NBC’s “Will & Grace” returns eerily unchanged and sharply intact Thursday night, as if the past 11 years never occurred.
Those sappy denouements seen in the show’s finale back in 2006? It was all just a flash of catatonia experienced by the show’s boozy one-percenter, Karen Walker (Megan Mullally). “Am I still rich?” she asks when she comes to. “What happened to the children you had who grew up and got married to each other?” she asks Will and Grace. Snap out of it — pretend it never happened.
Examined in the higher definition of 2017, gay lawyer Will Truman (Eric McCormack) and his BFF, interior designer Grace Adler (Debra Messing), show only slight evidence of physical aging. But there is also little creative progress here, or a clear explanation of why the show is back, other than the universe (and the network) demanded it, and the show’s creators, David Kohan and Max Mutchnick, are eager to make hay of dark times in President Trump’s America.
The show’s return will soothe the modern anxieties of “Will & Grace’s” original fans, who still auto-sort into predictable blue-state demographics. And for its part, the redder side is free to regard a “Will & Grace” comeback as one more mild irritant in a world full of bended-knee, snowflakey, politically correct irritants.
Anyhoo, Grace has moved back into Will’s comfy (and in the current market, quite luxe) Manhattan apartment, promising she’ll only stay a few weeks, “Until the dust settles.”
“On your genitals?” asks Jack McFarland (Sean Hayes), the knife-tongued queen who still lives across the hall.
“On my divorce,” Grace replies.
“Because of your genitals?” Jack deadpans.
Though they missed the glories of the Obama/iPhone/Taylor Swift era, Will and Grace (and more popularly, Jack and Karen) haven’t missed a beat. This season’s first three episodes crackle with repartee that breezily references such modern phenomena as the gay hookup app Grindr (“I could get finger herpes from scrolling,” Jack complains), the state of being woke, “fake news” and a “Ryan scale” for potential suitors (“He’s a Reynolds-point-Gosling!”). If these jokes don’t land with you, “Will & Grace” was probably never your sitcom to begin with.
On that note, the show is very much a sitcom, not only in its multi-camera/studio-audience format, but in its absolute faith in the form. With direction from old pro James Burrows, “Will & Grace” proves that a good, old-school sitcom is still a worthy and engaging endeavor, depending ineffably on chemistry and timing. Hayes, for example, is one of TV’s finest physical comedy actors; it’s a pleasure to watch him get another chance to show off his skills. He still gets the best lines, too: “Well, okay, Shonda, now we have a scandal.”
After its initial run from 1998 to 2006, “Will & Grace” departed just as single-camera shows were entering a golden era — “30 Rock,” “The Office” and “Parks & Recreation,” to name a few. In NBC’s current season, “The Good Place,” now in its second season, feels more like the neat, new thing in comedy, while “Will & Grace” feels like a treasured relic, a show for old people — n ot that there’s anything wrong with that, as “Seinfeld” once pleaded.
This retro mood somewhat undermines “Will & Grace’s” stated reason for return, which leans heavily on its own sense of cultural impact and a perceived need to stand up and be counted. Remember, this all began with a YouTube video in 2016, in which the cast reunited to make a short viral video urging Americans to vote — and urging Jack and Karen to vote for Hillary Clinton instead of the other guy. (Think of poor Rosario, they said, trying to sway Karen to support her loyal but combative immigrant housekeeper. Sad to say, Shelley Morrison, who played Rosario, decided not to reprise the role in this new season.)
“Will & Grace” was praised to the moon in the late 1990s for being the first sitcom to feature an openly gay main character, but it was not always able to deliver on its promise of progressive momentum. Gay rights organizations showered it with image awards, even as the show kept Will surprisingly and belatedly chaste. Bawdy talk was fine, but intimacy was another matter.
I remain unconvinced that “Will & Grace” moved the needle all that heroically on gay rights. If TV is to claim credit for that, it should go to a far more welcoming comedy, ABC’s“Modern Family,” which premiered three years after “Will & Grace” ended and demonstrably swayed middle-American viewers on the issue of same-sex marriage by showing a realistic — and very funny — male couple with an adopted daughter, within the context of an accepting heterosexual world. “Will & Grace,” on the other hand, was and still is about a very insular world, and when it preaches, its words travel solely in the direction of the choir.
Still, it’s hard to not be delighted when all four characters quickly wind up at the White House, where Karen has used her friendship with the first lady to get Grace a job redecorating the Oval Office (Grace brings a bag of Cheetos to use for color coordination). And, thanks to Jack’s many gay connections in the Secret Service, Will finds his way into a Rose Garden news conference to meet his latest crush: a cute, conservative congressman.
If “Will & Grace” intends to confront Trump’s America this bluntly, maybe there’s a need for it after all. “What’s with the Laura Bush pour?” Karen demands of a White House usher who has brought her a half-filled martini. “Gimme the full Pat Nixon.”
Make it two.
Will & Grace (30 minutes) returns Thursday at 9 p.m. on NBC.