Sunday night I watched the last episodes of Will & Grace, a comedy that first premiered on NBC in 1998. It enjoyed eight seasons, ending in 2006. Then, eleven years later, in 2017, the original creators and actors rebooted it in what turned out to be a three season run. (Eleven year gap; eleven seasons total. Cute.)
The show was quite popular during its first six seasons, but experienced a pronounced drop in viewership during seasons seven and eight. The reboot did okay the first year, but wasn’t huge, and people lost interest by the second year.
If I’m honest, this third year I’ve kinda been waiting for the patient to die.
That said, I want to be clear it was like watching a loved one die. (Not a human, it wasn’t that intense. Like a favorite tree, maybe. Sad, not tragic.)
There can be a weird tension between loyalty and a growing realization a relationship no longer works (for whatever reason). It varies depending on the importance — the loyalty I might have for a local restaurant is a faint shadow of the loyalty I have for friends.
It also depends on what tests that loyalty; some offenses are easier to forgive than others.
As an aside: One of my stranger moments of self-growth was the to-me stunning realization I could probably, with effort, survive my partner being unfaithful. As a younger man that would have shattered my mind and heart; the offense would have been unforgivable. (And, absolutely, this sauce applies to goose and gander. I would never expect a partner to accept infidelity.)
I’ve been lucky to never have been tested that way. (As far as I know. 😮 ) Nor have I forced that choice on anyone. (I’m not making any claim to excellence, let alone perfection. I have a whole bookcase of interesting other flaws.)
I’m off on another tangent, but it’s perhaps an appropriate one given that Will & Grace is, to a large extent, a sex comedy.
It isn’t a bedroom farce or romance, although the show is filled with love.
It is very much about the relationships between the four characters, but none of those relationships are romantic. At least not in any traditional sense.
They dated, and it got serious (at least in Grace’s mind), but Will was struggling with the growing understanding that he is gay. Their romantic relationship crashed badly, but they become best friends who live together.
There was a rather powerful scene just this year when long-standing pain from that backstory comes out. Grace, broken-hearted about the breakup, wasn’t there for Will when he needed her most. It’s kind of a poignant truth about close relationships.
Which is the show at its best. It can be silly, it even descends into slapstick at times (and I am not a fan of slapstick), but it had that M*A*S*H-like ability to pivot into a serious moment, a small bit of human truth.
To me, that’s the greatest value of comedy. It makes us laugh, which we need, but it can show us deep difficult truths in a way that’s easier to swallow (the spoonful of sugar).
I think comedians are some of the truest of truth tellers.
Karen and Jack are so wacky they make Will and Grace seem rather normal. These two silly moons orbit around the more “grounded” pair (ha!) and provide much of the slapstick (although Messing gets in on that fun, too).
Will is largely the straight man, which is ironic. He’s the conservative one, the thoughtful one (to the extent any of them are thoughtful), and certainly the more fearful one (a big bundle of insecurities, in fact).
Flamboyant Jack, Will’s other BFF, is a painfully unsuccessful wannabe actor (he’s terrible at it). He depends on his friends to get by financially. Jack and Karen are inseparable pals (a nice benefit for impoverished Jack). That’s how someone from the upper crust even knows Will or Grace.
Karen (whose grotesquely obese off-screen husband Stanley we never see) usually has a drink in her hand and pops pills like Tic Tacs. Both she and Jack are… well, let’s say very under-educated. Both show flashes of depth, even intelligence, from time to time, but they’re definitely the show’s idiot clowns.
It has become rare to have a white hat character who is a casual (functional) alcoholic and pill-popper (unless that’s the point, as with House, M.D.). I was a big fan of Foster Brooks, but comedy acts like that died a long time ago.
I have to admire the show for never toning down Karen Walker.
And while it’s true I usually need to personally like the characters more than I do these, the quality of the writing (not to mention the content), and the character consistency over the years, made the show (as NBC put it) “must see TV.”
It’s little like Seinfeld that way. I loathed those people, but the writing was top-notch and ground-breaking for the time.
That was Will & Grace during their original eight-year run. None of the four characters were someone I would befriend (they’re all shallow and narcissistic), but the writing was top-notch. More importantly it was ground-breaking. It was a hugely popular late 1990s show with not one, but two out-of-the-closet gay leads.
For gay people, especially those living in places not so accepting as others even in the late 1990s, it was water in the desert, manna from heaven. It was one of those shows that changed people’s lives.
Of course it got a lot of flack for not doing enough, or for doing it the wrong way, because this is America, and there’s always someone willing to tell you just how wrong you are about something.
(Even I get in on that act sometimes.)
But as (president-to-be 🤞🏼) Biden once said, Will & Grace has likely done more to communicate gender issues than almost anything else. This is exactly due to comedy’s ability to get past mental defenses. It defuses and educates. And makes one laugh, to boot.
So for all those reasons, I’ve been a loyal viewer of the reboot, but in many ways it’s a case of visiting a loved one aged beyond their prime.
What was significant twenty years ago is far less so now, in part due to the success of the show back then. They were the change they sought, and that change, to a fair degree, happened.
The show actually became irrelevant. The reboot isn’t the cultural landmark the original is. The value was mainly in letting us watch those four actors do those four characters one last time.
I’m not a fan of reboots, but this one worked. It was fun watching those actors do those characters again. It was friendly. There is so much love between the characters, especially between the two pairs. In many ways the show is about friendship and love despite the flaws.
And (spoilers here and below) it ends with Grace, on a deliberate single mom track, about to give birth, and Will, expecting to become a father of a surrogate child, buying a house together in the suburbs of NYC.
It actually caught me a little off-guard. I don’t pay much attention to show business news, so I rarely see things coming (which is why I don’t pay attention — I like surprises).
When I sat down Sunday night to catch up on viewing, there were three unwatched episodes, which I thought was a nice treat.
It’s been clear they were leaning into the end of things, and that flavor was really strong in the first episode I watched. What I didn’t realize is that the next one was, firstly, the penultimate series episode, and secondly, the final story episode.
Turns out the very last episode was a retrospective featuring only Eric McCormack (and lots of clips). The previous episode, buying the house, moving out, Grace having labor pains, everyone running off to the hospital, the last shot of an empty apartment… was it.
And thus ends another one of life’s little arcs. It was a pretty good one.
Stay Graceful, my friends!