscher and Coco Peru guest.)
04) Episode 237/43: “Bi-Plane” (Aired: 02/06/20)
Will and Grace meet a mini version of themselves — only the guy is bisexual.
Written by Aaron Huffines & C.R. Honce | Directed by James Burrows
My choice for this year’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Bi-Plane” is the only installment that finds comic conflict connected to the initial thesis about the central relationship and its necessity for both characters’ emotional growth. It comes courtesy of a visit from Grace’s niece and her boyfriend — a duo who are presented as exactly like Will and Grace, only the guy insists he’s not gay. He’s bisexual, an identity that both Will and Grace have trouble accepting, largely due to their own personal experiences with each other. It’s an interesting notion, for it calls attention to the original series’ core drama — Will and Grace are a couple who can’t be together because he’s gay — and it forces them to acknowledge this via a similar pair who actually can be together, for this younger twosome reflects a sensibility more indicative of 2020’s evolved social mores, where orientation is seen as less specifically polar. Accordingly, the bittersweet nature of Will and Grace’s dynamic is acknowledged — as is their need to grow, for they’re depicted, in relation to the kids, as dinosaurs from a different era, when the choices felt fewer. (In addition to Brian Jordan Alvarez and Vanessa Bayer, Billie Lourd and Ryan Phillippe guest.)
05) Episode 242/48: “The Favourite” (Aired: 03/12/20)
Jack and Karen sneak into Stan’s house; Will and Grace host his surrogate.
Written by Laura Kightlinger | Directed by James Burrows
Molly Shannon is back for her annual appearance in this offering, which finds Val living in Stan’s mansion, and Jack and Karen infiltrating the staff to retrieve one of Karen’s rings. It’s a broad, farcical story that’s only amenable because it lets funny people have fun clowning with each other. Meanwhile, the subplot continues to comedically comment on Will and Grace’s advanced age, as they host Will’s surrogate, played by the recurring Demi Lovato. By depicting the central pair as a seemingly old married couple (which is a tangential nod to the premise), the show is also coming close to its finale, where they will essentially become a “modern family.”
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Eat, Pray, Love, Phone, Sex,” the premiere that’s busy setting up Will and Grace’s main arcs but also has some laughs, “New Crib,” which sees Will and Grace committing fully to the revival’s idea that their happy ending is them together in a “non-traditional” family, and “It’s Time,” the new finale that’s loaded with clichés, but a few amusing moments as well. I’ll also cite “With Enemies Like These,” which introduces the recurring Patton Oswalt, and “Performance Anxiety,” which I mention only for the ridiculously campy Annie subplot. Lastly, I must note that I hate “We Love Lucy,” which attempts to link Will & Grace to I Love Lucy by insisting on similarities between the characters but does so by having these actors recreate old Lucy centerpieces verbatim, with nothing new or specifically tailored to Will & Grace’s leads to suggest value on behalf of this series. You may like it as a Lucy fan, but it’s not about Will & Grace’s actual “situation” and thus can’t be lauded in a study of worthwhile sitcommery. It’s just sketch-like gimmickry.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three/Eleven of Will & Grace goes to…
Come back next week for more sitcom fun! And stay tuned for a new Wildcard!