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What Was Will & Grace?

The show was never about social justice. But that begs the question: What exactly was it about?

Courtesy NBC

In the September 2017 issue of the New Yorker, Darryl Pinckney had a sweet little one-pager called “A Sentimental Education.” In it, he writes about watching supercuts of gay relationship storylines from soap operas on YouTube, about ten years ago. Pinckney watched for gay relationships the way his “grandmother used to count the black faces in the Christmas choir on television.” But eventually he “made a rule not to watch” if he knew that “one of the guys was going to die.”

Pinkney doesn’t mention Will & Grace, the sitcom that ran from 1998 to 2006. But then again, Will & Grace was not a show about gay love. Instead, it gave us twenty-minute bursts of one-liners zinged across a quadrant formed by four people: straight-acting lawyer Will, underemployed and funny and mean Jack, red-haired straight lady Grace, and the drunk rich straight-but-kinky sociopath Karen. Now Will & Grace is returning for a ninth season, set eleven years after the last finale. The show has become a shorthand for depictions of gayness on television that are way out of fashion: the gayness of Will & Grace was barely sexual, uniformly caucasian, and profoundly cisgendered, and it stayed that way for eight seasons.

As the Hollywood Reporter staff reported in 1998, “there’s never been a comedy about a gay man and straight woman who are best friends and roommates.” But the foundational social unit of the show—white gay man and white straight woman—is actually an ancient one in entertainment, as Megan Reynolds has explored at Vulture. There is nothing transgressive about these friendships. If Will & Grace normalized talk of gay existence to some homophobes, it did so by sweetening the medicine with whiteness, lots of money, and nice clothes.

The new season does much of the same. Reboots only work if they change a little about the old formula. Twin Peaks, for example, is great because it bolts a whole nightmarish new house to the old scaffolding, acknowledging rather than ignoring the rust beneath. Will & Grace had a different challenge before it. At the end of season 8 in 2006, both Will and Grace had children, and the next several decades were covered by a long dream sequence predicting that the pair would fall out drastically and only reunite later in life.

These plot points are sanded over quickly in the first episode of season 9 (the New Republic had access to the first three episodes). Nobody ever had kids, actually. Karen’s still with her husband Stan. Jack still lives across the hall. Most shockingly, everybody looks exactly the same. No television cast can have aged this well, one thinks.

Age instantly becomes a punchline. In one of the best early jokes, Jack is upset because a younger gay man has called him a “daddy” at a bar. Karen offers him some items from her pharmaceutical cornucopia, selecting for him “scrotox”: “botox for The Boys.” Jack looks skeptical, asking, “But will they still be able to show a range of emotions?” Karen thinks and then concedes that “they won’t be able to look surprised, so let’s move on.”

The question of whether or not Will & Grace gave anything politically progressive to American culture feels a little moot. Yes, it may have given television a kind of baseline of representation for the white gay male experience, but a room one might like to live in needs more than just a floor. Then again, do we even understand what this floor looked like? Like the fancy carpet in an apartment full of furniture, it’s difficult to see the whole thing at once. The fact that Will & Grace was never about gay love or social justice begs the question: What exactly was it about?

Will & Grace was one of those television shows that soaked into the culture because it was so ubiquitous and easy to like. The gloopiness of Will and Grace’s friendship allowed the show to rest on the chassis of the Great American Sitcom. Their fast, sarcasm-laden rapport reminds one of an old show like Bewitched or Wendy and Me. There was a laugh track. As in Friends, the show took place largely in the interior of an apartment, adding a sense of intimate familiarity. There, that is where they eat. That is where they watch ER. The bedrooms are down that hallway.

On top of this deeply conventional base, however, are Karen and Jack. Karen, played by Megan Mullally, cuts through the gloop like nail polish remover on plastic. In the show, she plays Grace’s assistant who doesn’t need the money but just wants something to do: she is megarich via a cynical marriage, and spends her days in a daze of booze and money. Her first line in the show is delivered through a large pair of sunglasses: “I know, I’m late, my driver had another bronchial incident.” She is transparently racist and cruel to her employees, barely cares about her friends, and wears a lot of those sheer shirts with bustiers that the 1990s loved.

And therein lies the rub: Will & Grace is a really terrible program containing some truly great performances. Megan Mullally steals the show, but notice must also go to Sean Hayes as Jack McFarland. At the end of season 4, he gets hit on the head at work and hallucinates. “Homo, I don’t think we’re in Barneys any more,” he says to the white fog. Cher appears, walking down a flight of white stairs. “Are you God?” Jack breathes.

Some critics found the writing of Jack’s character homophobic, since he is stereotypically twinky, shallow and narcissistic, and loves to be on the stage. To this critique we can only sigh from 2017, I think, and reiterate that without McFarland and Mullally’s performances Will & Grace would have consisted only of the big, pretty smiles between Debra Messing and Eric McCormack, reflected back and forth forever.

But the Will & Grace reboot seems to have greater ambitions for McCormack. In an episode of the new season, Will has a dalliance with a 23-year-old who brings his best friend along via iPhone. To him, Will and his generation seem “dramatic.” This leads to an awkward lecture delivered by Will about how life is “so good for you because we made such a big deal about things.” The youngster retorts, “Yeah, I know about Stonehenge.” This line is pure coldhearted brilliance, though it rather points more to the apolitical laziness of old Will & Grace than to any truth about Millennial queers.

The speech on older gays’ “drama” works in the end, however, because it lets Will deliver the new season’s key line: “The minute we forget what we went through to get here is the minute it could all be taken away.” The first episode of the new season is fully Trump-themed. Karen voted for him, and is friends with Melania. Through a series of plot wriggles, Grace has the opportunity to hang around in the Oval Office. In the final shot of the episode, we see that she has left a bright red hat on the president’s chair. It reads MAKE AMERICA GAY AGAIN. The fade-out is solemn; no studio laughter.

We are back at the floor. Queer representation has come so, so far since Will & Grace first aired. The sitcom as a genre has become a completely different animal. But still, this first episode says to us, we are here: reasserting the basic rights of gay people to exist in the face of a deranged tyrant who wants to pretend it’s still 1998, if not earlier. And so this show comes haunting up out of the past, as if to remind us that we have really gone nowhere over all these years. The faces of Debra Messing, Eric McCormack, Megan Mullally, and Sean Hayes haven’t changed at all.