Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re concluding 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.
Will & Grace’s swan song benefits from a self-awareness about its finality, as it throws itself unabashedly and with trademark boldness into every episode, illustrating a resoluteness absent from the wavering Seven, which had its own abundance of ostentatious star turns but couldn’t supply much desired character value because it wasn’t allowed to progress the regulars toward their endgames — having to slow-walk closure until the actual final season. Accordingly, every show here knows that closure is the main objective, and even the stunts and cameos — which last year failed to dazzle because they had become so routine and commonplace — now have added merit, simply because the season is determined to make everything count: the big laughs, the grand guests, and the huge finale-led arcs… Of course, even if the show’s increased determination typically bodes well for Eight, not everything works, and whiffs of last year’s middling quality linger, particularly when it’s not pushing the regulars toward their end-of-the-run conclusions. Some of the self-contained plots or arcs tend to drag — like Karen’s romance with Malcolm (Alec Baldwin) before she decides to reunite with Stan, or Will’s brief affair with Taye Diggs’ James, who’s introduced in a wonderful meet-cute but derailed by a story-heavy trilogy where Grace agrees to marry him to stay in the country (not only is it contrived, it’s recycled — remember Jack/Rosario?) — for the purposeful nature of the season rejects anything that seems like a time-filler without sufficiently compensatory hahas. Thus, narratives better connected to the characters, and where they’re going, are more significantly attention-grabbing, even when they’re gaudy, story-driven, and not something we really want to see in episodic story — like Grace’s pregnancy (courtesy of a one-off tryst with ex-husband Leo), which we don’t necessarily enjoy, but nevertheless recognize as an important and series-specific sign of her character’s emotional maturation and arc-fulfillment.
Now, I’ve decided to highlight one half of the finale below so that I have more space to share thoughts on where the show takes these characters, but I’ll start here. Regarding Jack and Karen (incidentally, Mullally won another Emmy for her work in the finale), I don’t think the series surprises us by denying them big emotional arcs — yes, he returns to acting by season’s end and she once again leaves Stan, but they’re pretty much constant beings… and they always have been. Less consistent are Will and Grace, whose endgames both involve kids and partnerships with the love interests we saw them with most often: Vince and Leo. But while Vince had adequate definition and is therefore worthy of Will, the Leo character was a total bust, and the only reason Grace ends up with him is because it’s convenient: there’s no one else with whom she was able to date as seriously. As such, I can’t say I’m pleased — for again, Leo is not a character; he’s a cardboard cutout… More interesting, though, is that the time-jumping finale feels the need to separate the two leads — they talk just once over 18 years — while they individually live out their happy endings. It’s an odd, unpleasant note on which to end a rom-com about two people who care deeply for one another (see: the original Mad About You finale), but it speaks to their central conflict, which was never resolved by the characters in episodic story. You see, Will and Grace could never find mutual happiness while being so codependent, so they had to separate… But wait; did they really have to separate? Well, if the back half of the series had done a better job of evolving the two methodically, so that by the end they’d both found worthwhile partners but were also able to maintain a strong, yet now healthier bond of their own, I think the show wouldn’t need to resort to the same drama it had already explored in early Season Five during the misbegotten insemination arc. That is, if the two had been able to mature since then, they wouldn’t have needed to split again in the finale… And yet, I give the show credit for not pretending otherwise. These characters HAVEN’T grown and not only does the finale confirm this fact, it also gives them a happy ending in spite of it… generously, but expectedly.
