Will & Grace & Jack & Karen

NBC

In September 1998, Google was founded, Bosnia had its first general election, I started third grade, and Will & Grace premiered on NBC. I don’t remember this last momentous occasion, because my parents were more likely to show their 9-year-old daughter Yentl on VHS than let me watch Must See TV. From what I can gather from the reviews of the time, Will & Grace was warmly received by critics. The Hollywood Reporter declared, “A show with this much respect for its characters and its audience deserves a fighting chance.” Will & Grace, with its whip-smart writing, attractive cast, and unique premise got two fighting chances: its original run stayed on the air until 2006, and it was revived for a ninth season this past fall.

I didn’t start watching the show until it was in syndication in 2003. By then, there were five seasons to catch up on, and I did—out of order, late at night in the basement bedroom I moved into right before starting high school. I’d inherited my brother’s small color TV when he went to college, and began studying Will & Grace when it aired on our local Chicago station between reruns of Frasier and Dharma & Greg.

I watched all of these, but Will & Grace was my church. Making it home every weekday in time to catch the 4:30 p.m. show and staying up every weeknight to watch the 10:30 p.m. episode were the only commitments I could make at 14, and it seemed like more fun than after-school activities or socializing with my peers. I stopped doing my homework and started studying the show’s perfect sitcom structure. At the time, I only understood a fraction of the dirty double-entendres and witty jokes, slowly figuring out the secret language of adults through context and repetition.

Adult humor is, of course, a second language to teenagers, a bridge between childhood obliviousness and the maturity of a knowing laugh. Will & Grace was funny to me before I got the sex jokes, which are half the appeal of the show. And once I started getting them, it was hilarious—so much better than the rough attempts at dirty humor found in my high school hallways. When I laughed at Jack and Karen’s allusions to anal sex or at Grace disparaging her lost virginity, I thought, “This is what wisdom feels like.”

Few people get to be happy in high school, but I was impressively depressed. My middle school friends and I had been separated by the cruel vagaries of our public school system, and I gave up on trying to get anyone new to like me before freshman orientation was over. Will & Grace seemed, at the time, like a better alternative than the hard work of making actual friends, and in those heady hormonal days of hating everyone I knew on principle, fictional television characters were the only people I could admire.

I loved Will and Grace and Jack and Karen, their fabulous apartments and their recognizable pettiness. They, like the friends from whom I’d been separated, made me laugh hard. The dialogue in Will & Grace is filled with quick bursts of smart, mean jokes, and I modeled my teenaged speech on their banter, realizing that you can say just about anything if you don’t care about real people’s real feelings, and sometimes it will even get a laugh. Of course, their batting average dwarfed mine, but I expected this to improve with practice. When I imagined who I’d grow up to be, I could draw a line from a middle-class Chicago upbringing to a gleaming, sophisticated New York adulthood populated by interior designers, lawyers, actors, and socialites. When I pictured my life in 10 years, it looked a lot like the sets of Will & Grace. It didn’t feel out of reach; it felt like a map.

It seems reductive now to say I wanted to be Grace Adler or had a crush on Eric McCormack; I think I wanted to be (with) all of them. I wanted to be as smart as Will and as confident as Karen (the Karen line “I’m a hoot and a half, and I’ve got a killer rack” still appears on a few of my social media profiles). I longed for the physical control over my body that Sean Hayes had as Jack, the ability to make every trip and fall a punchline instead of an embarrassment. I already had Grace’s red hair, so I figured I just needed to date gay men until one of them decided to make me his best friend. I set a related list of goals for myself based on this idea: get involved with theater, apply to schools in New York City, and ignore heterosexual men for as long as possible.When Will & Grace ended its original run in 2006, shortly before my 17th birthday, series finales were final. Shows didn’t come back from the dead any more often than people did. I mourned the end of Will & Grace in much the same way one grieves for a lost friend. My family knew to leave me alone for days after the last episode; I’m sure I made a huge deal about it, and I definitely cried. But by then, my attitude toward the real world was genuinely improving; the first play I’d written had just been performed, and in a few months I’d get a scholarship to Oberlin College. In something of a coincidence, my real life seemed to be coming more under my own control just when Will & Grace was no longer there to act as de facto antidepressant.

