6:30pm PT by Jackie Strause
'Will & Grace' Bosses Hint at Bigger Role for David Schwimmer as They Share Season 2 Plans
Will & Grace is back — again — for the second season of the NBC sitcom's revival.
After 11 years off the air, Will Truman (Eric McCormack) and Grace Adler (Debra Messing), along with Karen Walker (Megan Mullally) and Jack McFarland (Sean Hayes), made their welcome return to Thursday night TV last year with big ratings and an even bigger message to President Donald Trump. The political reboot erased the events of the original run's finale so it could reunite the foursome in their New York City abodes, where the only thing that had really changed was that it was 2017. The show quickly nabbed a two-season renewal and helped spark TV's current reboot frenzy.
That first season — technically season nine overall — welcomed back a revolving door of guest stars as it took on topical storylines, ultimately leaving Will and Grace in a state of existential crisis about their lives in the finale. Thursday night's premiere, however, set the tone for what co-creators David Kohan and Max Mutchnick describe in the conversation below as a "moving forward" season. The focus of the revival will shift to the foursome's personal lives, and the premiere zeroed in on Grace. When campaigning to run for president of the New York Society of Interior Designers, Grace meets Noah, the infamous West Side Curmudgeon. He's a cynical Twitter celebrity played by recurring guest star David Schwimmer and who now has a real-life account for viewers to follow (@WSideCurmudgeon).
"He is the spine of Grace’s season," Mutchnick tells The Hollywood Reporter about Grace's blossoming romantic interest. Mutchnick and Kohan actually went to high school with the Friends star, and though he is only signed on for a guest arc, the showrunners aren't ruling out keeping him around for longer than they planned as they continue to plot a season that might lead to a wedding for one of the main four stars. Mutchnick adds of the pair, "It’s great to have that relationship as one of the anchors of the whole show."
Below, in a chat with The Hollywood Reporter, Kohan and Mutchnick share their plans for the 18-episode second season, including an immigration-themed episode with Karen and another personal favorite of Mutchnick's that will unearth details about Will and Grace's relationship. Instead of trying to keep up with the news cycle, expect "broader" topicality this year as Will & Grace settles into its TV comeback. "We’re trying as hard — or harder — than we ever have to make a good episode every week," Mutchnick says. Read the full chat below.
The second episode (airing Oct. 11) actually ties up more of the loose ends from the finale than tonight's episode did. Why did you premiere the season with “The West Side Curmudgeon” instead?
Max Mutchnick: Because of David Schwimmer!
David Kohan: We intended to start with the second one first, but one of the things Bob [Greenblatt] did before he left NBC was that he told us he really liked the second episode and thought it was our best foot forward. He enjoyed it more and he thought it was more promotable.
Mutchnick: You are right in that the second episode answers a lot of the questions we asked in the finale of last year. But, pound for pound, we believe that you tune in to watch good television that can make you laugh and escape your life for a minute. And we believe that “The West Side Curmudgeon” did that very well, so we started with it.
Tell me how David Schwimmer’s casting came about. Where did you get the idea for his character, Noah, the crankiest Twitter celebrity on Manhattan's West Side?
Mutchnick: We created the part first. David (Kohan) and I really liked this kind of a guy, and we always have. I think the first day we started talking about the character, we thought of our high school buddy, David Schwimmer, and thought to ourselves that this would be such a good part for Schwimms — if he wanted to dip his toe into the waters of multicamera comedy again. So we wrote him an email, then we went to New York for the weekend and laid it out for him. And he got on board. It was beshert — it was meant to be.
His casting marks a "Must-See TV" reunion, from the NBC days when Friends and Will & Grace ruled Thursday night TV. How big of a moment was it when he first came to set?
Kohan: What was really fun was hearing the audience react. We always put a big masking up so nobody can see if there’s a big guest star. Then he came out and when people first saw him coming in, they went bananas.
