The original Will And Grace was smart, funny, and progressive. But when the show returned to NBC at the end of September following an 11-year absence, the order had changed. Perhaps feeling it owed a debt to fans of the 2016 election-themed mini-episode that sparked its revival, Will And Grace sent both Will (Eric McCormack) and Grace (Debra Messing) on separate inexplicable journeys to the White House with Jack (Sean Hayes) and Karen (Megan Mullally) in tow, all in an effort to mock the Trump administration with uninspiring results.
This isn’t a “stay in your lane” thinkpiece (the world doesn’t need more of those, particularly in this moment where the reality TV President is on a crusade against socially conscious athletes and celebrities). Plenty of sitcoms lead with the issues, but there’s a difference between what Black-ish does and what The Carmichael Show did (sparking conversation and consideration) and what the season premiere of Will And Grace tried to do (score points with the liberal chorus and maybe inspire an outraged Trump tweet).
The Will And Grace approach wasn’t offputting for political reasons, it was offputting because it felt like a lackluster approach to topical comedy that was beneath the talents of those involved and the mission of the original — that “smart” and “funny” thing. We’ve all heard the Cheeto jokes before. We’ve also heard plenty of substantial and thought-provoking humor aimed at this administration and its actions from the many shows whose mission it is to shine a light into the darkened halls of power. Will And Grace doesn’t have to be that show.
The producers even acknowledged that they had maybe veered too far when, at the end of the first new episode, Grace told Will, “when we talk about politics we get preachy. Maybe we should just be what we’ve always been.” And in the second episode, that more or less proved prophetic.
Sure, Will felt the need to lecture a much younger date (and the audience) on the sacrifices that gay people had made to bring society to this moment of broader (but not broad enough) acceptance of gay lifestyles, but it felt in-line with a story centered on the challenges of aging and dating while aging and not like a stunt. Besides, there was a silly Jack B-story and Karen and Grace getting stuck in Karen’s high tech shower (a scene that wouldn’t feel out of place in a sizzle reel of the series’ best sight gags) to soften the mood and provide contrast. And wrapping all of this was the chemistry and heart that always supported the mix of wit and broad comedy that propelled the original as Grace confessed that she valued Karen and Will and Jack shared a quick dance to Madonna (who is not at all tired).
This season’s second episode also felt as though we were seeing a group of characters that weren’t new to these strange times. In the season premiere, it seemed as though Will, Grace, Karen, and Jack had awoken to a nightmare, unchanged and screaming about the host of The Apprentice sitting with his finger perilously close to the button. (Though, true to form, Karen seemed all right with it all.) But in the second episode, the characters from the original series seemed to have aged right along with the rest of us, seemingly challenged by the slow progression of their personal lives and the world’s chosen direction. In that order.
So much about the world seems to be centered around Donald Trump right now. He’s on all of our minds as he uses Twitter to insert himself into every conversation like an annoying party guest who just can’t take the hint that we’d like to circulate and talk to other people about other, less severe, things sometimes.
It’s hard to sleight a show for thinking it needs to push back at Trump because of that, especially a show that qualifies as a legitimate progressive barrier breaker whose past contributions helped open up pop culture to more LGBTQ stories. But while there is a sure measure of satisfaction that comes from hanging that red “Make America Gay Again” hat on Trump’s chair at the end of a season premiere airing a couple of months after he took a swipe at the transgender community with the military service ban, the impact is hollow compared to what other shows are capable of. It’s also hollow compared to what can be accomplished when Will And Grace takes its own advice and merely tries to be what it’s always been for an audience that could use a distraction from Trump and all the shows that are better at getting a laugh while taking the piss out of him.
The question is: can producers resist the urge to climb atop their soapbox and preach about the issues of the moment (in a way that feels instantly dated), or can they be more subtle (and effective) in their progressive messaging in these wildly unsubtle times while putting their faith in the power of smart comedy to secure a bit of timelessness? If they can, it just might allow Will And Grace to become the rare revival that offers more than nostalgia.