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‘Will & Grace’ Is Back. Will its Portrait of Gay Life Hold Up?

‘Will & Grace’ Is Back. Will its Portrait of Gay Life Hold Up?
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It’s about four privileged white people. The characters, in particular the plain-spoken and politically incorrect Karen, occasionally crack racially tinged jokes. Although the lovably uptight gay character at the center of the show, Will, played by Eric McCormack, is best friends with Grace, played by Debra Messing, he sometimes makes quips that could come across as misogynistic in today’s climate. In rehearsal for the third episode, writers had Will joking, “It’s all in the book ‘Men Are From Mars, Who Cares Where Women Come From’.”

How will swishy, stereotypical Jack go over? That character, however hilarious, made some viewers wince the first time around. Mr. McCormack is straight. Will the fact that he’s reprising his role earn him a pass from those who think gay characters should only be played by gay actors?

“I would imagine that there will probably be a bit more blowback,” Mr. Kohan said of the show’s politically incorrect humor. “But saying the most un-P.C. things has always been part of what makes the show funny, so I’m hoping we get away with it.”

Mr. Mutchnick added that he hoped that the show’s pre-existing fan base, “grandfathers us in to a lot of forgiveness.”

Still, they were keenly aware that Tina Fey was being attacked online at that very moment as a transphobic stereotype spreader. She had made a rather tame joke about drag queens on a “Saturday Night Live” special the night before. “I really hope that we don’t spend too much time being careful,” Mr. Mutchnick said. “I’m worried about that.”

Photo

The creators of “Will & Grace”: Max Mutchnick, left, and David Kohan.

Credit
Brinson+Banks for The New York Times

“Will & Grace” — a throwback to an era when razzmatazz, laugh-track sitcoms had not yet been supplanted by single-camera comedies tailored for millennial tastes — was revived in a roundabout way. A few months before last year’s presidential election, Mr. Mutchnick sent an email to his former cast members that said in part, “This monster must be stopped.” He was referring to Donald J. Trump. Would they reprise their sitcom characters to make a get-out-the-vote video? Forty minutes later, he had four yeses.

The resulting 10-minute video was a runaway YouTube hit, which caught NBC’s attention. The cast agreed to revive “Will & Grace” with 10 new episodes. Then Robert Greenblatt, chairman of NBC Entertainment, got the quartet to agree to two more. And then four more. And now — after a euphoric response to the idea of a revival from the news media and advertisers — they’re signed up for a 13-episode second season.

“Next, we’ll be doing a geriatric version,” Ms. Messing said, sitting backstage between scenes. “It’ll be ‘Golden Girls’ 2.0 except set in Boca and everyone will have bamboo purses.” She added in a serious tone, “I actually shouldn’t say that too loud. He’ll have us signing contracts in blood.”

(If she was a little out of sorts, she had good reason: Ms. Messing was in physical pain, having hurt her back taping what she called an “unbelievable, amazing scene” the night before. The scene was a homage to a 1963 episode of “The Lucy Show” that found Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance stuck in a shower with the water on, Mr. Mutchnick said.)

Not everyone is hankering for more “Will & Grace.”

“The world has moved on,” Eric Marcus, a historian who produces the Making Gay History podcast, said in an email. “I’m left wondering what story lines these characters can possibly explore as middle-aged people that will seem as fresh as the original series.”

But NBC sees the revival as a comfort food that viewers will gobble whole: pure nostalgia. At a time of political upheaval and civil unrest, liberal network programmers are betting that — like themselves — the masses are wistful for the Bill Clinton 1990s. The nostalgia boom includes “Fuller House” on Netflix, ABC’s coming revival of “Roseanne” and a new incarnation of “Law & Order” on NBC starring Edie Falco.

Mr. Greenblatt said “Will & Grace” stands apart, though, because all four of the original leads are back and because they rather miraculously seem not to have aged. (It’s true. They’re freaks of nature.)

“It’s literally the old show,” Mr. Greenblatt said.

Photo

A scene from a 2001 episode: from left, Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, Sean Hayes and Megan Mullally.

Credit
Chris Haston/NBC

Indeed, the formula that made the show a smash hit and Emmy-winning machine the first time around is unchanged. The writers have decided to pretend that the 2006 finale, which found Will and Grace married (not to each other) with kids, never happened. Will and Grace are back to being single and living together. Jack still bursts through doors without knocking. Karen, still giggling about popping pills, sidles over from her mansion from time to time.

James Burrows, who directed every episode of the original run, has returned for the revival. “Nothing is different,” Mr. Burrows said. Not anything? Perhaps tweaks were made to the old-fashioned pacing (setup, joke, setup, joke) to make it feel more contemporary? “Nothing,” he said.