I’m not sad to be done with this series. I’ve had fun discussing it and believe there are a dozen or so classic episodes (maybe even a few this year; my MVE and the two live shows are primo, putting all their figurative chips on the series’ burlesque comedy and the strength of its ensemble). But Will & Grace — and The King Of Queens and That ‘70s Show before it — have taken this blog into a new era in sitcom history: the mid ‘00s. And like so many transitional periods, it’s a strange place to be… especially when talking of the “old guard,” as these aforementioned shows were. Oh, I don’t mean just because they grew old — it’s also because they’re multi-cams. And, sure, the most popular comedies of the time were still shot in front of a live audience (like Two And A Half Men, The New Adventures Of Old Christine, Rules Of Engagement). But they were clearly no longer considered by the industry, or by cultured viewers (like you and me), to be as excellent as some of the award-winning single-cam darlings that, if I were to study this era in full next, I’d certainly be highlighting — like Arrested Development, The Office, 30 Rock. These latter series seemed to better represent where the medium was going, and by the end of the decade, this presumption would self-fulfill: the best comedies on the air were these single-cams, boasting media literacy and oodles of self-awareness, all stemming from a wink enabled by the “mockumentary” design, which replaced the theatricality of multi-cams as the structural conduit for emotional access. It’s a shame the intimate Lucy setup came to be considered a less effective venue for accessibility than the more cinematic alternative, but I don’t blame viewers; to see both the sincerity of the character work in shows like The Office and the flimsy vaudeville of a, say, Will & Grace, is to know why this trend occurred — why the era’s multi-cams were naturally being taken less seriously, as their single-cam counterparts were gaining credibility. So, to talk about sitcoms in 2005 and cover Will & Grace but not The Office, is almost painful, for it’s an incomplete picture… But I’m not yet ready to ride the wave from The Office to The Good Place. I have to go back to the beginning and fill in some of this blog’s gaps: back to actual vaudeville, with Burns & Allen and Phil Silvers… However, before we do that, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s finest.
01) Episode 171: “Alive And Schticking” (Aired: 09/29/05)
Will doesn’t know what to do after learning that Stan is still alive.
Written by Bill Wrubel | Directed by James Burrows
Season Eight opens with a stunt — a completely live offering, performed once for the East Coast and once for the West — and while that could be criticized as in keeping with the series’ MSTV roots and its need for gimmicks to gin up excitement, at least a live broadcast is a multi-cam-friendly device, for it showcases the beauty of the format: its theatricality, its ability to provide real time intimacy, and its inability to thrive unless there are great characters played by great actors. To that point, this is also a stunt that acquits Will & Grace well, for the series’ strengths have always resided chiefly in the ensemble and its collective energy, which is aided by the multi-cam setup because it allows the players to operate big and broad, in tandem with the show’s comedic sensibilities. As an episode of the series then, this is an affirmation of its charms — even though it’s quite simple; it takes place entirely in Will’s apartment and the hallway, and only involves the four regulars, Rosario, and Alec Baldwin’s Malcolm, who’s on hand to start a love triangle with Karen and Stan, whom she learns is still alive. Meanwhile, Messing and Hayes have a ball playing opposite each other — cracking each other up — and even if some of the laughs are caused by their silliness, it’s still a lot of fun… more than we’ve seen on this series in a long time. (Note: only the East Coast telecast is commercially available, but I believe it’s a stronger showing than the West Coast’s, anyway.)
02) Episode 176: “Love Is In The Airplane” (Aired: 11/10/05)
Grace encounters Leo on a flight, while Jack feuds with Rosario’s replacement.
Written by Tracy Poust & Jon Kinnally | Directed by James Burrows
Admittedly, I wanted to exclude this installment from my list out of disdain for the series’ reuse of Leo (Harry Connick, Jr.), a character I’ll never tire of saying was undefined and mostly created for a Sweeps stunt to suggest growth for Grace that wasn’t regularly exhibited in story — all made worse by the fact that he was totally unable to propel character-rooted comedy or drama. And, essentially, his inclusion here is no better — the scenes between the two of them, with the functional goal of enabling a tryst that can lead to her surprise pregnancy, are overly sentimental and not fun to watch. But the rest of this segment is memorable, with an affable story involving Will flirting with the flight attendants in both first class and coach, and a well-liked subplot where, in the midst of Karen having fired Rosario, she hires a moody replacement, played by Millicent Martin (Daphne’s mom on Frasier). I can’t say the Karen subplot is excellent — it’s kind of routine and familiar — but we like the story’s players, and the emotional conclusion its reaches, and I think, of early Eight’s output, this is among the more memorable.
