Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re continuing our coverage on the best of Will & Grace (1998-2006, NBC), which is 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.
It’s ironic. Even though it’s the height of Must See TV desperation and claims an abundance of casting stunts — as the loss of Friends left NBC’s most profitable night scrambling for eyeballs — this year ends up being the most forgettable, boring, and mediocre of the entire run. That’s right; even with a high volume of gimmicks, and the continued emphasis on big laughs, Will & Grace is no longer able to satisfy on its typical terms of outrageous comedic memorability. Now, it’s actively blah… Yet the year doesn’t actually do anything to warrant such blahness. Yes, it quickly and almost absurdly rejects nearly everything foisted upon the characters at the end of Six — extricating both Grace and Karen from their unmotivated marriages, and ending Jack’s brief foray as a backup dancer for pop divas — but it’s smart to get out of plots that don’t work. This clears the deck for better material, like Jack’s next career stop as an executive at a gay-themed cable channel, which then moves him, at year’s end, into an on-camera role, while the ladies get decent, character-wise arcs: Karen battles her enemy-turned-admirer (Jeff Goldblum), and Grace has her first real post-Leo beau (Edward Burns). Furthermore, Seven holds on to the one great thing about Six: Will’s relationship with the well-defined Vince (Bobby Cannavale, who won an Emmy for his work here). Although they split mid-year for a reason I wish had more to do with Will’s flaws, this development seems to exist only to prolong the endgame, indicating that growth is one of Seven’s concerns. In fact, with its smaller stories and single-again leading lady, the year puts something of a renewed emphasis on the Will/Grace relationship in episodic story. And yet… it’s still blah. Why? Well, I think the show has reached the point where there’s really no good excuse for these folks not to be marching towards their happy endings. The longer they’re forced to wait, the more ridiculous — and as you’ll see below, less funny — the gimmicks become. Accordingly, because Eight has the finale on its mind 24/7, it’s going to be more narratively satisfying than the dichotomous Seven, which is stunty, but character-y; broad, but boring: a palate cleanser when we need dessert. So, on that note, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify the year’s finest.
01) Episode 147: “FYI: I Hurt, Too” (Aired: 09/16/04)
Grace tries to forgive Leo, while Karen tries to get a song to Jennifer Lopez.
Written by David Flebotte & Alex Herschlag | Directed by James Burrows
Admittedly, this isn’t a great episode, but the seventh season of Will & Grace doesn’t have ten great half-hours. So, I’ve expanded my purview to affable entries like this supersized premiere, which benefits from the new year’s elevated energy and is aided by a script that had the luxury of more time for polishing and joke-bettering. Essentially, then, this is a stronger teleplay than narrative, for it’s otherwise got the unenviable task of ridding the series of Leo, as Grace (who’s full-time again finally) struggles to take him back, but ultimately can’t. It’s not a laugh-riot, yet it attempts to be sincere in how it removes her from this arc that, while never actually working in the first place, still has to be ended with dignity… Elsewhere, there’s the return of Jennifer Lopez, who was the best thing about the awful finale (which the show otherwise all but rejects; Karen’s marriage is effectively over, with only a brief mention). She’s probably funnier in her previous appearance, but this text is stronger, and because there’s more room on Seven’s list than Six, I’m glad to single out her work here. Also, note that this is better than the sophomore excursion, which guests Janet Jackson and Will Arnett but is much more gimmicky.
02) Episode 149: “One Gay At A Time” (Aired: 09/30/04)
Grace runs into Val while attending AA for free food and therapy.
Written by Sally Bradford | Directed by James Burrows
After making delightful annual appearances in the first four seasons, Molly Shannon returns one more time as the delusional Val in this amusing show that, as has been the trend with her character, is a descent from what came before but nevertheless remains easily comedic and enjoyable. It starts with a Victory In Premise — Grace being drawn to an AA meeting because it offers free food and free therapy — and for that alone, this would probably be a show worth noting. The inclusion of Val is but a cherry on top, with a mini cat fight thrown in for good measure… Meanwhile, the subplot has more serious concerns, as it’s the show that redirects Jack’s career, leading him to become an executive at an up-and-coming gay cable channel (OutTV). The story has to heighten Will’s lesser and annoying qualities in order to work — and okay, it’s a bit of a stretch — but it’s par for the course from this era, and because it acquits Jack so well, it ends up being a successful storyline, too — making for one of the few outings here in Season Seven where both plots bring welcome, necessary value.
03) Episode 153: “Will & Grace & Vince & Nadine” (Aired: 11/04/04)
Grace intervenes when Vince’s best friend doesn’t like Will.
