By the time Will & Grace ended in 2006, I found it nearly unwatchable. A show that was boundary-pushing and fresh when it premiered had fallen into lazy comic rhythms, its characters had become calcified and rather than trying to remain relevant by evolving its worldview, Will & Grace was staving off stagnation with a desperate procession of guest stars.
Approaching the new Will & Grace as an extension of where it left off, rather than where it began, makes it possible to look at the first three episodes and feel like creators Max Mutchnick and David Kohan did a few things surprisingly right.
The return doesn’t start smoothly. The premiere has the responsibility to essentially erase the original Will & Grace series finale and set the new status quo in which, 11 years later, nothing seems meaningfully changed. Will (Eric McCormack) is still lawyering and, while she finishes settling her divorce, Grace (Debra Messing) is living with him. Jack (Sean Hayes) lives across the hall and is still struggling to make it as an actor, while Karen (Megan Mullally) remains independently wealthy but ostensibly working as Grace’s assistant.
Titled “Eleven Years Later,” it’s a clumsy bit of catching up and realigning the show’s pop culture references in ways that made me cringe frequently and laugh never. Jack’s on Grindr! There’s a gratuitous “fake news” joke! Will and Grace discuss whether or not they’re “woke!” The episode also dedicates itself to a string of not-especially-fresh Donald Trump jokes as we’re told over and over that Karen is friends with the Trumps and then characters even go to the White House, with broadly farcical consequences.
It’s in the second episode that acknowledging the passing of time begins in earnest and really benefits the show. After an embarrassing experience at a club, Will and Jack begin dating much younger men and are forced to confront generational changes in the gay community — shifts that Will & Grace helped facilitate. It’s the rare moment in which Will & Grace feels like it’s engaging in a conversation with the gay audience and not necessarily trying to make straight viewers feel more comfortable.
If the largest question surrounding the revival was, “What does Will & Grace actually have to say in 2017?,” the second episode begins to suggest an answer, and even admits that these characters and their interactions play differently now that they’re several decades older, no matter how well-preserved the actors are (making the sheer quantity of stage makeup visible on the actors feel less like willful denial). Extreme attempts to appear youthful give Hayes the chance to engage in the sort of loose-limbed physical comedy he’s always excelled at and Will’s mixture of enthusiasm and outrage for his younger beau plays into an exaggerated self-righteousness McCormack always done well.
The third episode, which focuses more on Karen and Grace, is also a reminder that the best thing the show has going for it in 2017 is simply its gifted core quartet. Post-Will & Grace, Messing tried transitioning to roles that were dramatic with hints of flustered comedy, when her strength is the reverse, as we see in an emotional interaction Grace has with a key character from her past. And since I’ve always found Karen utterly exhausting, my favorite beats for the character are when Mullally takes us just a hair beyond the privileged, helium-voiced exterior as she does in Karen’s scenes with an underprivileged student she mentors.
This is also the only episode to include a big-name guest and it’s at least a big name who was already a major part of the show’s narrative, rather than a stunt cameo meant to drum up ratings. The temptation to service the show’s tertiary ensemble and any big names who might have been willing to drop by must have been great, but the opening installments instead emphasize Will, Grace, Jack and Karen. I’d never praise Will & Grace for restraint, but here that compliment might actually be due.
The next step would be to make the new Will & Grace episodes funny. With Mutchnick and Kohan leading the writing and legendary director James Burrows back behind the camera, everybody wanted the show to feel the same — to a fault. Late-season Will & Grace episodes were already a graveyard of overly telegraphed punchlines and overcompensating stars, and 11 years of evolution in sitcom vogue does not seem to have been acknowledged by the creative team here. The sensation remains that you’re watching a Nick at Nite repeat that now includes references to Anderson Cooper and Amanda Bynes, but I truly feared worse.
Cast: Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, Megan Mullally, Sean Hayes
Creators: David Kohan and Max Mutchnick
Premieres: Thursday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (NBC)