03) Episode 179: “A Little Christmas Queer” (Aired: 12/08/05)
Will and his friends spend Christmas at his mother’s.
Written by Jamie Rhonheimer | Directed by James Burrows
You’ll notice that there aren’t many selections from the fall of this year; that’s because too many of the entries in the first half of the season, in comparison to the rest of Eight, are too concerned with elements that we know are impermanent distractions — like Alec Baldwin’s Malcolm — and so it isn’t until the year starts more actively crusading towards its end that the series’ dramatic interests heighten, alongside its always-pronounced comedy, making for more notable, potent excursions. A Christmas outing, this is one of two shows this year that get the entire ensemble at Will’s house, and they both benefit from the aggregation of strong characters within a unity of time and place. But this one, in particular, is choice because it uses Will’s likely gay nephew (son of the now-single brother with whom Grace once slept, played by John Slattery in Season One, but in Eight by Wings‘ Steven Weber) to explore some of Will’s lingering resentment towards his mother (Blythe Danner) about his sexual orientation. This gives the script some true dramatic substance, making it more than a trivial half-hour.
04) Episode 180: “Von Trapped” (Aired: 01/05/06)
The group goes to a sing-along screening of The Sound Of Music.
Written by Gail Lerner | Directed by James Burrows
My choice for the season’s Most Valuable Episode, “Von Trapped” is the kind of show that I don’t necessarily think represents my — or this blog’s — ideal of what great situation comedy should typically be. In fact, it’s basically one Victory In Premise, with every turn in the story and most of the character decisions revolving around the chosen thematics: the screening of The Sound Of Music, which inspires costumes, quotes, and outright parodies of several key moments from that film. In other words, then, this isn’t exactly a character-driven show, for it’s leading with its idea, and making sure everything fits around that… And yet, since Will & Grace no longer has any claims on being a true character-rooted series (at least, not as far as weekly story is concerned), and because this kind of idea-based gimmickry (usually reserved for Sweeps, but not in this instance) has become such a defining part of the show and its comedic identity, I’ve come to the conclusion that no installment is a better ambassador for this season. And, again, I don’t mean that as a backhanded compliment, for this is easily the funniest teleplay of the entire final year, and while it helps if you’re familiar with The Sound Of Music, only a vague recognition of the piece is necessary to enjoy the bevy of associated jokes and scenarios — especially the broader ones, like Karen going “undercover” as a nun, Sister Anastasia Beaverhausen. Also… I suppose there’s some character work being done, as this is the show that introduces Will to James (Taye Diggs), a temporary love interest whose initial promise is rescinded courtesy of the “let’s get him married so he can stay in the country” arc, which is totally dissatisfying for a number of reasons. But I digress… here, his scenes with Will are charming, and coming in a teleplay that prioritizes big laughs, this is the one you’ll most enjoy.
05) Episode 181: “Bathroom Humor” (Aired: 01/12/06)
Will, Grace, and Jack argue in Karen’s bathroom during her birthday party.
Written by Greg Malins | Directed by James Burrows
If I hadn’t selected the above as my MVE, then my only other option was this, the second and final of the series’ two live shows… Now, if the first live broadcast was a stunt meant to secure eyeballs, then the second — coming less than four months after the previous — is almost more shameful, for not only is it a stunt, it’s now a tired stunt. However, as I noted above, this is exactly the kind of MSTV gimmick that takes advantage of the series’ strengths — namely its theatrical comedy and its capable ensemble who make it look so easy. And so, “Bathroom Humor” is a better showcase for both the format and the performers than “Alive And Schticking,” for although both are written simply — limited to a few sets and characters — and delight because they’re not allowed to let story particulars overtake the interactions between the regulars (playing in veritable real-time, too), this one commits to the one-act quality more overtly. It all takes place in Karen’s bathroom, most of the cast is together at the same time (mainly Will, Grace, and Jack), and it revels in some broad slapstick reminiscent of the multi-cam’s origins, with sloppy fights involving bathroom products and a gag about Karen’s medicine cabinet. As a result, this is one of the year’s funniest, flattering the ensemble and their large contribution to the series’ success. (Rosario and Beverly Leslie also appear, while Matt Lauer makes a regrettable MSTV-driven cameo.) Incidentally, only the East Coast version is commercially available, but as with the earlier live show, the better performance was selected for syndication/release.
