Will & Grace

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.

§ §

The titular stars, Will Truman (Eric McCormack) and Grace Adler (Debra Messing) have been friends since college.

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.

§

The second very odd couple consists of the ultra-gay Jack McFarland (Sean Hayes) and the ultra-rich Karen Walker (the delightful Megan Mullally).

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.

A family.

§

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!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

6 responses to “Will & Grace

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    I never got into Will & Grace. When it came out, I was consumed by my career and had little time for TV. By the time that changed, the show was in the final years of its initial run. It’s a cultural moment that, despite being aware of it, I never participated in.

    My own shift on how I viewed homosexuality wouldn’t happen until a period of questioning everything c. 2004-2005. Maybe if I’d watched the show that would have happened sooner.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      It would have been hard to jump into in the last years — so much had been established by then. As with most shows these days, the characters’ lives evolve and change. (I amuse myself by tracing that evolution entirely within Star Trek. The TOS episodes all stand alone. The TNG episodes mostly stand alone, but we were post-Roots then, and shows were experimenting with arcs. By DS9 we’re seeing seasonal arcs as pretty standard, and ENT is all-in on series arcs. Episodes now are pretty much just chapters of a longer story. Even seasons are just books in an N-ology.)

      I couldn’t recommend it now as something to watch someday. It’s time has passed, and I suspect it would feel very dated. Even at the time some progressives felt it lagged reality (duh; it’s network TV; count your blessings). I liked the show enough to buy the DVDs, when DVDs were a thing, but they got donated to the library long ago.

      I got into theatre in high school, and filmmaking in college, and this was all in Los Angeles, so I had early exposure to gays as just part of normality. (And I wasn’t brought up with any major notions about homosexuality one way or the other.) The arts, especially theatre, has always been more welcoming, so gay people were more open about themselves there.

      (I’ll tell you this: gay guys throw the best parties. Great food, beautiful decor, good music, lively well-dressed crowd — some of the best parties I’ve ever been to, and I’ve been to some real doozies.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        That reminds me of the show, Three’s Company. It was very much a product of its time. Watching it today, it’s at best cute, but lacks much of titillation that was behind its success c. 1980. Come to think of it, post Will & Grace, many might now consider the early seasons offensive. Very much a show whose historical moment has passed.

        Growing up in south Louisiana, the unrelenting message my culture fed me about homosexuality was negative. About the only thing that could be worse was an atheist. A different world. (Unfortunately, not completely gone.)

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Heh, Three’s Company. I was just getting out of college in Los Angeles when that show started. This was kind of the height of the free sex era. (Herpes and AIDS would end that by the 1990s.) Considering the era, that show was downright prudish. (Well, of course. Network TV.)

        Those three characters, for all they were framed as horny modern (i.e. sexually free) youngsters, were actually intimidated, if not horrified, by actual sex. They spent as much time running away from it as supposedly chasing it.

        We used to talk about how every episode had basically the same plot: One of them lied, pretended to be someone they weren’t, or accidentally did something wrong they tried to cover up,… which has the expected results until they come clean, lesson-learned (until next week; rinse, repeat).

        But the gals had John Ritter and we guys had Joyce DeWitt and Suzanne Somers (later Priscilla Barnes), and it was simple clean goofy fun, so what the hell. (I suppose there’s kind of a Mary Ann vs Ginger thing with Janet vs Chrissy or Terri. I always go for the Janet types. Brains over beauty every time. That said, definitely Ginger once I turned 30.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        That show was hot right as I was discovering the whole sex thing, so for me, completely disconnected from the actual free sex culture, it was the subject matter that made it interesting. But yeah, the plots were all hopelessly silly.

        I always went for the smart brunette myself, and never outgrew it. Dumb blondes have never worked for me. So Mary Ann and Janet for me, always. (The protagonist of Devs is a smart brunette, which probably added to the show’s appeal for me.)

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I was into Mary Ann when I was younger, but as I got older I realized Ginger would be way more fun — that gal knew how to party. Neither of them were academics or scholars, so it wasn’t a brains vs beauty thing (both were beautiful); more an innocent vs naughty (and naughty is a lot more fun 😈 ).

Leave a Reply to SelfAwarePatterns Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: