A look back at how “Will & Grace” changed sitcoms, and television

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The cast of NBC’s Will & Grace, which redefined the role of homosexual characters in television series.

Every so often a comedy series comes along which redefines the way we view certain stereotypes and situations.  The hit series M*A*S*H completely redefined the way war and medicine were portrayed in the 1970s and early 1980s.  The Cosby Show did the same for race in the mid-1980s.  Married with Children explore the dark comedy of working families in the 1990s.  Afterwards, a plethora of allegedly “edgy” comedies during the late 1990s and early 2000s led to the notion that a “seminal comedy” was considered dead.

Then Will & Grace came along.

NBC took a major risk on the handiwork of newcomers David Kohan and Max Mutchnik, whose concept of besties Will Truman (Eric McCormack) and Grace Adler (Debra Messing) appeared to be merely a reboot of The Odd Couple until it was revealed just odd they really were.

Messing’s character would be a straight interior designer, while McCormack’s would be a lawyer.

Check that:  a gay lawyer.

KoMut Productions convinced the brass at the peacock to take a flyer on a series featuring not just a homosexual protoganist, but an additional gay character in Jack McFarland (Sean Hayes), and a homosexual friendly supporting character in secretary/socialite Karen Walker (Megan Mullally).  This alone was considered a monumental feat of courage for NBC, especially following the 1998 public relations disaster surrounding ABC’s sitcom Ellen, featuring Ellen DeGeneres.  Social conservatives such as Rev. Jerry Falwell, who helped doom DeGeneres’ program through a relentless letter and telephone campaign, cried foul about NBC’s decision to “glorify” the gay lifestyle.  Pundits expected the new series to collapse within weeks.  Naturally, America tuned in to see what all the fuss was about.

The result was astonishing:  Will & Grace, pardon the pun, played it straight.  Well, as straight as a show featuring a gay protoganist could get, anyway.

McCormack, Messing, Mullally and Hayes were a comedy tag team which delighted viewers.  The pilot featured plenty of comedy which poked at life itself, using Truman and McFarland’s sexuality as a point of perspective.  While McCormack and Messing fed off each and displayed an amazing chemistry on the screen, it was Hayes’ ham-on-wry handling of McFarland’s character which endeared the series to hearts of Americans.  Fans of the show will always remember how hard they laughed when they first heard Hayes’ horrified gasp in response to McCormack’s “Jack, you’re acting like your mother!”

The decision to play comedy from the perspective of a homosexual’s life was a stroke of genius, as the pilot felt fresh without being preachy or in-your-face with regards to the sexual orientation issue.

Will & Grace redefined comedy by taking the highly stale Hollywood concept of Shtick, and refining it into an art form.

Characters played off one another magically and, over time, the writers transformed them accordingly.  Messing’s Adler went from an insecure woman seeking to establish herself as an independent business owner, to a mature thirty-something tackling ethnic humor in a very non-ethnic way, and later to a wife-turned-divorcee trying to come to terms with life.  Mullaly’s Walker was changed from a seemingly lackadaisical secretary into an over-the-top, ditzy socialite who made Paris Hilton look like a rank amateur.  McCormack’s Truman evolved from merely a gay lawyer with an uber-mooch friend to a character whose troubles even straight men could relate to.  Hayes’ McFarland may have had the most profound evolution, taking some dramatic twists and turns while using his character to tackle complex and sensitive issues, both gay and non-gay, in a manner which balanced class and dignity on a level unseen since M*A*S*H.  Even the late addition of Walker’s maid, Rosario Salazar (Shelly Morrison), was handled with remarkable aplomb, opening the door for additional humor and plot threads.

The show was not without its low points.  Great opportunities for comedy cameos were often squandered when guest stars became recurring characters.  At one point, the series began to feel almost like a waypoint to revive flagging careers, with the likes of Woody Harrelson, John Cleese, Suzanne Pleshette (d.), Alec Baldwin, Minnie Driver, Harry Connick, Jr. and Beau Bridges making appearances.  Episodes during the season in which the series was a lead-in for KoMut’s ill-fated Good Morning Miami sitcom appeared to suffer from lazy writing and gratuitous plugs for NBC programming, reportedly caused by meddling from then-NBC chief Jeff Immelt.  The show looked as though it was in danger of losing its identity.  Thankfully, Will & Grace’s quality rebounded, indicating and end to not only a potential dilution of writing quality from KoMut biting off more than it could chew, but also a tapering of the meddling by NBC brass.  In fact, it was after the network appeared to back off when the series began taking its biggest risks.

The famous “live episode,” performed during the series’ final season, was one of the greatest risks in television history.  While the drama ER had done the same thing previously, that particular event was considered safer because of the nature of the subject matter, and the strict controls which producers had placed over the cast.  Will & Grace was given a far wider berth by its team and, considering the nature of the series, was the show everyone was going to tune in to see if there would be a massive gaffe.  NBC even was believed to have made the decision to put the broadcast on a pro-forma multi-second delay to allow potential profanities to be censored, preventing a P.R. nightmare.

It didn’t happen.  In fact, the episode displayed the very reason the series was such a hit – the talent of the cast.  It was a blue-plate special of comedy, with Baldwin even taking a moment to poke fun at the travails of then Senate Majority Leader Tom DeLay.  The episode was such a hit that another live episode, featuring Today Show heartthrob Matt Lauer, was broadcast.  That episode was ratings also gold, and left the audience hungry for more.

As the series wound down its final season, all the characters had come full circle.  Adler was now a divorcee.  Truman was was finally feeling comfortable in his own skin.  Walker had entered the workforce after her husband, the invisible Stanley Walker was thrown in jail, only to become an uber-rich socialite widow after Stan’s passing, only to then find out he had faked his death.  MacFarland’s circuitous route to nirvana featured stints as an acting teacher, nurse, father, talk show host and ultimately, television executive.  Rosario’s route went from than of a maid to that of Walker’s muscle, and the quasi-tough guy of the series.

Despite being a gay-friendly sitcom, Will & Grace conspicuously avoided some hot-button issues.  Gay marriage was rarely referenced and when it was, it was more a tap dance on the border than an straight out invasion into the subject.  On the rare occasion HIV and AIDS were tackled, they were approached in a roundabout fashion.  The issue of gay adoption was approached, but with kid gloves.  Producers took great pains to orient the series to the masses, play up the shtick, poke fun at politics and ethnicity, and leave the super edgy and raw stuff to the far more controversial and risqué Queer As Folk, produced for premium network Showtime.

The greatest irony of the series may have been that in 2010, four years after the series went off the air, Sean Hayes himself actually came out as gay.  Mullally, however, openly declared herself as bisexual years prior.

In the final analysis, Will & Grace did for the LGBT community what Bill Cosby did for African-Americans – gave middle America a series which didn’t shove an social commentary on equality for gays and lesbians down everyone’s throat, but still took enough risk to reap big rewards and redefine the way we viewed the subject.  While Ellen DeGeneres may have been the television equivalent of Jackie Robinson to the LGBT community with her ill-fated, but pioneering series, Will & Grace was akin to Tony Dungy’s career in the NFL, being given the shot to “break through” and, in doing so, showing a staying power which allowed America to not just accept, but embrace, a previously taboo idea.

Series such as Modern FamilyFamily Guy, and Glee, which all have openly homosexual characters, owe their existence in many ways to Will & Grace‘s success.  Even Ellen DeGeneres, to a far lesser extent, would have be unlikely to get the second wind she has experienced without the risk NBC took almost 15 years ago.  That is what it means to “redefine,” and that’s what Will & Grace did.

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