Will & Grace
Will & Grace (Photo: Channel 5)

TV

We need really funny, queer TV – now more than ever

20 years later, Will & Grace is still relevant to our lives, says Caroline O’Donoghue – it’s sharp, silly and covertly political

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

Did anyone want a Will & Grace reunion? Was anyone waiting for it? Was anyone going on Kickstarter, trying to bring the 90s classic back, the way they did with Veronica Mars? Or, is the Will & Grace reunion like so many things in popular culture: something we’re happy to accept, but not exactly gunning for?

Sitcoms are expensive, risky and unpopular. In an entertainment climate where binge-watching murder documentaries is the new first-date of choice, there’s no doubting that the humble half-hour comedy – complete with a live studio audience and a sound-stage apartment of improbable size – has been hung out to dry. But what has become increasingly clear since the first episode premiered is that not only are we happy to embrace the new Will & Grace episodes, but that we need Will, Grace, Karen and Jack more than ever. Let’s not forget: conversion therapy is no longer a fringe nut-job idea, but a real thing that US vice-president Mike Pence supports. We need queer TV. And, importantly, we need really, really, really funny queer TV.  

Within 45 seconds of the opening scene – same old sound-stage apartment, same old live studio audience – Karen (Megan Mullally) wakes from a horrible, drug-induced hallucination, revealing that she dreamed the entire series finale, where Will (Eric McCormack) and Grace (Debra Messing) were estranged, married and both had children.

“Married with children?” exclaims Jack (Sean Hayes). “Who wants to watch that?”

This is 2018 – people are more than happy to write dissertation-length essays about the believability of Cartoon Network shows, making Karen’s “dream” a brilliant, if risky, start. One minute in, and Will & Grace is already trolling the audience. But it works and we’re off to the races. Karen is best friends with “Donny and Melania”, Will is writing eager letters to his senator, Grace is making desperate attempts to be woke. Jack is… Jack. He’s an ageing twink, still pinballing around with the best lines and best physical comedy of anyone on television.

Despite the stars' insistence that they just want to make people laugh, there’s a surprising steeliness to it – one that was there from the beginning. When the show began, in 1998, it did so in a political climate rife with homophobia: the memory of AIDs still loomed in public consciousness, members of the US military had to contend with Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the grotesquely named Defense of Marriage Act was in full force. Even in the UK, the age of consent for gay and bi men was higher than for straight men. Ellen DeGeneres had just historically come out to the world on her show, Ellen, which was cancelled mere weeks later. The lives of gay men – and the straight women they platonically loved – was not something anyone knew they needed to see.

Will & Grace reminds us that those 'givens' we casually accept are not, in fact, givens at all. They were won through hard battle and not all that long ago

And, somehow, 20 years later, the show is still necessary. After all, the only reason the cast reassembled in the first place was to film a quick pro-voting skit for the 2016 election, with the unstated (but very clear) intention that candidates should vote for Clinton. It was meant to be a one-off, but the chemistry was still so on-point that the cast decided to sign up for a full series.

At the show’s premiere, the cast assembled – along with NBC network heads – in an attempt to sell the return of Will & Grace to a room full of cynical London journos and older gay superfans.

“Now that the world has moved on…” the host began, only to be interrupted by Channel 5’s head of programming, Ben Frow.

“The world hasn’t moved on and that’s the point,” says Frow, who is joyfully intent on making Channel 5 the home for gay TV. “If you live in Russia or Afghanistan, the world absolutely has not moved on. Life is hell, if you’re gay in those countries. We take it for granted, because we live in this London bubble. But this show has been picked up in 153 territories and those territories are among them.”

In a scene that feels as though it’s addressing that point directly, Will is attempting to date a millennial who rolls his eyes on being told about how Madonna was a trailblazer.

“You older gay guys,” he says to Will. “You make such a big deal about everything."

"You know the reason you can enjoy your life is because we made a big deal about things, right?"

"Yes, I know all about Stonehenge."

This is the beauty of the show: sharp, silly and covertly political.

While modern TV audiences might scorn the uber-cosmopolitan lifestyles of the characters and the fag-hag dynamic, there’s no getting around the fact that in the 11 years since Will & Grace has been off the air (11!), no mainstream comedy has celebrated queer culture in quite the same way. Plenty of shows have LGBTQ+ characters (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, One Day At A Time and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, to name but a few) but, with the exception of RuPaul’s Drag Race, there aren’t many mainstream shows that are dedicated to simply existing while being gay. While newer shows might take gay existence as a given, Will & Grace reminds us that those “givens” we casually accept are not, in fact, givens at all. They were won through hard battle and not all that long ago.

I don’t care how corny it sounds, but when episode one finished on a shot of a baseball cap reading “Make America Gay Again”, I cheered. It was an obvious, mushy, not-at-all subtle joke, but I needed it. Sometimes you don’t need subtle. Sometimes you need a flare that everyone can see and, by God, Will & Grace is sending them up.

@Czaroline

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Will & Grace (Photo: Channel 5)
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