[This story contains spoilers from the series finale of Will & Grace, “It’s Time.”]
There aren’t many series that get the chance to say goodbye for a second time. On Thursday night, Will & Grace — a staple of NBC’s “Must-See TV” block in the ’90s that came back with a three-season revival — joined that elite television club.
After an 11-season and 246-episode run, the Emmy-winning David Kohan and Max Mutchnick sitcom delivered a series finale that both embraced the future for starring duo Will (Eric McCormack) and Grace (Debra Messing), and righted their ending from the original run to reflect how times have changed for the better in the last 20-plus years.
“This ending was a little bit more honest to the characters,” Mutchnick tells The Hollywood Reporter of Will and Grace’s series-finale decision to move upstate and out of New York City in order to raise their children together — in a house with two master bedrooms, allowing room for Will to rekindle his relationship with McCoy (Matt Bomer) and a future partner for Grace. “We were making stuff up the first time around. And this felt like, the world had changed, we had changed, and the characters therefore were going to change.”
Noting that the somewhat unconventional ending would not have been as well-received 14 years ago, Mutchnick explains, “The first time around, we felt a little bit more beholden to the traditions of family dynamics and tableaus. And the truth is, the best family tableau is the one that works best for you — and that’s what we’re going to give Will and Grace. Now, we’re a little bit more evolved and we realized: No, this is how they would actually do it.”
The original series finale, which aired in 2006, ended with a rift between Will and Grace, who didn’t rekindle their friendship until 20 years later when their grown kids meet at college. This time, not only did Kohan and Mutchnick give their starring duo a happier and more evolved ending, but they also reunited Karen (Megan Mullally) with her ex-husband Stanley and gave Jack (Sean Hayes) his big Broadway debut.
For Messing, wrapping the show a second time — albeit, amid a global pandemic — feels different than when the series went off the air all those years ago. “It doesn’t feel as monumental this time, even though this is it forever,” the actress tells THR. “When we said goodbye after eight seasons, we really believed it was over. That was a real mourning process that I had to go through. When we came back 12 years later, all rules were out the window. This had never happened before. Now, this is the cherry on the cake. It’s time. It’s time to say goodbye to Will & Grace and put it back into that time that it originally lived in and sort of leave it there.”
When Will & Grace was greenlit for its 10-episode return in 2017, Messing was concerned with two things: First, that the show would still be able to push boundaries, especially in the political arena; and second, that Grace would become a feminist. “If we came back, it had to be the show that we had always done before, which was the provocative show. The show that pushed boundaries and that dealt with pop culture and politics in the moment,” she recalls of her request. “And because [Donald] Trump had been an employee and worked on NBC with The Apprentice, my main concern was that there would be pressure to censor us from commenting on what was happening in real time, like we had done with [Barack] Obama and [George] Bush.”
Messing, however, was reassured that NBC was committed to making that agreement — as is evidence by the revival’s politically charged premiere — which left Grace’s growth as a character top of mind. And Thursday’s series finale delivered on those wishes. “When we first met Grace, she was very focused on, ‘Am I going to find my husband and start my family?’ It was really about the hunt for love and starting her career, and just trying to make it all work. Then she got married and then she got divorced,” explained the actress. “And so to come back 12 years later a single woman who is divorced and who has no children, it made sense to me that Grace would have evolved and matured into a place where she was owning the choices that she made in her life. The first sendoff was controversial. This ending stays in our timeline and I believe that each one of the characters are sent off in a really — no pun intended — graceful and complete way.”
Messing also shares the picture she sees when she thinks about Grace and Will 10 years from now: “The two of them move up north into that beautiful house and we live there together. Will’s beloved moves in — it’s established that there are two master suites. And I think basically we are a ‘throuple’ raising these two children together. And whenever Grace finds the person that she wants to start a new chapter with, it will be clear that this is her life and something they will have to accept if they want to be with her. I believe that it works out for all of us.”
Below, in a chat with THR, co-creators Kohan and Mutchnick open up about the decisions they made for their foursome the second time around and explain why they agree with Messing that it was the right time to say goodbye — for good: “I really do feel like it’s over and what you are left with is that [Will and Grace] both got a very satisfying ending,” says Mutchnick.
Can you elaborate on your decision to bring the revival to an end?
Mutchnick: I felt good about the way that we ended and I feel like we ended at the right time. It was an incredible run — we got to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience a second time, and that was very gratifying. But I don’t think it was something that could have gone on and on. The first time we did this, I felt like we could keep going and going. I think we did the right amount of shows this time. It was satisfying to me.
Kohan: One of the most interesting things was that initially, the feeling about the show was, “Well, this is kind of novel.” There were two gay leads being represented onscreen and that hadn’t really been done before. So the novelty of the premise was something, I think, that drew people. And this time around, it was the opposite: It was the nostalgia. It was like old friends returning and it was completely different. It was a different kind of reception and a whole different purpose for being there. I remember thinking, “What’s a good reason for this show to come back? Well, Trump was just elected. These are really ugly, uncertain times and how can we inject a level of comfort and familiarity into the pop-culture landscape, to sort of counter-balance this horrible insanity?” And that was the opposite reason for doing it initially.