Almost as soon as it ended, critics and viewers considered Will & Grace out of date. Some parts of American society were moving more quickly than the static representations of television. As I made my way through college and graduate school in the decade following Will & Grace’s series finale, conversations about the systemic erasure of people of color and underrepresentation of the diversity of the LGBTQIA community in media drove development of more inclusive shows. Actors and writers from backgrounds that had been ignored by network sitcoms began, slowly, to spearhead them. Even as then-Vice President Joe Biden credited Will & Grace with his own change of attitude towards legalizing same-sex marriage, a series of latter-day critiques reconsidering the show’s progressive legacy made me reconsider my adolescent love.

Maybe it wasn’t as progressive as I’d thought. Maybe as a straight-passing bisexual white woman, I hadn’t considered the communities it mocked and excluded very deeply. A maturation of politics, my own and the country’s, made me consign my enthusiasm for the first eight seasons to a problematic former self, someone I decided I had outgrown. I never forgot about Will & Grace—a succession of queer ex-boyfriends confirms this—but I put my obsessive teenage love for it away.

Until it came back.

The origins of the revival are in the 2016 election: NBC executives apparently decided to revive Will & Grace on the strength of a 10-minute spot that brought the original cast together, in character, to encourage viewers to vote. My first reaction to this public service announcement was to openly and cynically disparage the idea that “Vote Honey” would be enough to sway the election (fair, in hindsight). Then I found myself quietly watching and re-watching the “mini-episode” anyway, a pulse of teenage excitement pushing me to look for any clues as to what my friends had been up to lately. I’d spent some adult years analyzing the illusion of television, believing I had grown inured to its primal charms. Yet this new spot made it seem as if Will and Grace and Jack and Karen really had been living their lives all this time in some parallel technicolor New York, while I’d gotten distracted with the dreary business of growing up elsewhere.

When Will & Grace came back for a ninth season last year, much was made of how the media landscape had changed in the 11 years since its eighth season. Multi-camera sitcoms shot in front of a live studio audience had been all but replaced by single-cam fare like Modern Family and Jane the Virgin. The proliferation of single-camera dramedies on new streaming platforms—like half-hours Transparent, One Mississippi, and I Love Dick on Amazon, or the hour-long Orange Is the New Black on Netflix—contributed to the blurring of genres over the last decade.

New streaming platforms segregate audiences by taste and class in different ways, and the characters populating the small screen can now be made less broad, for narrower shares of viewership, than those of classic sitcoms. The stark tonal divisions between half-hour network comedies and hour-long cable dramas that were so clear a decade ago are out of fashion now, as the tenor of the public sphere alternates daily between absurdity and horror. We crave a more nuanced humor, maybe, to combat the polarity of the present.

This was addressed—in a backhanded way—by the truly bizarre meta trailer that accompanied news of a revival season in the summer of 2017, in which Debra Messing (Grace) and Eric McCormack (Will) play hybrid versions of themselves and their characters going to NBC executives and making the case for their show to be revived. In the six-minute segment, they cruise from a glass-enclosed set helpfully labeled “Bob Greenblatt’s NBC office” straight into a soundstage where their “apartment” sits, literally darkened. The image of that living room set awash in ghost light is oddly melancholy, and watching it feels like an inversion of the thrill that comes with innuendo. The Will & Grace team breaks the fourth wall to let us in on a dirty secret: a postmodern revival requires a postmodern framing.The lights come up and bathe the old set in saturated color. Eric McCormack and Debra Messing find Megan Mullally in full Karen drag asleep on their couch. Sean Hayes drops by for a self-consciously surreal song and dance number, and the transformation from the dark ambivalence of contemporary shows to sunny ‘90s sitcom is complete. The quartet finishes the spot fully in character and the set is their diegetic apartment again. We, as the audience, are being taught what to expect from the coming revival, and how we can forgive even its boldest transgressions for the sake of, well, being entertained. Expect the same, but different. Expect the old, but better. The writers know what worked and what didn’t the first time around, with 20/20 hindsight. A ninth season is justified by this contemporary self-awareness, which would have been incongruous 20 years ago on a network sitcom.

