What Can “Will & Grace” Tell Us in 2017?
Fix your mind to the moment that “Will & Grace” premièred, in September, 1998, and it can seem antediluvian. Ellen DeGeneres and her sitcom alter ego had come out of the closet, to fanfare and condemnation, only a year and a half earlier. Nathan Lane had starred in “The Birdcage” but hadn’t yet come out in real life. And then onto network television splashed a show about out-and-proud Manhattanites and the women who love them. Surely this was groundbreaking, but Nancy Franklin, in her New Yorker review, sensed something already “a little out of date”:
Women in New York have long complained that all the men here are either married or gay. But gay men, at least, used to be available; relationships with them may not have been sexual, but they were often truly romantic. These days, though, your best gay male friend of a certain age is more likely to be spending his free time picking out towels with his mate or going to their Jack Russell’s obedience-school graduation than he is to be hanging out with you.
Franklin, as it happened, had predicted how the series would end, eight years later: with the title characters falling into a decades-long rift after both find romantic partners. Are the friendships between gay men and straight women inherently dysfunctional, the series asked, or inherently fabulous? Either way, “Will & Grace,” blessed with sharp writing and magic casting (Eric McCormack and Debra Messing), anatomized that bond in a way that pop culture hadn’t seen before, with the side-by-side couplings of the neurotic yuppies Will and Grace and the manic clowns Jack and Karen (played by the also great Megan Mullally and Sean Hayes). Anyone who had ever been part of such a coupling, with its in-jokes and superior party games, knew that it could be as much of its own private world as any marriage, and often as fraught.
For everyone else, the project of “Will & Grace” was to make gay men seem as likable and nonthreatening as the next sitcom hero. Will Truman was a handsome white lawyer with a nice apartment, and he was neither asexual nor lewd: the kind of imaginary office-mate you wouldn’t want to deny a marriage license to. The show’s soft power was confirmed by Vice-President Joe Biden, who, in his endorsement of same-sex marriage on “Meet the Press,” said, “I think ‘Will & Grace’ probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody’s ever done so far.” That was 2012, long after the show had left the air, and there was something “a little out of date” about Biden’s TV tastes: by then we had “Modern Family” and “Glee” and “Queer as Folk,” and the University of Pennsylvania was offering a seminar called “Beyond ‘Will & Grace.’ ” In the years since, we’ve had “Transparent” and “Orange Is the New Black” and “Looking,” not to mention Obergefell v. Hodges. What’s left for “Will & Grace” to tell us?
A reboot starts tonight on NBC, with the characters eleven years older but somehow physically identical to how we last found them. The new season grew out of a reunion video, filmed last year to oppose the Trump campaign, and its promotional campaign (including an awkward appearance on “Megyn Kelly Today”) has teased a “Will & Grace” teethed for the Resistance. The first episode—after waving away the 2006 finale as a daydream—delivers on the promise, with jokes about pussyhats and Melania Trump (plus Grindr and Caitlyn Jenner). It turns out that Karen Walker, the clueless one-per-center ingeniously played by Mullally, voted for Trump and considers the First Lady a dear friend. Will and Grace, meanwhile, are disgusted liberals who nevertheless succumb to Trumpian opportunism. Through Karen, Grace lands a gig redecorating the Oval Office, while Will sets up a date with a handsome congressman who’s trying to gut the E.P.A. Each hides the indiscretion from the other, until they converge at the White House and have a pillow fight.
The subtext: How complicit can people like Will and Grace afford to be under the Trump Administration? Nineteen years ago, they were outliers in mainstream America, but nowadays they seem like paragons of privilege. The L.G.B.T. movement has added several letters to its name and moved on to new levels of wokeness, with TV following suit. (Witness Laverne Cox’s character on “Orange Is the New Black,” a black trans woman sent to solitary confinement.) Compared with more marginalized groups, guys like Will are likely to make it out of the Trump years angry but relatively unscathed, so why not get a date out of it? The show knows this, and makes its characters the butt of the joke: Will and Grace are the last people you’d want organizing a women’s march, but it sure would be fun to see them try.
A stickier kind of politics enters the second new episode, “Who’s Your Daddy?” At a gay bar, Will meets a twenty-three-year-old (played by Ben Platt, of “Dear Evan Hansen”) who thinks he looks like a sexy anchorman. Back at Will’s apartment, the generational gap opens wide. The kid thinks that Madonna is “kind of tired,” and he doesn’t know Stonewall from Stonehenge. Worse, he tells Will that he came out to his parents when he was eight, and they each threw him a party. “God, is that the new gay? You guys grow up in a new happiness bubble?” Will laments. “How’s it supposed to get better if it was always fine?” In lieu of hooking up, he delivers a lecture: “You realize the happy life you have is because we made a big deal about things?”
Of course, Will was a child during Stonewall and who knows where during the aids crisis, and his date’s generation is the one that’s hip to trans rights and Black Lives Matter. But that doesn’t stop Will from claiming the mantle of freedom fighter. It’s the way of the gay world: the older generation always had it worse, and never gets proper credit from the hot young things. The same goes for “Will & Grace,” which arrived right on time (or a few minutes late) and changed things just enough to render itself old-fashioned. Still, it’s good to have the show back on the air: the chemistry of its characters is undeniable, as is its wit. Solidly middle-aged and knowingly oblivious, it isn’t halfway as au courant as “Orange Is the New Black,” but it’s twice as funny.