Camped in his dressing room, Mr. McCormack said that he saw the back-to-basics setup — Will and Grace as roommates, even while pushing 50 — as perfectly plausible. “It’s actually something kind of wonderful, and I think it will start a discussion,” he said. “It’s people in midlife saying, ‘Hey, wait. I’ve tried, but I still haven’t found anything better than this.”

The same was not true of the cast, Mr. McCormack said quickly, noting that he personally has another gig starring on the Netflix series “Travelers.”

“Nobody is coming back to this show with their tail between their legs,” he said. “Nobody has been sitting around waiting for someone to employ them — please, please, revive my old show. Not one of us.”

The revived “Will & Grace” is not totally caught in a time warp. Set designers gussied up the apartment where most of the action takes place. New episodes take place in the present day — Karen is now besties with Melania Trump, the first lady — and the characters sometimes reference ways in which they have (slightly) matured.

“Remember how we used to hate Camilla Parker Bowles?” Will asks Grace in the third episode.

“We were young,” she answers. “We rushed judgment.”

Some episodes will deal squarely with aging. “Jack and Will are dealing with the fact that they’re not 30 anymore,” Mr. Kohan said. “There is real emotion there, whether it is anxiety or sadness or fear, which makes it really powerful. And they deal with it, of course, in absurd ways.”

Among other changes, Rosario, Karen’s long-suffering maid, has been written off the show. (Shelley Morrison, who played that fan-favorite role, declined to return, citing her health.) Jack has retired his “Just Jack” tagline, seemingly at the suggestion of Mr. Hayes, who was tired of people greeting him that way in real life. Ms. Messing asked that tweaks be made to Grace. “I wanted her to have a noticeable feminist strain,” Ms. Messing said. “The real world is a scary, divisive place right now, especially for women, whose rights are being attacked and autonomy challenged.”

Karen, on the other hand, has not changed for the better. “She’s the same but worse,” Ms. Mullally said. “And I can’t tell you how fun that is. Some actors spend their lives desperately trying to distance themselves from their sitcom characters. I’ll play Karen until I die if they let me.”

Ms. Mullally said that Karen will be the one making most of the show’s Trump commentary, albeit by accident. “They’re leaving it to the character who is best friends with Donnie and Melania to inadvertently be the one delivering the most vicious jabs,” Ms. Mullally said.

There won’t be too much of a political undercurrent, though. “Little doses,” Ms. Mullally said. “You can’t write anything too specific because — honey! — by the time it airs Trump will have done 10 other horrible things.”

Too much Trump bashing could also prove problematic in the ratings. NBC has plenty of affiliates in moderate areas of the country. The pass-me-the-remote masses are unlikely to want a civics lecture in the form of a sitcom.

But gay rights organizations are hoping that the sitcom serves as an aggressive counterweight to Trump-era intolerance, including the proposed ban on transgender people serving in the military. During its initial run, “Will & Grace” was credited with normalizing gay people; when Joseph R. Biden Jr., as vice president in 2012, said he was “absolutely comfortable” with same-sex marriage, he cited the show for doing more “to educate the American public than almost anything anybody has ever done.”

In other words, expect Glaad officials, for instance, to focus on the big picture where the revival of “Will & Grace” is concerned. So what if the feminine Jack is a stereotype?

Photo

In a 2003 episode, Debra Messing and Sean Hayes.

Credit
Chris Haston/NBC

“We can dissect specific characters until the cows come home,” said Sarah Kate Ellis, chief executive of that media-focused advocacy group. “What we know for sure is that this series had a profoundly positive impact on the culture during its original run, and we need its help again. LGBTQ acceptance is slipping in this culture, and hate crimes are on the rise.”

(For his part, Mr. Hayes said anyone miffed about Jack should get a grip.) “I am a gay guy, and I act like Jack in real life sometimes,” he said. “So what. I find Jack’s level of gay to be a ridiculous subject to discuss. How can you be too gay?”

Not up for debate is how much fun the reunited “Will & Grace” family seems to be having. When it came time to tape the third episode of the new season, they bounded on stage and started hopping up and down as Cher’s 1998 dance hit “Believe” boomed on the sound system. Even Ms. Messing’s back seemed to be in better shape, having had five days to heal. The studio audience roared its approval.

As did the bevy of NBC executives who had gathered on the Stage 22 sidelines. Mr. Greenblatt was there snacking on a bagel. Nearby, Jennifer Salke, president of NBC Entertainment, stood laughing as Mr. Hayes, between takes, grandstanded for the audience. “A high-maintenance actor needs a water!” he shouted. “In five seconds! Or it’s somebody’s job!”

As taping resumed, Mr. Greenblatt beamed.

“Nothing has changed,” he said.



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