Without that recognition—that the landscape of media has changed along with the shape of its audience—revivals feel pointless at best and gutless at worst, like Fuller House and Girl Meets World. Those revivals (I watched both premieres) exploit the success of their first iterations by trading in the loyalty of their first audiences, crafting spineless narratives that would collapse without the borrowed heft. Beginning with the first teaser, the cast and crew behind Will & Grace acknowledged that risk, and by extension, the show’s shortcomings. Say what you will about the blind spots in its storytelling, Will & Grace has always played to its viewers’ intelligence, not its nostalgia.

All of us, behind the screen and in front of it, have been fundamentally changed by the past decade. I can’t find a count of how many of the 10.2 million viewers who tuned into the ninth season premiere were loyal viewers of the first eight seasons. Some of them might not have even been born during the original run. The revival had something to offer new viewers, and a lot to offer old ones. In the ninth season’s best episodes, Will & Grace transcended the lows of the later seasons of its initial run. Somewhat magically and certainly unexpectedly, it recaptured the chemistry, intelligence, and humor that mark its most popular reruns.

It’s worth mentioning how rare it is to see lead characters in their 40s and 50s in sitcom scenarios that reflect the reality of their age but don’t cruelly mock it. In the ninth season, the characters have aged as the actors playing them have aged, and that means that the full 11 years they’ve been absent from our screens have passed in real time for them as well as us. Aging sitcom stars, if they get work at all, usually cross our screens as cameos or supporting players to younger leads. (Even the parents of the teenagers on Riverdale are played by actors who look to be in their mid-30s, per some strange CW tradition.) And because the show’s writers know its audience is familiar with these characters’ histories, fresh storylines in the revival have emerged organically.

The revival quickly tackled Will and Jack dating younger men and Grace’s perennially ambivalent childlessness. Over the span of 16 episodes, Jack became a grandfather, Will suffered a midlife crisis and quit his job as a corporate attorney, and Karen’s beloved maid Rosario died. Most television tries to keep the aging of actors as imperceptible to viewers as possible; revivals present the chance to show a new kind of honesty about the passage of time.

In my favorite episode of this new season, Will and Jack confronted each other about why, in 30 years of friendship, they had never seriously considered dating. It was almost A Very Special Episode, which never would have worked in the original seasons, when the friendship between Will and Jack was there at least in part to teach the audience that not all gay friends are necessarily attracted to one another. But in 2018, we’re supposed to believe these characters now finding themselves single in middle age have known one another since college. When Will revealed that of course he’d considered that it could have gone another way, that there was “a moment” he thought about what it might be like if things had been different, his brief sincerity felt almost daringly authentic. Due in part to the evolution of television itself and the very real evolution of these characters in particular—both of whom were drawn more broadly in the first run—the stakes between them suddenly became more real.

In the time since I’d last seen Will and Grace and Jack and Karen, I had moved away from (and come back to) Chicago three separate times; graduated from high school, college, and graduate school; and learned in my 20s that the aspirational vision of 30-something life I’d worshipped on Will & Grace was probably not going to be in the cards for me. The show had taken its rightful place in my mind as a fantasy of adult life, not a reflection, and I’d long since stopped watching late night reruns in their endless loops. And yet as the ninth season aired, I found myself a loyal viewer again, faithfully arranging my Thursday evenings around each new episode as if I were still an obsessive teenager with no more important responsibilities.My deep love for Will & Grace has changed, but the series has changed, too. The writers still have things to say, and I’m still listening. People who write about television have been critiquing the lure of nostalgia a lot lately, which feels inevitable. Critics point out that repurposing old shows is a cash grab on the part of struggling networks and that the new versions of old favorites can’t possibly ascend to the highs of their younger selves. I am absolutely biased, but I disagree. The truth is, as it always was, more complex than the most cynical take. The Will & Grace revival is actually very good television, and the execs at NBC agree; it’s been renewed for two more seasons. The revival episodes are more than the sum of their nostalgic parts. And for the record, those parts were also pretty great. 

I had almost forgotten the deep impact Will & Grace had had on me at an impressionable age, in part because it’s a fact that forces me to recall a more vulnerable self, one who could be so easily shaped by the media she consumed uncritically. Then the revival spurred a good friend of mine, who had never watched the show, to stream the first eight seasons on Hulu. We’d met in graduate school (where, not incidentally, I studied sitcom writing), and he texted me to ask specifically whether I was a Will & Grace fan. Astonished that someone who knew me well wouldn’t know the answer, I asked why.

“They sound like you,” he wrote. “It’s like you learned how to speak from them.”