What the New 'Will & Grace' Needs to Be Relevant Again

For one, the 'Will & Grace' reboot needs LGBT characters that go beyond circa-2006 stereotypes

A scene from season nine of “Will & Grace,” with, from left, Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, Sean Hayes and Megan Mullally.
Chris Haston/NBC via AP

“Nostalgia,” said Don Draper in “Mad Men,” “is a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship. It’s a time machine. It goes backwards — and forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel — it’s called the Carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels. Around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.”

The desire to capture that elusive feeling was worth millions, not only to the fictional advertising agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce in “Mad Men,” but also to the American television industry. For the networks that have revived beloved series like “Prison Break,” “The X-Files,” “Twin Peaks” and “Gilmore Girls,” nostalgia is a marketing tool that brings in viewers without having to spend money on developing new ideas.

Joining the old series that have made a comeback is “Will & Grace,” which has returned to the air 11 years after it wrapped up its initial run. The show, which was broadcast from 1998 to 2006, began its ninth season on NBC in the United States on September 28 (and on Partner TV in Israel on October 5).

It revolves around best-friend roommates Will Truman (Eric McCormack), a gay lawyer, and Grace Adler (Debra Messing), a straight interior designer. They hang out with Jack McFarland (Sean Hayes), a failed actor who is Will’s other best friend, and Karen Walker (Megan Mullally), a multi-millionaire alcoholic whose hobbies include working as Grace’s assistant.

The comedy was the first prime-time series in the United States to feature a gay man in a lead role. As it progressed, “Will & Grace” was criticized for the stereotypical portrayals of its gay and lesbian characters, but it paved the way for other series featuring lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender characters, including “Queer as Folk” and “Queer Eye.”

In 2012, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden had high praise for “Will & Grace,” saying that he thought it “probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody has ever done so far.”

In addition to its major influence, “Will & Grace” was a success because it was fun, with minor characters who stole the show, and a feeling of love, intimacy and genuine commitment by the characters to their shared friendship.

The old chemistry

It was nice to see, in the first episode of the new season, that the chemistry among the actors still works, but everything else was lame and occasionally even uncomfortable to watch. The series owes its revival to fans’ response to a reunion video in support of Hillary Clinton’s election campaign last year. The reboot rides the wave with mild jokes about Donald Trump.

Instead of enjoyable comedy that also creates genuine change, the first episode of the new season collapses under the weight of forced, predictable humor. So, for example, Grace, who is considering taking the job of redecorating the Oval Office, says she needs to make sure the new curtains will match the president’s coloring and then holds up an orange Cheeto next to a fabric swatch, saying, “Yep, that’s the one.” Will, who just happens to be at the White House, asks who’s the desperate fool who would redecorate for this president, saying, “It’s just going to be redone in a year.”

The episode is full of physical humor, including two spit takes and a pillow fight in the Oval Office, which only add to the characters’ lack of credibility. Add to that some limp puns and tired sexual innuendo. (Karen spies Jack with his Secret Service-agent lover, asks, “Did you get serviced?” and Jack replies, “Shhh, it’s a secret.”)

NBC has already renewed the reboot for an additional, 10th season. Network executives can revel in the ratings from the first episode — 10.2 million viewers — (though it’s not uncommon for revivals to get great ratings for the first episode, only to experience mass viewer desertions later).

If “Will & Grace” 9.0 wants to be political, it needs to be much more blunt. If it wants to have the same kind of impact as the original series, then it needs to have a much wider range of LGBT characters than it does now. What it lacks most of all is the sense that the characters are funny as a result of the dynamic among them. It feels as if they are simply facing the camera and trying to get laughs. The first episode played on viewers’ heart strings and nostalgia chords. But rather than being the twinge of nostalgia that Don Draper spoke of, it was the recognition that despite the desire to fall in love all over again, it’s not what it used to be.