'Will & Grace' finale

For NBC, where there was a 'Will & Grace,' there was a way.

As NBC's last comedy series link to its "Must-See TV" glory days on Thursday nights, "Will & Grace" has remained -- to the bitter end, which incidentally arrives tonight -- a source of immense pride for a peacock network that could really use some right about now. While the show has seen ratings sag during the past two seasons, it leaves the first-run air still generating laughs, still raking in Emmy nominations, still drawing big-name guest stars -- and still quietly redefining the rules of primetime by demonstrating that a mainstream audience will not just accept but embrace gay characters in leading roles.

The last thing NBC would seem to have needed in 1998, as it bade farewell to "Seinfeld," was yet another comedy about four single friends living in New York. But as the network brass realized almost before co-creator/executive producers Max Mutchnick and David Kohan did, "Will" was only conventional on the surface. Tweaked properly, this was a premise that could, and did, upend depictions of homosexuality on television for 196 episodes. And though the superb Nielsen averages of Seasons 3-6 (18-49 demographic shares of 23, 22, 21 and 19, respectively) are gone -- the series slipped to a 12 share of the same demo in Season 7 and then to a 9 through March in the current campaign -- NBC executives still trumpet it as a success story.

"It's been a phenomenal performer for NBC for a lot of years, defying the odds and the knee-jerk conventional wisdom that America wasn't ready for something that could be broad and silly and openly gay," NBC Entertainment chief Kevin Reilly says. "But America was, and we were the beneficiary of that."

It was a gamble to make the gay angle incidental, rather than central to the story line, and it was even more of a risk to have half of the regular cast (both men) play openly gay characters. It simply hadn't been done, a fact easy to forget in the mass of accolades of "Will's" swan song this evening, which begins with an hourlong retrospective at 8 p.m., followed by the finale. But the gamble paid off, as the show completes its eight-season run having garnered 73 Emmy nominations and 14 wins (including one for outstanding comedy series in 2000), with a year of eligibility remaining. "Will" also remains one of only three TV comedies to date (including "All in the Family" and "The Golden Girls") to see each of its regulars win Emmy trophies.

Among its numerous other accolades, the comedy has been honored by the annual GLAAD Media Awards as top comedy series seven times in eight years.

Neil Giuliano, president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, sees the show's greatest success as having opened the gay character door with such unobtrusive ease. "It has given people across the country something to talk about week after week involving gay themes and gay people," he says. "'Will & Grace' absolutely raised the comfort level with folks who normally would not be discussing that stuff, who now feel they know gay people because they know Will (Eric McCormack) and Jack (Sean Hayes). From that standpoint, it served a very useful purpose in stoking a national dialogue."

It's a national dialogue that almost didn't get told, though: "Will's" original pitch by Mutchnick and Kohan was far more straightforward (literally) as a traditional adult ensemble couples comedy. The characters who would become McCormack's Will Truman and Debra Messing's Grace Adler were supporting roles. But NBC had another idea: put the Will and Grace characters front and center.

"They encouraged us to go in this direction," Kohan recalls, "and, in fact, we had very little say in the matter. But there was still a lot of nervousness. I remember at the NBC upfronts that year we premiered, there was not one reference to the fact Will and Jack were gay. That wasn't to say NBC wasn't totally supportive. We just all had to be so cautious."

Warren Littlefield, serving his last few months as president of NBC Entertainment, passionately championed the gay and straight relationships that formed the "Will" core. "I'd always wanted to depict that dynamic," Littlefield remembers. "It's one that I saw everywhere in the world around me. Max and David didn't think they could pitch that. But I just thought, 'If not now, when?' The guys wrote a great pilot script, we managed to attract Jimmy Burrows to executive produce and direct, and we got a great cast. Advertisers may have been skittish in the wake of (ABC's) 'Ellen' -- which went off the air that same year -- but they just thought it was a delightful comedy and cared about nothing else."

The lack of controversy the show stirred up (only mild protest from conservative watchdogs) didn't surprise Mutchnick. "I've never felt this show was particularly cutting-edge or trailblazing," he offers. "What we were was very traditional with a twist -- and a friendship at the center that was one we all wish we had in our lives."

For his part, the multiple Emmy-winning Burrows was simply overjoyed to be working on a show where no one decreed that "the fags have to die."

Says Burrows: "Gay characters historically were always tragic or stereotypical or over the top. As such, they were never perceived as just normal people in society, which is unfortunate. This show never bought into that."

While it has shuffled in scores of guest stars (see sidebar on page S-8) and written in a colorful array of romantic entanglements, including a marriage and a divorce, for its center quartet, "Will" hasn't altered its basic premise much throughout its lifespan. The bond between Will and Grace remains the show's stabilizing force. (The foursome is rounded out by Grace's pill-popping, wacky assistant Karen, played by Megan Mullally, and her maid, Rosario, played by Shelley Morrison.) And while Will is identifiably gay, he is hardly demonstrative -- a role reserved for aspiring actor Jack, whose broad flamboyance illustrates the other side of the gay spectrum.

Says Giuliano, some in the gay community "objected to Jack as too stereotypical," but he notes that "there are Jacks all around us, just as there are Wills and Graces. In the aggregate, it's good for our community, and today, these kinds of depictions are far-less risky. Maybe that could lead in a future series to a Will type having a relationship that lasts."

The series itself certainly figures to have a lasting shelf life beyond primetime for NBC and syndication. "Will" is the most successful series produced in-house by NBC itself, with one published estimate indicating the series will generate $700 million from its syndie sale, though NBC Universal Television Studio president Angela Bromstad will confirm only that "it's probably our biggest asset and really the show that defines NBC Studios."

Reilly professes no sense of relief that "Will" is packing its bags for good. "You're never happy to see series classics leave your network, and that's exactly what 'Will & Grace' is," he says. "The real strength of this show has been the way it can go from absolute ridiculousness to poignancy in a turn. To do that seamlessly takes great writing. You have a show that started out life with four unknowns. It wraps up with four stars who got better with each passing year."

For his part, Littlefield remains proud that one of his last moves as a network president had such a strong outing. "I never think of 'Will & Grace' as an example of my giving birth to a gay show," he says, "but to a pure romantic comedy. The lead couple may have been platonic, but theirs was a great love story all the same."
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