Written by Gary Janetti | Directed by James Burrows
On the short list of Season Seven’s true best, “Will & Grace & Vince & Nadine” guest stars former Sex And The City lead Kristin Davis as the Grace to Vince’s Will, and after the teleplay has some fun exploiting the contrast between how the two behave — Vince and Nadine are nice; Will and Grace are not — the story settles into its real purpose: the drama of what happens when the best friend doesn’t like the significant other. (It’s the inverted actualization of Will’s fear when Grace first met Vince back in Season Six.) It’s a worthwhile conflict, enriched by the truly terrific one-on-one Grace has with Nadine where, in line with the central tension between Will and Grace that’s underscored the entire series, the former insists to the latter that she and Vince will never be a couple, so let it go. It’s great because it’s a bold choice that also speaks to the series‘ central relationship, as well… Meanwhile, there’s laughs in the Jack/Karen subplot as, in a temporary arc where Karen leaves Grace’s side over a trivial episodic fight, she takes a job (for this sole half-hour) working for Jack at the network.
04) Episode 154: “Saving Grace, Again (I)” (Aired: 11/11/04)
Will sets Grace up on a date, while Jack and Karen try to set each other up.
Written by Greg Malins | Directed by James Burrows
As with the premiere, I’ve chosen to highlight the first half of this amiable two-parter mainly to fill out the list, for it’s neither excellent like the two entries bracketing it here nor excessively notable like some of the others featured above and below. That said, I think this is — as with the premiere — a better written show than it may seem, with a funny, and surprisingly unstrained teleplay (that is, it doesn’t labor in pursuit of its laughs — it gets them with ease) that elevates the otherwise ordinary proceedings: Grace going out on a date for the first real time since her split from Leo. Now, while I’m able to compliment Part I for its smart text, please note that I’m decidedly unable to do the same for Part II, which goes overboard with Sweeps sentiment, with a heavier story that aims to put a button on the Grace/Leo relationship and reinforce the bond between Grace and Will at the same time. All of that’s noble, of course, it’s just far less comedic… and not really necessary — Leo didn’t work as a character, and we’re tired of mourning his existence; we’ve spent two years doing that!
05) Episode 156: “Queens For A Day (I)” (Aired: 11/25/04)
Will and his friends go to Vince’s family’s house in Queens for Thanksgiving.
Written by Kirk J. Rudell | Directed by James Burrows
My choice for the season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), the first part of “Queens For A Day” is being recognized below by itself, but know that I consider both parts of this outing — which was originally broadcast by NBC in a single hour-long block — superlative and regard them together as the year’s finest. Incidentally, if there’s any one reason why I ultimately selected Part I over Part II, it’s merely that, when it comes to well-done farcical comedy — and this is a style that this Thanksgiving show somewhat embraces — most of the fun is in the anticipation, or build-up, as opposed to the climax, and though I wouldn’t cite the second half of this show as being disappointing, simply put, the excitement it inspires is probably never higher than at the end of Part I, where after the script has set up its stakes — how important it is for Will to prove himself to Vince’s overprotective mother (Lee Garlington) — we realize just what a challenge it’s going to be to keep the dinner from imploding, courtesy of Vince’s imaginary feud with his father (Robert Costanzo), his sister’s (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) confession to Jack that she’s secretly a lesbian, and the underage cousin who is sexing it up with both Grace and Karen… It’s a classic one-act, leading to a Thanksgiving dinner that we know isn’t going to go according to plan, with some great character stuff and lots of choice laughs in support.
06) Episode 157: “Queens For A Day (II)” (Aired: 11/25/04)
Will tries to keep Vince’s mother from having any more reason to hate him.
Written by Kirk J. Rudell | Directed by James Burrows
As noted above, my favor for this installment isn’t confined only to Part I, for while the above gets the pleasure of taking us to the figurative top of the roller coaster, Part II covers the equally necessary — and still incredibly fun — ride back down to the bottom, with a requisite dinner table combustion where all the varying relationships and secrets that Will has been trying to suppress, so that he can maintain the charade of a perfect day for his boyfriend’s very difficult mother, are no longer able to be contained. It’s enjoyable — sure, we’ve seen this kind of material before; sitcom holidays are loaded with climaxes like such, but it works because of the character stakes underscoring the action. That is, because we know how much Will cares about Vince — again, his most serious love interest of the entire series — then everything that could potentially go wrong here, and does, is emotionally heightened courtesy of our investment in Will, and our knowledge of his investment in Vince. Also, the teleplay — thanks in part to the unity of time and place — is a cut above this season’s average, so there really was no question about Seven’s MVE; it was going to be either one of this excellent showing’s two parts!
07) Episode 161: “Bully Woolley” (Aired: 02/03/05)
Grace takes on Karen’s enemy as a client, while Jack tries to be a good friend to Will.