06) Episode 183: “Cop To It” (Aired: 01/26/06)
Will and Grace run into Vince while at dinner with a separated Rob and Ellen.
Written by Sally Bradford | Directed by James Burrows
After several years of hardly seeing either Rob or Ellen, they return a few times in the final season — this being the entry that gives them the most exposure, as they announce to a surprised Will and Grace that they have amicably separated. Naturally, this is a chance for Grace to lecture them both about how awful it is out there dating and how lucky they both are to have someone who’ll put up with them — it’s all kind of expected, but with characters for whom we have a mild (or tepid) affinity, and at a time when the show is knowingly closing up shop, this feels something like an endgame arc and we welcome it. Speaking of closing up shop, “Cop To It” also reintroduces Vince, Will’s love interest from last season, whom we initially think is working as a waiter, but has apparently rejoined the police force and is undercover. He and Will don’t reunite yet — it’s too early for that — but putting him back on the audience’s radar is clearly the first step towards doing so (just like “Love Is In The Airplane” did with Leo). Meanwhile, Jack and Karen have subplots in a bowling alley, but they’re not worth discussing.
07) Episode 188: “Buy, Buy, Baby” (Aired: 03/30/06)
Jack’s show gets a cohost while Karen picks a random lady to be her surrogate.
Written by Kirk J. Rudell | Directed by James Burrows
The series apparently had one more pop diva cameo to foist upon us, as Britney Spears guest stars in this outing — not as herself, but as a dumb, conservative, country girl that OutTV’s new owners have forced Jack to adopt as his cohost. There are some easy laughs here, and credit where it’s due — Spears is a better comic performer than some of her forebears (I’m looking at you, Madonna) — but this is really the story used to get Jack out of his TV job and start him back on the path towards actual acting, which, for his character, basically represents his endgame arc. It’s guest star heaven this week though, as George Takei makes a cameo while the subplot features the always amusing Wanda Sykes as Cricket, a makeup lady from the mall that Karen hires to be a potential surrogate. This is part of Karen’s endgame arc; after reuniting with Stan, she finds herself unhappy and considering divorce once again — hoping that perhaps a baby might change things for them. It’s meant to give her character some added depth… I think it’s a little too late in the game for that, but the effort is appreciated.
08) Episode 189: “Blanket Apology” (Aired: 04/06/06)
Will is upset when his father gives his childhood blanket to Grace.
Written by James Lecesne | Directed by James Burrows
This is the culmination of Will’s personal arc about himself, for as we’ve been watching ever since Season One, the leading man has never been as comfortable with his sexual orientation as, say, Jack. He’s always had issues accepting himself for who he is, and his parents have been used to explain why. This offering, which once more features Blythe Danner and Sydney Pollack together as his parents, hits the issue head-on when Will’s father gives Will’s old baby blanket to Grace… something that irritates Will because it suggests that his folks don’t believe he is going to ever have a family of his own. This leads, naturally, to a fight that ends badly when Will’s father dies soon after. His funeral is in the following episode, “The Mourning Son” (an Honorable Mention), the other entry this season where the ensemble gathers at his house, and the veritable second half to this story… Now, the latter really resolves things between Will and his parents (or mom, anyway), but it’s mostly an excuse to finally reunite Vince and Will. I would have featured it here if I had the space, but frankly, “Blanket Apology” is dramatically stronger, particularly because of its Jack subplot, which gives us one last look at Zandra (Eileen Brennan) and puts him on the course for his next career endeavor: playing a straight cop in a network procedural. So, for both guys, this is an important segment.
