Will & Grace ran for eight seasons at the turn of the century and now it’s been revived for a ninth. Sam Brooks explains why the beloved sitcom remains relevant today.
When I heard that Will & Grace was coming back a few years ago, I immediately felt myself tense up. It was nothing to do with the show’s quality or my affection for it – Will & Grace is actually a sitcom that has aged like a fine wine, rather than an open bottle of milk. The show’s pop culture specificity and flood of overqualified guest stars, combined with a tight four-strong cast and character-driven humour have preserved it, not dated it.
I tensed because I wondered what Will & Grace could give us in 2019. It’s a three-camera sitcom, which, while still a ludicrously successful and digestible art form, is not necessarily fashionable anymore. The cast have all gone onto bigger and brighter things – although the less said about Debra Messing’s The Mysteries of Laura the better. But the thing that made me most tense was “what if this is what everyone thinks all gay people are like?”
A little personal history here: The first season of Will & Grace started when I was eight years old, and it wrapped up when I was 13. I came out, or confirmed assumptions, when I was about 1o. I can’t say that I was an avid watcher of Will & Grace, but it was definitely something that was on in the background. I don’t think you could be gay in the late nineties and not exist in relation, in some shape or form, to Will & Grace.
Even as a teenager with no concept of intersectionality and a very basic understanding of identity, I had a strange relationship to the show. On one hand, I really enjoyed the show. It was funny, in a way that seemed more personal than Friends. But on the other hand, I felt some trepidation about liking the show. There was an assumption that to be someone who liked Will & Grace was to be like the gay men on that show – loud, feminine, stereotypical. And this might surprise you, but there were and still are a lot of people who don’t like gay men, and find those aspects of gay men especially distasteful.
You could write many a thesis on how internalised homophobia, gay misogyny and the simultaneous fetishisation of masculinity and condemnation of femininity does damage within the gay male community. I feel lucky that due to a combination of being brought up in a loving and smart household I got through my teenage years with minimal amounts of angst about my own gayness. But it didn’t stop 13 year old me feeling the tension of not wanting to be seen to be exactly like Will or Jack, when I was honestly more like Karen.
Why did I worry so much about a TV sitcom? Because, for a disproportionate amount of the population, Will and Grace was the gateway drug to the gay experience. It shouldered the burden of being, if not exactly the only piece of representation for LGBTQI+ culture, by far the most prominent one.
It was also the most digestible one, in more ways than one. As I’ve said, the three-camera sitcom is one of the most uniquely accessible forms out there. It’s the equivalent of a club song – while that club song tells you what to do and how to dance in the club, the three-camera sitcom literally has an audience telling you when to laugh. You can tune in and out of it and, with rare exceptions, everything gets resolved at the end of the episode.
Will & Grace is a goddamn excellent three-camera sitcom. The second episode of season six of Will and Grace, ‘Last Ex to Brooklyn’, starring a surprisingly on-form Harry Connick Jnr. and a less surprisingly on-form Mira Sorvino, is one of the true triumphs of the form, and has a joke-per-minute ratio that rivals 30 Rock at its most absurd.
It’s hard to understate the importance of Will & Grace in the world in which it first existed. Millions of people across the world saw gay people in their living rooms once a week, every week, for eight years. It’s not exactly the first brick at Stonewall, but normalising the lives of gay people – even the fairly homogenous, cisgendered gay people presented in Will & Grace – is an important brick nonetheless. It makes the alien into relatable, the abnormal into human, the unfamiliar into family.
Cut to 2019, when Will & Grace serves a different, more pleasant function, and one that is easier for it to shoulder. It doesn’t have the burden of being the only representation of LGBTQI+ people on television – which it couldn’t ever do, and it shouldn’t have been asked to. Instead, it gets to be one of many pieces of prominent media and culture that show the true range of identities and personalities across the LGBTQI+ spectrum.
And there’s something else important to bring up in that: We, as LGBTQI+ people, need art like Will & Grace. Don’t get me wrong, we need stuff like Angels in America too. We need Paris is Burning. We need RuPaul’s Drag Race. We need the heavy-hitters, but we need the silly stuff too.
Comedian Justin Sayre brings this up in a video where he rips into the Act Up miniseries When We Rise which, while worthy and important, is about as dour as a bus ride on a rainy day. He says, “They’re afraid if we’re funny, then we’re not proving to straight people how serious we are.”
Or more directly: “You’ve been kept alive by funny queens since time began.”
In 2019, we need a little bit of sugar. There’s so much bad news, so much bad news for LGBTQI+ people, that it’s not just nice but necessary to remind yourself that you can still laugh. That for all the badness in the world, there’s a massive apartment in New York where Will and Grace are still friends, Karen is still a pansexual rich divorcee, and Jack’s voice sounds like Lizzo playing a flute.
In 1998, Will & Grace was a reminder that queer people are people. In 2019, it’s a reminder that queer people can be happy. And queen knows, we need that.
You can watch the new season of Will and Grace on Lightbox right here.