When it premiered in 1998, Will & Grace was a show America needed. The series starred Eric McCormack as responsible Will Truman and Debra Messing as his dramatic best friend, Grace Adler. Will and Grace were a couple entangled in every sense but the romantic one, surrounded by their scene-stealing sidekicks, effete and bitchy Jack (Sean Hayes) and soused and bitchy Karen (Megan Mullally). Will & Grace had the structure of a classic sitcom—the straight man surrounded by his wacky pals—with a twist: The straight man wasn’t straight. For eight seasons, Will, Grace, Karen, and Jack quipped, bickered, and spit-taked on NBC’s must-see TV lineup, all while making a humanist argument for the rights of gay people. Joe Biden credited Will & Grace with doing more to further the cause of gay marriage than anything else. This was the “Will & Grace effect”: if to know a gay person is to believe in that person’s humanity, inalienable rights, and freedom to love, Will and Jack were the first gay people some Americans knew.
On Thursday, Will & Grace returns to NBC after being off the air for 11 years. From its opening scene, Will & Grace is back in its groove, no worse for the intervening years, down to the cast’s impressively ageless faces. But if the show hasn’t changed, its context has. Will & Grace had a very ’90s political bent, in which just being yourself was radical enough. In our more polarized, urgent moment, this I-centric sensibility has become almost entirely indistinguishable from narcissism. Will, Grace, and Jack are now members of the liberal establishment (Karen, of course, is a Republican): older, affluent, white people with identity politics affiliations—gay, female—that in New York City no longer hazard their very comfortable daily lives. In 2017, Will & Grace is still a show that America needs, because now it’s a sharp comedy about white, moneyed, liberal hypocrisy.
The shallowness of Will and Grace’s political commitments is the throughline of the first episode. As the show begins, a newly divorced Grace and a newly divorced Will are once again cohabiting in his lovingly recreated apartment. Grace comes upon Will, writing a letter to a Republican congressman. “You’re so woke,” Grace says. “I used to be woke. Now I use my pussy hat to sneak candy into the movie.” Will tells her she too can write her congressman. “I’m so busy,” Grace replies. “What can I do that’s low effort but high impact?” She decides she can tell Karen, a Trump voter and best friend of Melania, to stop gloating about his victory. Instead, Karen tells her that Trump, via Melania, would like Grace to redecorate the Oval Office. “I wouldn’t even consider it,” Grace says. “It goes against everything I believe in.” Then she agrees to do it.
Meanwhile, the seemingly virtuous Will is in fact emailing the congressman to arrange a booty call. With the help of Jack’s social media expertise, Will arranges to go to the Rose Garden to hook up with someone with reprehensible values. Inevitably, he and Grace bust one another and swiftly turn their half-hearted political commitments into a personal argument and Oval Office pillow fight. At the end of the episode Will and Grace resolve to do better not by their values, but by each other—everything secondary to their narcissism. (In an instance of life imitating art, the cast and creators of Will & Grace appeared on the inaugural episode of Megyn Kelly’s new talk show, an in-network co-signing of the former Fox anchor. Debra Messing might not have approved, but Grace surely would have.)
Creators Max Mutchnick and David Kohan are out to tweak, not lose, their liberal audience. As the show sends up liberal complacency, it also takes pot-shots at the Donald. On Trump’s desk is only a Russian-English dictionary and a fidget spinner; Grace wants to match the curtains with his coloring and pulls out a Cheeto. But Mutchnick and Kohan are not always completely in control of the liberal narcissism they are ostensibly lampooning. Will & Grace can get a little smug. The first episode ends with a shot of a “Make America Gay Again” hat, which Grace has left on a chair in the Oval Office, as if that sufficiently redresses her self-absorption.
If one were to make a show with the exact same setup as Will & Grace today, it would inevitably be different, and not just because it would be single-camera with no laugh track. It would also never feature a character as queeny as Jack. During Will & Grace’s first run, Jack was both the most popular and the most “problematic” part of the show, a stereotypical gay man that the audience, perhaps, was laughing at and not with. But in the years since, and thanks in no small part to Will & Grace, there have been far more gay characters on TV—and few of them hew to this particular stereotype. In this context, Jack feels welcome: Who said only butch gay men should be stars? When a member of the Secret Service confesses he’s deeply attracted to Jack’s swish, describing him as “this adorable marzipan confection, whose tushy belongs in the Smithsonian,” it’s one of the show’s more progressive moments.
Compare this with a sequence in the second episode, in which Will and Jack both try to date younger men. (Will & Grace has, inadvertently, become that rare TV show: a series about middle-aged people without children.) Will gets picked up by Blake, a much younger, selfie-obsessed 23-year-old played by Dear Evan Hansen’s Ben Platt. “You grew up in a happiness bubble,” Will says to Blake. “Isn’t that good?” Blake replies. “No, it’s so nice it’s practically abuse. How’s it supposed to get better if it was always fine?” Will lectures him on millennials’ ignorance of gay history. Will has his points, but he’s painting millennials with too wide a brush. Will’s the one who wants to canoodle with a congressman trying to gut the planet that those millennials will be living on long after Will is gone.
Will and Grace, more than most sitcom characters, are trapped. For the show to function, they must remain stuck in the long-term relationship that drives the show, but that leaves them forever lacking the romantic partnership they long for. In the third episode, Grace wonders for the umpteenth time whether her relationship with Will torpedoed her marriage with Leo (Harry Connick Jr.). She decides that it didn’t, but, of course, it did: The show isn’t called Will & Grace & Leo. Will and Grace are Sisyphean sitcom figures, rolling the rock for romantic love, only to wake up at the end of every story arc back at the bottom of the mountain, making pop culture jokes with their besties instead. Those jokes are still pretty good, even if Will and Grace and their myopia are the punchline.