09) Episode 192: “Whatever Happened To Baby Gin?” (Aired: 05/11/06)
Karen’s sister visits as Will’s relationship with Vince is complicated by Grace.
Written by Gary Janetti, Tracy Poust & Jon Kinnally | Directed by James Burrows
As the final half-hour prior to the two-part finale, “Whatever Happened To Baby Gin?” is — per its title — a parody of Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, as Karen introduces the group to her sister, Gin, who’s long blamed Karen for a Twister accident that left her legs being two different lengths. It’s a gaggy, not altogether worthwhile narrative, but I admit that the casting of Bernadette Peters as Gin is memorable and elevating. Also, the teleplay is probably better than its chosen story interests, for even though there’s a dramatically/comedically sound plot with Jack where he learns that his voice has been dubbed on his new TV show (Josh Lucas appears as himself in this subplot), the rest of the installment’s got some true heavy-lifting to do, for now that Will and Vince are back together and Grace is still pining for Leo, this one has to set up the finale, and the events that will separate the characters for, basically, 18 years. I don’t think the series is totally successful at doing this, but because the characters’ conflict has always been the same and never changed (seeing as they’ve never really been allowed to grow), it’s not the fault of this outing… which is otherwise simply too loud to ignore.
10) Episode 194: “The Finale (II)” (Aired: 05/18/06)
After a brief reunion, Will and Grace don’t speak again until their kids grow up.
Written by David Kohan & Max Mutchnick | Directed by James Burrows
I already shared some thoughts in the above commentary, but I have to reiterate that this isn’t a great finale — it’s not very funny, it’s not very heartfelt (the most poignant moment is a duet between Jack and Karen that has nothing to do with the story and makes the entire series seem more like a vaudeville than an actual character piece), and most fans find it terribly dissatisfying. Well, that last part is a given: the finale suggests that the only way Will and Grace could have happy lives with their partners and families is for them to literally separate and not speak. Oh, they get together briefly about two years into the break, but they only fully reunite — it’s full circle, but too-cutesy — when their kids wind up going to the same college, falling in love, and getting married. (Blech!) All this time-jumping and that pessimistic view of the central relationship is hard to like — especially in a rom-com, which is predicated on the belief that certain pairs (even friendships) are meant-to-be. By telling us that they are meant-to-be, but only if they spend several decades not bothering each other, the show is essentially saying that the characters could have had their happy endings earlier… if only they didn’t have to endure this series that we (presumably) enjoyed. It’s basically a, “F*** you, audience.” And yet, again, their unhealthy mutual reliance on each other was part of the characters’ drama all along, and while I think the series didn’t have to go this route, the two didn’t get the kind of emotional evolution necessary to solve this problem organically. So, having them separate for an extended period of time was actually the most honest thing the show could do if it wanted to fulfill its genre obligations towards a somewhat happy-ending… well, until the “reboot” word came up…
Other episodes that merit mention include: “The Old Man And The Sea,” which has a funny subplot where Grace double dates with Karen and Malcolm, and gets set up with a guy played by Andy Richter, “The Definition Of Marriage,” the troublingly narrative-led show where Grace plans to marry Will’s love interest, James (it has a few laughs though), and “The Mourning Son,” which is the follow-up to the above-mentioned “Blanket Apology.” Of more Honorable Mention quality, meanwhile, are “Birds Of A Feather Boa,” with its gaudy Beverly Leslie story (note: Leslie Jordan won an Emmy for his work this year), “Swish Out Of Water,” which has a funny scene where Jack dresses up as Bobbi Adler, and “Forbidden Fruit,” which introduces the idea of Karen maybe wanting her own child.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Eight of Will & Grace goes to…
Come back next week for Burns & Allen! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!