By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 14, 2006
"Will Truman's job isn't to promote tolerance or cure HIV or lobby Washington on behalf of transgender youth; it's to provide the tenuous fabric that binds the new Mercedes S-Class to Diet Coke."
-- Doug Wright,
"Will & Grace: Was It Good for the Gays?,"
the Advocate, May 9
On the death of "Will & Grace," which will end its eight-season run Thursday night on NBC, the mind seems to have erased most of the clip reel. The gayest among us now profess to have shirked duty and stopped watching a couple of seasons ago.
Whether one needed him to be the gay Rob Petrie or the gay George Jefferson, there is very little about Will Truman (played by Eric McCormack) to recall, and even less about Debra Messing's Grace Adler. It looked like they were having fun, and not much else. It certainly worked as a sitcom, verging on Lucylike prat (e.g., Grace's water-balloon falsie bra disaster in an early episode), but soon the memories blur into a swish-boom-bah of martinis and hugs and ceaseless stunt appearances by the likes of Cher, Matt Damon and Madonna. It's been a huge hit, even overseas, but Will and Grace turned out to be rather boring people, and when you think about it, they turned out to be the exact same person.
For years, some viewers held on to the idea that the show was an example of pure progress in the way American culture views homosexuals. This turned out to be "Will & Grace's" burden to bear, and it discarded it happily.
Instead, using one of those incalculable Lenny and Squiggy formulas that wrest zeitgeist and laughs away from title characters, "Will & Grace" will be better remembered for Jack McFarland (Sean Hayes) and boozy Karen Walker (Megan Mullally), the auxiliaries.
Will and Grace's barbs were no match for the full set of Wusthof cutlery wielded by Jack and Karen, whose surreal banter and insults defined the show. Despite a variety of accolades and awards presented over the years at gay rights and media-watchdog fundraising dinners -- where "Will & Grace" was praised for its groundbreaking courage and supposed heavy lifting on the front lines of the culture war -- its lasting imprint on actual gay people may be in its flawless demonstration of the cutting quip.
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The point, then, was to get away from "gay" and veer into more universal subjects on which everyone could enjoy a good bite -- for example, the immigration debate. "Will & Grace" taught America much more about another kind of platonic love that dares not speak its name, that of a filthy rich addict and her devoted Central American housekeeper (Shelley Morrison as the beatific but surly Rosario Salazar). Their love is, of course, expressed as contempt.
Karen: This one's gonna be spooning seviche out of a bucket on a dusty soccer field back in Chimichangaville!
Rosario: Listen, lady, in my country, I was a schoolteacher.
Karen: Yeah? Well, in this country, you wash my bras.
Nobody in the real world talks like that to each other, though occasionally, some gay men try to. Life can be one big snap, a double-
or triple-entendre atop more entendres, if only you possess a cruel enough wit and an Entertainment Weekly subscription.
The show improved on, and certainly added to, the patois of pop camp as uttered by people who watch too much TV and enjoy nothing more than a fresh cocktail and a cigarette. It meant the end of gay men who thought saying, "But ya are in that wheelchair, Blanche!" (channeling Bette Davis) was still hilarious, and gave currency to gay men who could do the dance routine to "Oops . . . I Did It Again" (channeling "Will & Grace's" Jack, who was channeling Britney Spears, who naturally did a guest appearance on the show).
Gays watched "Will & Grace" in part to become quicker on the draw, delivering lines like this:
Grace: Can you imagine me in a three-way?
Karen: Honey, I can barely imagine you in a two-way.
This is portrayed on the show as the dialogue of two women, but it was understood subconsciously as having sprung from the collectively raunchy gay male brain. Will was always making lush jokes to Karen. Karen was always making ugly jokes to Grace. Jack was always making fat jokes to Will, who was clearly thin, and wore oddly snug merino wool sweaters and T-shirts to prove it. ( So gay. And it was, come to think of it, actor Hayes who grew more girthy as time went on.)
The best time to have been watching "Will & Grace" was around the turn of the century, when it still felt like some new territory was being forged and some old problems had been solved. This was, perhaps, a false sense of security.
The show, co-created by a gay man, debuted in September 1998, three weeks before the murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student in Wyoming. In those two entirely unrelated events rests a constant in the present-day story of gay rights: Two steps forward almost always means one step back.
