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Will & Grace sends off a beloved character with equal parts confusion and poignancy

The Will & Grace revival finally gives Megan Mullally a chance to show off her talents in a bittersweet episode.

May Karen Walker/Megan Mullally outlive us all.
NBC

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for October 29 through November 4 is “Rosario's Quinceañera,” the sixth episode of NBC’s revival of Will & Grace.

By deliberate design, the new Will & Grace looks and sounds a lot like the old Will & Grace. It might be 11 years since the show’s initial series finale, but with the same cast, director, and even sitcom sets, the revival is making a concerted effort to give its original fans exactly what they came to know and love all those years ago.

But to its credit, there’s at least one important distinction that the revival isn’t ignoring: The new Will & Grace is, in fact, about an older Will and Grace (and Karen and Jack). That Will and Grace are once again roommates after painful breakups in their late 40s is necessarily treated differently than when they lived together in their early 30s at the show’s outset. Jack’s eternal love of playing the dating field got a rude awakening in the second episode when he realized that many eligible bachelors are now looking at him with an eye for a “dad” type; even Will was startled to find out the same.

The only character who didn’t seem to be feeling her age in the revival is the one you might expect: Megan Mullally’s Karen, a seemingly ageless smirk of a woman whose cackle is almost as big as her hair(pieces). As the revival prodded Will, Grace, and Jack to grapple with their advancing years, it largely left Karen alone, allowing her room to play the chaotic evil role she’s always relished.

But in “Rosario’s Quinceañera,” Karen is forced to reckon with mortality in as literal a manner as possible, via the death of Rosario (Shelley Morrison), her beloved maid slash “sparring partner.” (Morrison declined to be part of the revival due to having largely retiring from acting after Will & Grace; the creators say she was told of her character’s death ahead of time.)

Suddenly, Karen can’t pretend like everything will be the same forever as long as she wills it hard enough, or at least drinks her way through it. Suddenly she has to say goodbye to an enormous part of her life, and move on.

“Rosario’s Quinceañera” isn’t the best episode of the revival so far, but it is at least representative of what this new round of Will & Grace is trying to do, whether it works or not.

The bad news: almost everyone but Karen spends this episode flailing about nonsensically

Greetings from the peanut gallery.
NBC

On first watch, this didn’t bother me so much. After all, Karen’s inability to process the news that Rosario is gone has her lashing out in a way not even her closest friends — not that she’d ever call them that — totally understand.

Grace (Debra Messing) responds by melodramatically making the day about her own pain over losing her mother however many years ago (which also serves to answer the question of how the show would handle the death of Debbie Reynolds, who played the unsinkable Bobbi Adler.) Jack (Sean Hayes) goes into overdrive trying to please Karen as she roars her disapproval, and even frantically dances when she commands it. (The gag makes no sense, but it’s worth mentioning that Hayes once again pulls off the physical comedy spectacularly, giving the most anxiety-inducing performance of Pharrell’s “Happy” that I hope I’ll ever have to see.) The only one who understands what she needs is Will (Eric McCormack), who finally just finds Karen at her bar of choice, gives her a steady hug, and gently tells her to take her grief at her own pace.

Will and Karen sporadically had moments of real tenderness throughout the show’s original run. Will, the most levelheaded character, could balance out Karen, the most hyperbolic character, at times when we’d least expect it, like when Karen considered leaving her offscreen husband, Stan. But it still feels strange to give him the final consoling beat, especially when Jack and Grace always interacted with Rosario far more. It gives the impression that the episode thought it needed Jack and Grace to amp up their own ridiculous traits in order to make the situation funny at all.

Rosario’s funeral — which is styled after the quinceañera she never got — also gets a drop-in visit from Minnie Driver’s Lorraine Finster, Karen’s disaster of a stepdaughter. I’d almost always prefer to have Driver show up on my TV than not — if you’re not watching her as a protective mom on ABC’s Speechless, you should fix that immediately — but Lorraine’s role in this episode seems to boil down to the fact that Driver happened to be available, so why not throw her in there? She doesn’t seem to have much of a purpose at all, and her jokes are halfhearted at best.

The only real beat of Rosario’s funeral that at all tracks is that Karen spends it swilling martinis at a nearby bar. In fact, the few scenes Karen does spend mourning her best friend and confidante are the ones that make this episode worth it.

The good news: Megan Mullally crushes it

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: The best part of Will & Grace has always, always been its cast. McCormack, Messing, Hayes, and Mullally are so in sync with their characters and each other that watching them perform even the most mediocre of scripts can feel like sitting in on your wittiest friends trading banter like it’s second nature. Every so often, though, they get the kind of moment that calls for a more grounded performance than their usual slapstick; usually, they knock it out of the park.

In the revival’s first few episodes, those moments belonged squarely to Will and Jack. (Check out episode four’s “Grandpa Jack” for a particularly good example.) But “Rosario’s Quinceañera” gives the inimitable Mullally an opportunity to show just how good she is. Karen goes from brief denial in the hospital to full-on rage at her helplessness to bittersweet resignation that this Rosario-less existence is just her life now.

“People keep asking, ‘What do you need? What do you need?’” Karen says, mocking everyone’s concerned tone to Rosario’s casket once everyone else is finally gone. But then she immediately crumbles, just a little, as she continues: “I need for you to not be gone.”

While most of the episode is spent on Jack and Grace’s insufficient responses, the few moments like this that Karen does get are lovely and unsparing in their stark sadness. They’re exactly the kinds of moments a nostalgia-minded revival like this can and should indulge, drawing upon both its own significant history and a practiced actor’s ability to sell the hell out of it.

Will & Grace airs Thursdays at 9 pm on NBC. Previous episodes are currently available to stream on Hulu.

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