Written by Greg Malins | Directed by James Burrows
This is the middle part of the Scott Woolley trilogy, which features Jeff Goldblum as a vengeance-seeking old enemy of Karen’s who realizes that his hatred is actually a form of love and that instead of ruining her, he wants to be dating her. After the first entry comically dealt with his attempts to steal her company — where there are some fun moments, especially the board scene at the end where Karen takes back control via blackmail — this one has the hardest job of all, as it forces his character to realize an entirely different ambition with regard to his supposed nemesis. Now, I think all of the Woolley shows put the guest star a little too above the regulars, and this one is no different. But because the story involves Grace, it ends up being more enshrined in the particulars of this series. Meanwhile, the real reason this one is beloved is the subplot where Jack tries to prove his loyalty to the newly single Will and is given the most extreme test imaginable when Patti LuPone shows up at their same restaurant and Jack is forced to pretend like he’s not interested. Frankly, it’s the gaudiest cameo of the season — it’s way too convenient that she appears — but, hey, I’m a beggar this year, not a chooser…
08) Episode 164: “The Fabulous Baker Boy” (Aired: 02/24/05)
Will sleeps with Karen’s pastry chef, while Grace’s boyfriend wants Jack to read his script.
Written by Kate Angelo | Directed by James Burrows
Another popular offering, “The Fabulous Baker Boy” is probably best described as a script with two comedic ideas. I enjoy them both marginally — wish they were more character-driven, as always with these Victories In Premise — and feature them here collectively only because the rest of the year’s competition makes excluding this half-hour nearly impossible. I’m least enthused by the Jack/Grace subplot, in which her three-week boyfriend, Nick (Edward Burns), who apparently is a struggling screenwriter, wants Grace to give his script to TV executive Jack. It’s one of those stories that everyone in the writer’s room probably loves and understands — and this outing tries to make it more universal, by pivoting it towards Grace’s fear of his work being awful and her being unable to date him — but it’s basically a show-resistant character-starved notion. It’s not terrible, but the segment’s only worth noting because of the more comedic A-story, in which Will tries to fire Karen’s pastry chef for her, but ends up sleeping with him, only to learn that the pastry chef sleeps with everybody (even Rosario)… It’s a funny idea, and dealing with sexuality, well, I suppose we can say it’s thematically appropriate.
09) Episode 166: “The Blonde Leading The Blind” (Aired: 04/21/05)
Karen gets glasses, while Grace bonds with Will’s therapist.
Written by Sonja Warfield | Directed by James Burrows
Sharon Stone guest stars in this underrated episode as Will’s comically harsh therapist who takes a surprise liking to Grace, thus opening up a feud between the two that’s exacerbated by the doc’s promises to put them both in her book. Now, I don’t inherently love this premise — it seems more enamored of the situational conflict than the deeper truths, and indeed, there’ve been lots of shrink shows on this series, but none of them have ever truly gotten to the heart of the Will/Grace relationship in a way that I think would make the thesis proud. To this one’s credit though, it allows Stone’s character to succinctly sum up their problem — the one we’ve been discussing, and the one that next week’s series finale will (to some fans’ chagrin) affirm — and although it comes out with a rosier conclusion than it probably deserves, this self-awareness is appreciated… Speaking of self-awareness, the familiar subplot in which a vain, outspoken character gets glasses happens with Karen, and it gets the amount of laughs that one would expect of it. (Note: Seinfeld’s Phil Morris plays Karen’s eye doctor.)
10) Episode 169: “Friends With Benefits” (Aired: 05/19/05)
Grace agrees to work for an old flame, while Karen is forced to apologize to Beverly Leslie.
Written by Tracy Poust & Jon Kinnally | Directed by James Burrows
Airing first in an hour-long block that included this entry and the season’s technical finale, “Friends With Benefits” is therefore the first of a two-parter, and it has to set up the year’s cliffhangers — specifically, Grace’s kiss with her now married ex (Eric Stoltz) and Will’s discovery that Karen’s beloved Stan has faked his death and is actually still alive. I don’t really think this or the following installment are very good, but I had room to highlight one of them and I’ve chosen to do so because I have to share some thoughts on how the season ends. While the Grace story is kind of forgettable and bottom of the barrel — next year will do away with it immediately — the Stan storyline, with aid from Alec Baldwin, is a better hook, as Eight has to bring its characters to their happy endings and definitely benefits from some full-circle storytelling. That’s also evident with Jack, who becomes an on-air personality in the year’s finale, reinforcing his love of performing… As for why I chose this one over the finale proper, I think the Karen subplot with Beverly Leslie, who demands an apology after Karen publicly called him gay, is full of big (albeit, easy) laughs, making it a much more enjoyable half-hour.
Other episodes that merit mention include: “Key Party,” a dramatically solid but comedically middling offering (I wish it was funnier), “Sour Balls,” which has a somewhat sweet Grace/Karen story, and a decent Victory In Premise with Jack and Will, and “Partners,” which wastes Lily Tomlin (unfortunately) and toils greatly to end the Will/Vince relationship. Of more Honorable Mention quality, meanwhile, are the two other Jeff Goldblum shows — “Board Games” and “Dance Cards And Greeting Cards” — along with, “It’s A Dad, Dad, Dad, Dad World,” in which Alan Arkin appears as Grace’s father (with Lee Majors as his friend), and “From Queer To Eternity,” which sets up Jack’s return to performing. Oh, and I suppose the aforementioned and gimmicky “Back Up, Dancer” is too memorable to ignore.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Seven of Will & Grace goes to…
“Queens For A Day (I)”
Come back next week for Season Eight! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!