“What’s so funny?” asked my mother, my laughter so loud she could hear it from three rooms over. I was watching “Will & Grace,” my favorite television show. Of course, as a closeted 19-year-old in a very Catholic household, I was afraid to tell her that.
“Nothing,” I replied, my voice cracking with teenage angst. I lowered the volume on the television but remained glued to the show’s every word.
As I struggled with my sexuality in my late teens and early 20s, I turned to “Will & Grace” every week for comfort and support. I loved how the characters were hilariously dysfunctional, yet would clearly do anything for one another. Seeing Will, Grace and Karen help Jack come out to his mom, for example, was both hilarious and heartfelt. After seeing that episode, I was inspired to come out to my parents, too.
When I tried — and failed — to discuss my feelings with my parents, I invited my mother to watch “Will & Grace” with me. It wasn’t the grand coming-out party I hoped for, but it felt like an important step toward dealing with my insecurities and gaining my mother’s acceptance. It was also nice just to spend some together and share a laugh.
It made sense that someone like my mother would enjoy “Will & Grace.” Will and Jack were “safe” gay guys who gave more conservative viewers a glimpse into the LGBT community without the physical affection or other connotations that would make them uncomfortable. Some of my friends complained that Will and Jack were too much of a stereotype, but I was too excited to have openly gay men on television to care.
Of all the characters, Will was my favorite. I dreamed of the day when I, too, would be a successful, grown-up gay man who had a fabulous Manhattan apartment, good friends and lived outside the closet. I idolized Will so much that I decided to quit writing plays and set out to become a lawyer. That lofty ambition lasted just a week, but I modeled myself after Will in other ways. I used more sarcasm and self-deprecating humor, started shopping at Banana Republic and spent all my time with a sassy female best friend mimicking Will and Grace.
Excited by “Will & Grace’s” return to television, I dug out my DVDs. Eleven years later, I was surprised that the show didn’t offer the same appeal. I started agreeing with the critics that Will was a watered-down version of a gay man while Grace was a nuanced depiction of a woman looking for love and fulfillment. It now annoyed me that Grace was allowed to have significant relationships, openly talk about her sex life and have passionate kisses in the bedroom. She ran the emotional gamut of marriage and divorce while balancing her career.
Will debated becoming a dad, but that was with Grace and not a significant other. When Will finally had a long-term significant other, the issues they confronted didn’t have the levity of Grace’s relationships. Even Karen, who was typically given the show’s lighter stories, had the opportunity to face her husband’s death. A show that was once my emotional crutch now frustrated me.
Was I being too harsh? “Will & Grace” originally aired in a different era, when marriage and other LGBT rights were less than equal. Shouldn’t I focus less on the show “playing it safe” and appreciate that millions of Americans like my mother were tuning in to watch a show with a gay man in the lead role? Is it fair to expect a sitcom that plays for laughs to be an authentic representation of the gay community — especially given how large and diverse that community is? Perhaps not. As a New York playwright approaching 40 who now prefers Netflix and wine at home with my long-term partner and our poodle, I by no means represent an entire community, either. I don’t think any one person can.
Yet, as “Will & Grace” returns, the show has a unique opportunity to address important social and emotional issues in a meaningful way. I’d love to see Will in a committed relationship, dealing with the daily nuances and complexities that come along with it. Some of this may have been touched on in the show’s later seasons, but the stunt-casting and silly story lines of Will and Grace’s later years didn’t do it for me. Maybe Will and his significant other are discussing marriage or having children? Perhaps they’ve just moved in together and argue over personal space, a callback to Will and Grace’s relationship in the first season. Perhaps Jack is also in a relationship and, gasp, has a full-time job that requires him to act like more of an adult? Or maybe he’s still running wild and free and has trouble accepting why all of his friends want to get married and have babies.
I don’t mean to suggest that Grace and Karen shouldn’t have meaty story lines as well. I just hope the show moves away from the notion of the “gay best friend” and focuses on four friends going through similar issues with unique perspectives. I’ve spent a long time wanting to be like Will Truman. Now, selfishly, I’d like to see him be more like me.