'Will & Grace' Is Back, But Will Its Viewers Be?

Sep 28, 2017
Originally published on October 20, 2017 9:29 am

Just as the original Will & Grace did in 1998, the new Will & Grace finds our two favorite roommates playing a party game. But while the original scene was more like $25,000 Pyramid ("Driftwood ... John Wayne ... your parents' marriage ..." "Things that are dead!"), this time, they're playing Celebrity — similar, but different. This time, it's a joke about Newt Gingrich looking like a lesbian, one about Melania Trump being a "rich hostage" (thus confused with Patty Hearst) and one about Caitlyn Jenner being hard to like.

When Will and Grace played Pyramid in 1998, the point was to underscore their closeness. Now, when they play Celebrity, it's just to make jokes about famous people that feel a few months past their sell-by dates.

When Will & Grace went off the air in 2006, it aired a finale that largely closed the door on more stories of the duo: It ended with a falling-out, then leapt forward to reveal that they remained separated for decades, until their respective children fell in love with each other in college. But then, the cast reunited for a mini-episode in 2016 to encourage people to vote, and apparently, they decided to get the band back together for real. Not only is the show back this fall, but it has already been renewed for another season on top of that. The cast — Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, Sean Hayes and Megan Mullally — is back, as are the creators, David Kohan and Max Mutchnick, and longtime director, James Burrows.

So why isn't it better?

There are people who never liked the show, of course. Some didn't like its mostly smug and self-centered characters, who are a little like the people on Seinfeld if, in the cases of Will and Grace themselves, they thought they were nice. Some didn't like the way Hayes' portrayal of Jack leaned into gay stereotypes. And some just didn't laugh, as there are people who don't laugh at everything. (Also some didn't think gay people belonged on television, but ... I have nothing for them, review-wise, except that ... Will and Jack are still gay.) But to me, the silliness of it usually made up for its flaws, such that for a long time, I saved episodes on my DVR (it didn't stream anywhere legally until just recently, when it arrived on Hulu) so that I could watch them when I was bored or desperately in need of distraction.

Critics had access to the first three new episodes, and the first, in particular, is not promising. After an awkward waving-away of the finale that now never happened (see ya, hard-won stories of emotional growth!), we settle into an episode that's mostly about our current American political moment, by which the show is just overmatched. The election results become a story about how Karen, a Trump supporter, taunts Grace, and then a flat bunch of gags that have nothing to say about Trump's presidency, but only about his personality. (The internet has been making the specific skin-tone joke they chose for at least a year and a half; it's a little surprising it gets a laugh at all, let alone a prolonged hoot.) It's the safest, least interesting way to tell yourself you're engaging with politics, which would be easier to overlook if the jokes were funny.

The other two are a bit better — the better one is the second, which grapples with age and features a dynamite guest spot from Ben Platt, who recently won a Tony Award for Dear Evan Hansen. Platt's infusion of weird high energy is very welcome, and the episode also gives Hayes some opportunities to flop his body around in funny ways, which he has always been good at.

There are nice moments in these episodes, and there is nothing wrong with the comfort of revisiting old friends in difficult times. That seems to be largely what the cast is doing; the show feels more persuasive as a reunion they're really enjoying than as a creative project. Some of the belief that the show would be welcome right now seems to have come from the promise of making political jokes, but if that is going to be a recurring topic, the writing needs to get a lot sharper.

And what was once the groundbreaking decision just to center on gay characters with full lives no longer makes the show feel fresh; if anything, it faces the challenge of overcoming its own bad habits, including a long history of jokes about transgender people that would likely not fly now with the audience they're going for. This summer, for instance, Messing told critics she really hoped the show could do a good job addressing itself to gender identity in a way it previously hadn't, to which co-creator Kohan snapped, "Will & Greg? Would that work?" It's not the most creative way of responding to a question about this topic, so it remains to be seen where they'll take it.

Revivals like this are tough. Sometimes it seems like the best-case scenario is what this feels like, and what Gilmore Girls sometimes felt like when it returned: Nobody needs it, and it doesn't have that much to say, and you would be better off watching the original series if you're starting from scratch. But just as there is something to be said for having drinks with friends you don't have much in common with anymore, there is something to be said for being in the company of characters you like, particularly during times of high anxiety. Maybe that is the way in which the new Will & Grace, in fact, addresses itself most effectively to the national mood.

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