Will and Grace‘s return to NBC highlights the series’ greatest assets. But it also fed into some of the shows greatest weaknesses.
A revival is only as good as its cast. In terms of leading men and women, Will and Grace is arguably unmatched. The foursome, Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, Sean Hayes, and Megan Mullally, are a force. And after a decade, it’s as if Will, Grace, Jack and Karen never left them.
The revival catches up with the group in real time, and because of this some rewriting of a certain, less-than-ideal finale was mandatory. If Roseanne can bring Dan back from the dead and make two Beckys work, then Will and Grace can erase a few kids and file for a few divorces.
There is no question, Will and Grace‘s return is a success. Sean Hayes is having the season of his life. Will Truman’s new found confidence is a testament to Eric McCormack’s connection with this character — it’s subtle, but the choices are there. Debra Messing adapts Grace seamlessly to the time. And Megan Mullally, somehow, doesn’t miss a beat as Karen.
But while the show enjoys it’s renaissance, there is some room for improvement that will make season 2 even better.
Keep the guest stars coming!
One aspect of the revival that felt very similar to the series’ original run is the roster of new guest stars. Will and Grace guest stars are not only great people for the core four to play off, but they hold their own in the sitcom-style forum. Michael Douglas’ detective Gavin Hatch, Glenn Close’s famed photographer Fannie Lieber, and Madonna as Karen’s zany roommate Liz, are some of the most memorable performances of the entire run.
The revival is off to a great start with episodes featuring Nick Offerman, Max Greenfield, Jane Lynch, Andrew Rannells, Ben Platt, and Kate Micucci.
Additionally, some recurring characters have given the series a boost. These include, Derek Gaines as Theodore who works at the community center where Jack taught children’s theater and Anthony Ramos as Tony.
There is always room for surprises on Will and Grace, and this is one element of the show where there is never a dud.
But don’t force them
Would anyone actually miss Joe and Larry if they never made it back? Several stars that made regular appearances in the series’ original run made their way back this year. With a few more coming this season, the guest spots beg the question — are they worth it?
Guest stars are a staple feature of the series. And, as mentioned above, they best serve the series when they blend into the environment. Alec Baldwin made a splash when he arrives as Malcom at the tail end of season 7 into season 8. Why are we bringing him back all these years later?
There is a line where what the writers think is a clever nod to the past starts to feel more like a strain on the neck. This is exactly what happened with the return of Joe and Larry. Instead of a brief dinner party introduction, Larry, played by the brilliant Tim Bagley, sticks around for an entire episode arc. There are funny moments, but not enough to make it feel worth the time spent using him as a miscommunication trope.
On the other hand, Molly Shannon, who plays the borderline psychotic neighbor, Val, felt right at home. Disappearing for seasons at a time was always Val’s thing. And having her play off of Jack and Karen worked brilliantly in the context of their storyline.
Other notable returns, Beverly Leslie (Leslie Jordan), Vince D’Angelo (Bobby Cannavale), Leo Marcus (Harry Connick Jr.) and Elliot (Michael Angarano), provided more than a feeling of familiarity. They offered closure — on a romantic relationship, a familial feud, and long-standing friendships.
Taking the example of Angarano’s return, the writers focused on keeping the father-son dynamic the focus. Could they have brought back Rosie O’Donnell as Elliot’s mother? Sure. But in this case, the episode fleshed out the supporting cast with the strength of their other guest stars Andrew Rannells and Jane Lynch.
Keeping the familiar faces around, but only when absolutely necessary.
Don’t lose the foursome
Guest stars are great, but arguably they are not necessary. McCormack, Messing, Mullally and Hayes have incredible chemistry. And this extends beyond their typical pairings — Will and Grace, Jack and Karen.
Will and Jack’s mornings, and evenings, in the apartment when Grace and Karen are in the office, highlight the duos unique rhythm. They have their own language and know each other inside and out. There’s a comfortable, playful intimacy whenever they share scenes together.
Karen and Grace offer something similar. Though harsher, the sharpness of their give and take is also full of love.
But in the next season, I’d like to shuffle the deck a bit more.
When Will and Karen are the focus there is an emotional rawness that surfaces. In the season 8 episode, “I Second That Emotion,” the two take turns tearing down the walls they put up to appear strong. This happens more than once, as Karen confides in Will not only as her lawyer, but as her friend. It’s a friendship that took advantage of grabbing small moments across 8 seasons to make something special. And all those movements led to one of the more moving scenes of this season’s “Rosario’s Quinceañera.” As Karen silently asks Will to stay for just a second longer.
On the other end of the spectrum is Jack and Grace. These two provide a more light-hearted and comedic banter. They are usually skipping work for a movie, or learning Britney Spears choreography. Their shared scenes highlight the actors strengths, especially their physical comedy chops.
Focus in and capitalize on the reason people are still tuning in today — the cast.
Experiment, but recognize what doesn’t work
Change is good. And for someone, like myself, who has seen every single episode of Will and Grace well over a dozen times each, it’s welcome. It’s frustrating when the writing feel lifted from the original series. I’m watching for something new, something original. And Will and Grace is taking chances, but not with the writing as much as the set and filming techniques.
This includes short flashbacks to Karen’s childhood, voiceovers, and one, very disorientating Will Truman closeup at his law firm. Some of these worked better than others. The flashbacks in “Staten Island Fairy” were reminiscent of “Lows in the Mid-Eighties.” (Although, the latter made a landmark episode, while the former were simply a nice change of pace.)
The structure of the episodes hit all the beats of the classic style, but there are a few new features that feel out of place. Take for example, “The Wedding.” In a moment towards the end of the episode, the cast sits at a table and each character takes a turn running through an internal monologue. It felt very prolonged, over-acted for comedic effect that did not quite land the humorous punch.
The same goes for Will’s crisis after his promotion. The fish-eye lens, plus voiceover, felt a bit ambitious and jarring in the episode.
However, when the episode leans into a new idea, and I mean really goes for it, the result is something incredibly special.
Speaking of special, “A Gay Olde Christmas,” while not a regular episode, is one of the best of the season. The entire episode takes place in another time, giving the cast (and not to mention the brilliant artistic team) a new sandbox to play in. Accents, costumes, new versions of the characters. All these elements came together to create an enjoyable stand-alone episode.
Audiences can handle heavier stories
Will and Grace is a funny, light-hearted show. But ask any fan of the series, any actor on the show, any creator, and they all mention the same episodes as their favorites – “Bed, Bath, and Beyond,” and “The Kid Stays Out of the Picture.”
These are the two heaviest episodes in the series. The former features Grace in the fallout of her relationship with Woody Harrleson’s Nathan. The group bands together, takes turns visiting Grace in her room, trying to coax her out of her wallowing state. The same goes for the latter. Will and Grace have a huge fight after Grace announces she is not willing to give up her chance at love to have a baby with Will.
The episodes are as funny as they are painful.
In the revival, this was accomplished yet again with “Rosario’s Quincenera.” It was a showcase for Megan Mullally as Karen processed the death of the most important person in her life. The episode gave everyone a moment to grieve and support Karen. Debra Messing’s performance in particular, as she twists her moment with Karen to be about her and her grief over her mother’s death, undercuts the comedy with such deep grief. It still gives me chills.
This show has such dynamic, talented actors. Use them!
Will and Grace returns with new episodes Thursdays after the Olympics on NBC.