In promoting the new Will & Grace, both NBC and series creators Max Mutchnick and David Kohan have emphasized over and over again that calling it “new” is something of a misnomer, because they see it as basically identical to the show that ran from 1998 to 2006.
“It’s literally the old show,” NBC Entertainment chair Bob Greenblatt rhapsodized to the New York Times, which later wrote that “Mr. Greenblatt beamed” as he repeated, “Nothing has changed.”
This is somewhat true — but thankfully, only to an extent.
The premise of Will & Grace hasn’t changed much at all, especially since the revival completely erases the events of the show’s initial series finale, in which Will and Grace stopped speaking for 20 years as they each raised children. (In the 2017 version of the show, Will and Grace are both divorced and living together once again, with no kids in sight.) The show’s rhythm feels the same as ever, with legendary TV director James Burrows (Friends, Cheers) back on board, and the core cast of Debra Messing, Eric McCormack, Sean Hayes, and Megan Mullally will quickly remind you of why they were always Will & Grace’s biggest draw.
Having seen the first three episodes, I can confirm that the so-called “new but not really” Will & Grace maintains the same cadence as the show’s original iteration. However, as far as its actual content goes, some of the best moments are the ones that couldn’t have happened more than a decade ago. So I wouldn’t go so far as to say that “nothing has changed” — and nor should NBC.
Will & Grace opens by simultaneously erasing its past and embracing it
The first episode of the revived Will & Grace opens with the central foursome of Will (McCormack), Grace (Messing), Jack (Hayes), and Karen (Mullally) playing Celebrity in Will’s Upper West Side living room. All of them are recognizably the characters we came to know more than a decade ago, with a bit of a 2017 twist. Will and Grace have the same freaky mind-meld powers they always did (when Will sighs, “We want to love her, but she makes it impossible,” it only takes Grace about 0.3 seconds to correctly guess, “Caitlyn Jenner!”). Jack, bored with their shenanigans and craving instant gratification, idly browses Grindr and brainstorms a new profile pic.
And when Karen, who’s briefly catatonic from her usual martini-and-pill daze, comes to long enough to get her bearings, she describes the weird dream she had where Will and Grace drifted apart for 20 years and only came back together once their kids got engaged.
“That never happened,” Will scoffs — and just like that, the onetime series finale becomes hypothetical dust.
I could be annoyed by this, but the truth is that Will & Grace’s 2006 series finale was terrible. The revival is much better off without it — and free to return to its previously established dynamic.
Messing and McCormack easily pick up their rapid-fire back-and-forth rhythm as if they’re slipping into a comfortable, broken-in pair of shoes. And while there are few actors on TV today who can match Hayes’s physical comedy skills, Mullally comes close, throwing back her head in wicked glee as an increasingly smug Karen gloats about her friend Melania marrying her way into the White House.
Some of these “We’re in 2017 now!” jokes feel shoehorned in; I could’ve easily done without Jack grimacing that he might get “finger herpes” from Grindr. Also, the premiere episode centers on Will and Grace’s respective struggles to reconcile their disgust toward America’s new president — though no one ever mentions Donald Trump by name — with their intrinsically selfish motivations. It’s this setup that allows Will’s flirtation with a conservative lawmaker and Karen tempting Grace with the opportunity to redesign the Oval Office to bring everyone to the White House for some convoluted brushes with the new order.
On the one hand, it’s something of a relief that Will & Grace isn’t pretending it’s actually stuck in 2006. On the other, I don’t know that the show gains much from “Make America Gay Again” winks besides an instinctive “Woo!” from the studio audience. (Though, okay, Grace finding a box in the Oval Office with nothing but a “Russian-English dictionary and a fidget spinner” in it got a laugh out of me.)
The 2017 edition of Will & Grace is at its best when it acknowledges that time just might have passed its characters by
In its initial run, Will & Grace was never interested in becoming — or ever worked that well as — an overt mouthpiece. So the best moments of the revival aren’t when Will and Grace remind us that the Environmental Protection Agency might get dismantled, but rather when the show leans into the fact that time has gone by and the world has changed.
Because the simple truth is that no matter how much Mutchnik, Kohan, and NBC may have wanted to pretend like everything on Will & Grace has been stuck in a time capsule since it left the air, the one thing the show can’t avoid is the fact that its stars and characters have aged 11 years. It can retcon Will and Grace’s kids out of existence, but it can’t freeze its characters in time.
So even though the premiere ends with Will and Grace single and living together again, with Will insisting that it’ll be different this time because “we know it's gonna be exactly the same,” they still stumble into some fascinating moments that elevate the revival into something much more interesting than a carbon copy of its former self. This is especially noteworthy when Will and Grace realize it’s not the same to be single and living with your best friend when you’re a divorced 40-something versus a flailing 30-something. How could it be?
The pair’s codependence has always been both a strength and a weakness, but it becomes doubly so as they stare down the second half of their lives with less of an idea than ever of what the future holds now that their supposed happy endings have been invalidated. Even Jack — or maybe especially Jack — finds himself blinking in horror at facing both his age and the sparkling 25-year-old gay men who see him not as a peer but as a “dad.”
In fact, the characters’ confusion and eventual acceptance of their standing in the world 11 years later functions as a pretty spot-on analogy for the new Will & Grace itself. When the show premiered in 1998, it walked into a world that had only recently seen Ellen DeGeneres come out on her own sitcom — and leave the air soon afterward. It spent two seasons building up to its first same-sex kiss, and even then, the moment was a stunt featuring Will and Jack. The TV landscape for LGBTQ characters has radically shifted in the years since, which can sometimes make Will & Grace (not to mention its unfortunate tendency to make a punchline out of any LGBTQ person who isn’t a white gay man) seem like something of a relic.
But when the revival confronts its elder statesman status head on — whether through Will gaping at a young gay guy who brushes off the sacrifices of the “Stonehenge” riots or Grace saying her “woke” pussy hat is great for sneaking candy into movies — it displays a more unique perspective than it’s giving itself credit for.
In the end, Will & Grace doesn’t necessarily need to be woke if it can demonstrate that it knows as much. The 2017 edition can still have Will, Grace, Jack, and Karen leaning on each other and cracking the jokes that made the original show successful. But if it’s going to work once the initial excitement of having this cast back together wears off, what it can’t do is pretend that absolutely nothing has changed.
The Will & Grace revival debuts Thursday, September 28, at 9 pm Eastern on NBC. To catch up on the old series, you can stream all eight seasons on Hulu.