By this time, AIDS among American homosexuals had been in many ways vanquished by promising drug therapies; the same Clinton White House that pushed through the Defense of (straight) Marriage Act in 1996 and the "don't ask, don't tell" military policy in 1993 turned out to be far friendlier to the gay rights cause than the Bush White House that would soon follow. Ellen DeGeneres's sitcom had just been canceled the spring before, burdened as it was with a cause, which was Ellen's tardy admission and remedial musings on the fact that she's a lesbian.
Back in the late '90s, at a popular bar called J.R.'s on 17th Street NW, they would run drink specials on Tuesday nights, when "Will & Grace" was on. (The show moved to Thursdays in 2000, and its ratings peaked at 17.3 million viewers; since the end of "Friends" in 2004 it has steadily dropped, to an average of 7.8 million viewers now.) Watching the show there, cosmo in hand, shoulder-to-shoulder with young men who had Ricky Martin haircuts and wore Abercrombie T-shirts, it was possible to make the mistake of reading "Will & Grace" as a solid triumph. There was a Web site to see whether you were more of a Will or a Grace or a Jack or a Karen. (Everyone wanted to be a Karen, a k a "Anastasia Beaverhausen." She was the funniest after all, and the richest.)
A gay rights march held on the Mall in the spring of 2000 missed its target goal of a million participants by several hundred thousand and ran aground financially. What was the point, after all, if NBC had "Will & Grace" and America was tuned in and therefore implicitly on board?
This was the constant rub for "Will & Grace" naysayers, who very quickly realized that Will was never, ever going to have a sex life -- certainly not the robust one enjoyed by down-on-her-luck Grace, who had sex scenes with Woody Harrelson and Harry Connick Jr. and plenty of other guest mates, and might well take her final bow as a single mother. NBC had been nervous all along about a show featuring a gay male character, and had even downplayed that part a little before the pilot aired. Although dates for Will did make cameo appearances (Bobby Cannavale, as police officer Vince, is the boyfriend-apparent in the final episodes), they were always chaste. Marcia Brady got more on-screen action in five seasons of "The Brady Bunch" than Will Truman got in eight.
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Jack: FYI, most people that meet me do not know that I am gay.
Will: Jack, blind and deaf people know you're gay. Dead people know you're gay!
Another sore point for those who had the energy to feel let down in a political sense by a sitcom was the elusive refusal of "Will & Grace's" breakout star, Sean Hayes, to discuss publicly whether he is gay. This made him essentially unavailable for the marshal's float at the June pride parades, even though his logic for keeping his sexuality private would strike almost anyone as somewhat sound: Hayes said over and over again that he didn't want any role he was playing, now or later, to be overshadowed by the perception that the actor is gay.
The Advocate, a gay newsmagazine, asked Hayes for an interview for eight years, and never got one. For their "Will & Grace" sendoff package in the current issue, the magazine's editors have compiled snippets from other interviews he's given, in which the actor evaded and evaded the answer: "I don't want to play gay guys for the rest of my career. That's not why I became an actor," he said. "I so don't want to be a spokesperson for anything or anybody," he also said. And finally: "I'd rather not put that 'thing' in people's minds."
But ya are in that wheelchair, Blanche! Ya are!
More and more it doesn't matter, and in the end, some of the gays spurned "Will & Grace," even as they remained good friends with it. The lesson here is not to look to sitcoms to fight your battles, and the problem wasn't politics so much as a fickle heart: The show got boring. Nevertheless, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation issued a news release this month, once again thanking the show for inching forward on how gays are portrayed: "[It] has given unprecedented visibility to gay, lesbian and bisexual people," said Neil Giuliano, the group's president. "This is a comedy that created an emotional connection between millions of viewers and its characters . . . and a door opened for viewers to have a greater understanding of our lives."
So "Will & Grace" is dead, and already it's a pleasant thing to encounter in rerun form (all the time), good for a laugh and a glimmer of '90s-style hope, and a smidgen of resentment. This is the sort of collectively bipolar response to the show -- to appreciate "Will & Grace" all one has to do is think back to time logged in front of sitcoms on the family's Zenith and remember . . . what exactly? "Love, Sydney"? Paul Lynde in the center square? Billy Crystal on "Soap"? Mr. Roper calling Jack Tripper a "Tinker Bell"?
"Will & Grace" came along and it really was gay, and that turned out to be not gay enough for some, but plenty gay enough for the America it encountered.
A Will & Grace retrospective (60 minutes) airs Thursday at 8 p.m. on Channel 4, followed by the series finale (60 minutes) at 9.