Mutchnick: I also thought it worked out because personally — I loved the first run of this show, it taught us everything — but in that first season of the revival when the show returned, it felt like we were making shows that were as good or better than what we did the first time around. As long as we were doing that, it felt OK to be making this show. I think if we kept going, we would have run into a difficult place because, what stories were we going to tell? It would have become a different show because in the series finale, we make a big decision for the two leads and if we wanted to have Will and Grace with kids, that just becomes a different show. But when we initially came back, I thought the original episodes of our return were fresh and that was good to me.
It’s rare to get the chance to wrap up a series for a second time. When it came to plotting this ending, why was this the sendoff that you for the characters?
Kohan: One of the things that’s appealing about this whole process is that you leave characters behind 11 years ago, and then you pick them up again and they’ve gotten older and you’ve gotten older. Now, you’re writing about the concerns that you have over a decade hence. And part of that is not being so concerned about how things seem and feeling a little bit more comfortable in your own skin, and being able to define what you want in your own terms — as opposed to being so caught up in thinking you have to do something or have to get something right. For Will and Grace, their whole thing is: “I can be content with this.” Their ending is not a conventional idea of a family, but they don’t have to care. “This is what I want in my life, this is how I want it to be. I really don’t have to answer a lot of people except my own sense of wisdom. Because, I’m older!” That was a big part of it for me.
Mutchnick: I also thought this ending was a little bit more honest to the characters. We were making stuff up the first time around. And this felt like, the world had changed, we had changed and the characters therefore were going to change. And what the characters were doing was finding a way to make their relationship, something that is natural for them, work. What’s best for Will and Grace is for Will and Grace to be together, but they both wanted to have kids. We found a way to tell that story and to have them both have their cake and eat it, too. And I don’t think that we could have done that the first time around, because the first time around we felt a little bit more beholden to the traditions of family dynamics and tableaus. And the truth is, the best family tableau is the one that works best for you — for the individual. And that’s what we’re going to give them. We gave them what works best for them and that felt a little bit more honest. Everybody’s definition of family is acceptable. And when we ended those years ago, that wasn’t necessarily the case, or it wasn’t as strong as it is now. Now, if it’s two women? Great. If it’s a man and a woman? Great. If it’s a guy and a girl and they both have kids by other means and they raise their children together as a family, then that’s acceptable, too. Who are we to judge? Back then, there was still a little bit of judgment into how we drew those characters and, therefore, we separated them and had them go about making these families in separate corners of the world. Now, we’re a little bit more evolved and we realized: No, this is how they would actually do it.
Can you paint the picture of how you imagine them 10 years from now?
Mutchnick: I hope what happens for them is that they both had peace inside this house where they raised these kids together, and that they were both in relationships with people who understood that breaking them up would be like when people try to break up identical twins. It just never works. When you marry an identical twin, you have to deal with the fact that there’s always going to be another one who is going to be around, and that’s Will and Grace. They are a dynamic, they are a duo and they come together. You either get on board with that, or you don’t get a piece of it. But to be quite honest, I don’t really care where they are in 10 years because I really do feel like it’s over and what you are left with is they both got a very satisfying ending. They’re going to be protected and they’re going to be safe and in a loving space, and that’s where I want to leave it in my head. They did what was best for them.
Kohan: I agree with that. They’ve been in relationships with other people. Romantic love has come and gone, but this relationship has sustained. And I think that’s a nice thing to be able to say in a person’s life. To have a relationship that actually survives on its own merit, not because of a contract or because of any kind of external pressure, but because this is the best relationship they have.
You are wrapping the series amid a global pandemic. What has the experience been to say goodbye to the show in the current climate?
Kohan: Like everything else, it’s new. It’s novel. “Hey, we’ve never had a series end during a pandemic before.”
Mutchnick: We were lucky in that we finished months ago. Where we weren’t as lucky is in the retrospective, which is going to air at 9:30 p.m. after the finale [Will & Grace: A Will & Graceful Goodbye]. That was another labor of love and that was the thing that really did get caught in the crosshairs of this pandemic, because we were not finished with a very, very complicated retrospective that has over 150 episodes inside the one episode. It required a phenomenal amount of post and getting sign-offs from a lot of different people, and we were in the middle of finishing that when this happened. Very specifically, we were in the middle of recording Elton John and then the world shut down. It was not an easy thing to pull off, but I’m happy to tell you that we were able to get Elton John during this pandemic to film a testimonial for the show, and it’s in the retrospective and we were able to finish it. I’m thrilled that we were able to pull that off.
What comes next and have those plans been impacted?
Mutchnick: We’re doing a Julie Bowen comedy at CBS called The Big Bad Wolf. We wrote the pilot and the NBC studio is in partnership with us, and we’re putting it on the CBS network. We were in the process of auditioning the other actors right when everything got shut down. But we hopefully will be making that pilot, and we take it as a good sign that CBS has asked us to write a second episode, even though we have not made the pilot yet. Hopefully, when they allow us to touch each other again and be in the room with each other again, we will get back to making this pilot.
Interview edited for length and clarity.