Mutchnick: People saw him walk into the lobby, and they didn’t get it at first. On the episode that aired, we actually are not playing the track of the reaction that took place the night of the show, because that actual reaction is too loud and too long. Next week we’ll shoot our fifth episode with him and the response every time he walks onto that set is so enormous that we have to stop and tell the audience, “While we appreciate the love, we need to do a non-Fonzie entrance.”
Kohan: During the first incarnation of our show, Friends was the biggest thing. But, it has had an entirely new and different kind of life in streaming. The writer on that episode has a 16-year-old daughter who is an enormous fan of Friends, knows every single episode and has never ever seen it on television. What’s so amazing is how they’ve consistently been big stars because of that with a new generation.
Mutchnick: And having him on stage was very natural for all of us. David (Kohan) and I went to high school with him. Director Jimmy [Burrows] and him did the run of Friends together. He knows our cast very well, just because we’re all part of the NBC mafia, and so it was very comfortable. I think the only thing for David Schwimmer is that he has not been in front of a rabid crowd like that in a very long time. He really is an actor’s actor and it took a minute or two for him to remember it and get used to it, and then need it.
How do you describe his and Debra Messing’s chemistry — what is it like to watch them together?
Kohan: It exceeded our expectations, because here’s the thing: They are both true theater nerds. That’s where they come from. So when the two of them are together, there are a lot more questions: “Why is this character doing this? Wouldn’t they want to do this?” It’s all character, theater-nerd type questions and they completely bonded over that.
Mutchnick: I never worried about the two of them having chemistry because of the fact that they are such pros. Debra has this skill set where she can have chemistry with a chicken, and we were bringing a guy to the stage that was an equal. He has as much experience as she does and they were amazing together, in the same way that she and Eric [McCormack] were amazing together when they started. It’s a different flavor of good chemistry.
You are shooting Schwimmer's fifth episode now. Can you confirm that will be his last?
Mutchnick: No. We’re not ready to answer that.
But since we know he is only guest appearing, what kind of impact will his character leave on Grace?
Mutchnick: He is the spine of Grace’s season. He’s the story that we are telling for the character of Grace Adler and he will impact on her character after he’s gone. But we don’t know exactly when that is going to be.
Are you liking him so much in the role that you are trying to keep him?
Mutchnick: Yes. We’ll have him around as much as he and the network would like.
Kohan: It’s great to also have that relationship as one of the anchors of the whole show. It’s rooted in reality. It’s a romantic relationship and it’s a straight romantic relationship, which is an interesting thing that doesn’t happen all that often on this show. So there’s something about it that opens it all up.
As the season goes on, the wedding between Will and Grace's parents will motivate them each to make changes. Grace is already making her entry into politics in the premiere. How do her aspirations give you the opportunity to explore topical themes this season, like female empowerment?
Kohan: There are a number of current issues that are sort of out there in the zeitgeist that we are dealing with. There’s a long car drive that Grace takes with her dad at some point later on in the season where there are a couple of revelations that come out that are really quite timely. It’s nothing to do with the fact that she’s aspiring to hold some kind of office, even if it’s in her guild. That started out as a bigger idea than it ended up. But, there are a number of topical and political issues that we’ll touch on. But none of them head-on.
Megan Mullally has teased an immigration-themed episode where Karen heads to the border. Tackling immigration through the eyes of her Trump-supporter character sounds like an interesting take. What can you say about the tone of that episode?
Mutchnick: It starts off where she’s going to visit the section of the wall that she’s sponsored, and then she gets into some trouble when she’s there. But I will say that we’re choosing to pick stories that speak for themselves. We don’t need to hit any of this stuff with a hammer. Karen Walker standing at the wall in El Paso, Texas, talking to a border patrol agent and actually ending up in jail — that story just has balls in a very natural way. And the commentary, you can choose to see it for that purpose, or you can just watch it and have it be a comedy. Which is really what we’re supposed to be doing.
What did you learn last season about how to keep up with the news cycle that you are putting into practice this year?
