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When Will & Grace aired Will Truman’s coming out episode, the NBC sitcom was in the midst of the third season of its original run. The comedy had already become an Emmy-winning darling and was averaging a series high of 17 million viewers. But in November 2000, the show that would go on to break ground for LGBTQ representation on TV was still paving the way.
“I remember that as being a powerful episode both on the page and on the stage,” co-creator Max Mutchnick tells The Hollywood Reporter about when the show traveled back in time to reveal how Will Truman (Eric McCormack) came out to Grace Adler (Debra Messing) when the pair were dating in college.
“I remember it being thrilling, like theater that was taking place in front of you,” David Kohan, the other half of the Will & Grace team, adds to THR. “It felt special because it was the origin story. That was the moment where you really saw the first big trial of Will and Grace’s relationship, and the one that resonates the most.”
Mutchnick’s own experience of coming out was used as a jumping-off point for the two-parter that aired in season three, which was titled “Lows in the Mid-Eighties.” In a flashback to Thanksgiving 1985 — a time that Jack McFarland (Sean Hayes) refers to as “When Mary Met Sally” — Grace brought boyfriend Will home to meet her family. But Will, who couldn’t shake a conversation he had with new friend Jack about being gay, was dragging his feet about sleeping with Grace and spontaneously proposed so he didn’t have to go through with the act. Shortly after Grace accepted his proposal, he came out to her. Grace was so devastated and humiliated that the pair didn’t speak for one full year.
Eighteen years later in the Oct. 25 episode “Who’s Sorry Now?,” the second season of the Will & Grace revival revisited that pivotal moment. “That origin story turned out to be the trigger point for them as characters for dozens of episodes, all culminating in the episode that we aired last week,” Mutchnick explains. This time, the creators focused on Will’s experience of coming out and, once again, Mutchnick’s life was part of the inspiration.
“We went and took the very difficult moment from my personal life and reconfigured it,” Mutchnick explains. “Because we were writing the truth, we were able to tell strong stories. We didn’t have to make anything up. It was all very organic.”
In “Who’s Sorry Now?,” Grace and Will discover an unopened letter that Will had written Grace back in 1985 after he came out to her and they stopped speaking. Grace never read it, explaining that she was too devastated. Much like the episode that aired back in season three, Grace was victimized by Will speaking his truth and told him, “You ripped my heart out.” Fed up with having to constantly apologize for the “original sin” of hurting her, Will’s reaction prompts Grace to finally read the letter, which brings her to tears as she realizes that she wasn’t there for her friend when he needed her the most.
“Personally, it so lined up with my own life,” Mutchnick says of his real-life “Grace,” longtime close friend Janet Eisenberg. “Before we started the season, I had a rough summer with my Grace. Janet and I were bumping heads. There was a negative energy and something about this one afternoon in her apartment, I really just snapped. I was tired of the same disappointment that I was providing.”
It wasn’t until he spoke with a therapist friend who pointed out how quickly Mutchnick can be to blame himself that he realized how to fix it. “[My friend] said that if I grew up in a world where being gay was not abnormal or considered to be ‘incorrect,’ I might have given myself a little more leeway and I might have forgiven myself,” he says, recalling his friends words: “You were just doing what came naturally to you. You were being a gay guy who is trying to protect himself and trying to get through his days in the best possible way.”
That off-camera journey helped inspire the emotional conversation that takes place between Will and Grace on the most recent episode. “If he’s keeping a secret and that secret affects her and then it comes out and she’s devastated by it, it’s like she’s the victim and he’s the perpetrator,” says Kohan. “That was the story that they had told each other through all these years. And then you see it where he’s just trying to get an apology out of her and he has this revelation as they’re going through these letters: ‘This dynamic has to change now if we’re going to move forward.'”
Mutchnick came to the same revelation and penned his own letter to his Grace, explaining that he needed his experience to be a factor. “For so long, I’ve lived a heteronormative narrative in my relationship with Janet. And for this moment, I reframed it and thought of the relationship from the vantage point of a homonormative narrative,” Mutchnick explains. “When you do that, all of a sudden, you see that you can forgive yourself and that you should be forgiven. Because everybody’s narrative is what it is and should be accepted for exactly what it is. There should be no judgment. If that’s my truth, then that’s what we should accept. And I shouldn’t have to apologize for it.”
In the letter presented in “Who’s Sorry Now?,” the creators veered from their personal experience in order to get a larger message out to the show’s millions of weekly viewers. Though LGBTQ representation on TV is now at an all-time high — a stark contrast to when Will’s coming out episode first aired — the message comes during a tumultuous time, where the Trump administration is proposing rollbacks to transgender protections and LGBTQ youth are experiencing high suicide rates. “What happens on our television screens is now more critical than ever before to accelerate acceptance for LGBTQ people,” GLAAD president Sarah Kate Ellis recently said.
In the letter that Grace finally reads, she discovers that Will wrote, “I don’t want to be gay. I just wish I was normal,” and that he contemplated hurting himself.
“That’s not my personal story, nor David’s. But part of what we do is that we try to fold in a story that a lot of people are going to relate to,” Mutchnick explains of bringing young Will to the surface. “We’re living in a time where there are a lot of boys and girls out there who are being made to feel terrible about themselves and they’re going through some drastic measures to deal with their self-loathing. We want to reflect back to our audience to say, ‘We know that you’re out there. We’re sensitive to you and we hear you and acknowledge you.'”
Adds Mutchnick, “As Dan Savage said, it does get better. If we can do that on this show, then we’re doing something right.”
On Oct. 26, the morning after “Who’s Sorry Now?” aired, Mutchnick received the following text from his Grace: “My life is so much better because you are a gay man. I love you and I am so, so proud of you.”
Those words echoed what Grace told Will at the culmination of the pivotal half-hour. Moving forward, Kohan says the episode “puts to rest an ancient fissure” in the relationship of the show’s two central characters.
“They’ve grown. Isn’t that what we all want, to be in relationships that constantly grow and improve on themselves?” Mutchnick concludes. “It speaks to the fact that we’re back on the air all these years later and we’re complicated creatures. There is still stuff to learn if you want to, if you care to. And it’s not necessarily comfortable to learn more or get to a greater understanding with a person you’ve spent the bulk of your life with. But, boy, does it feel better on the other side. Because you’re trying to ultimately just be the truest, best version of yourself.”
Will & Grace airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.
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