Kohan: Avoid low-hanging fruit, for one thing. And the other thing is that topicality is so difficult on a sitcom when a story is old news six hours later now. To have it crop up four weeks later feels almost like ancient history. So the themes have to be larger. The criticisms have to be a little bit more general. And that makes them a little less pointed, unless it’s something really specific and persistent. If it’s one of these temporary sort of fly-by-night insults that we get from this administration, it’s not going to be funny four weeks later. It’s just going to be old, old news. And that’s something that we learned.
Mutchnick: But last year we had a turnaround schedule that allowed us to be a bit more topical. That’s also why we were able to do it. This year, I think the characters really reflect on the time that we’re living in, in a broader sense. Because they are being affected by what’s going on in the world as much as we all are.
If last season was about the foursome getting back together — how do you describe this season?
Kohan: Moving forward.
Mutchnick: What it is to be this age, at this time in the country’s life and in their lives. And what comes at you at this point in life.
Kohan: Do we accept a comfortable stasis? Or do we take some kind of leap of faith to be happier and feel more fulfilled?
Mutchnick: Will and Grace this season will actually explore something in their relationship all these years later that they have never touched on. We surprised ourselves that we were able to get to a new level for them this season. It’s a story that I’m very excited to air. It’s titled, “Who’s Sorry Now?” and it will be one of the first seven episodes. It’s going to be fun to show the audience what they discover about one another.
A big wedding has been teased for this season and all of their love lives are indeed in store for shakeups. Is the story this year building to a wedding from one of the four, that isn’t necessarily the already-engaged Jack?
Mutchnick: It looks like with all of these new love stories that we’re dealing with every week that there’s going to be something big that goes down for one of them. We haven’t written the end of the year yet — so we’ll let you know as soon as we do! (Laughs.)
When we spoke at the end of last season, Roseanne was enjoying a massive premiere. A lot has changed since then. When it comes to making a successful TV comeback, what have you realized about your show and do you now feel like you are on more solid ground? Do you ever worry about what your stars are posting on social media?
Kohan: First of all, I think we felt on solid ground from the beginning only because we knew we had these four people who are, in our opinion, the best at what they do. They’re so solid in their lives as people that we just never worried about that. We have a director who is the most prolific and the best who has ever done this. We have a writing staff that we know who has been with us since the original. All of it felt like we had our comfortable house that has been built forever. We know what’s in it.
Mutchnick: And I think we are all still very passionate about what we’re doing. Everybody very much cares about the work that they’re putting out every week. We’re trying as hard — or harder — than we ever have to make a good episode every week. We’re comfortable, but we’re not comfortable. We’re going to give it the best we can every week.
Kohan: When you consider, “Oh my God, we’ve been off the air 11 years and now we’re coming back on the air. What happens if it falls on its face?” But then you look around and you see the four of them and you see who your writers are and who your director is and who all the crew people are — the costume, design and production people — who have all done great work with you in the past. You think, “Ok, we’re on solid footing here.” That made the whole enterprise less terrifying.
Do you think that’s how the cast feels also heading into this season?
Kohan: I think so. Now that they’ve gotten the jitters of that first season under their belt, I definitely think that they feel solid.
Kohan: Max always wants to do Michelle Obama or someone like that as a dream cast person. For me, it’s always about: Here’s the part, who would be the most exciting or fun person to play it? I don't approach it by saying, "Let’s get Harry Styles and do something about him!" It’s not like that. It’s more: Here’s a story we want to tell, this is the big part that we have and who would be the best to play that? That’s always been the most interesting to me. But as far as guests this season, we have Minnie Driver coming up. Leslie Jourdan is back. Alec Baldwin is around. And of course, David Schwimmer. Jon Cryer is in an episode. There’s always good people and that’s fun. The four of them are such good comic actors on the stage that I think people trust and feel comfortable being with them.
Will & Grace airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on NBC. Bookmark this page to keep up with THR's coverage as the season unfolds.