LIZ SMITH: “Will & Grace” Redux
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara
“Will & Grace” — Yesterday, Today and … Tomorrow?
“I ALWAYS make a distinction between nostalgia and sentimentality. Nostalgia is genuine — you mourn things that actually happened,” said Pete Hamill.
DURING the ten seasons that “Will & Grace” aired over NBC, the show took itself awfully seriously, for an absurd sitcom. It was touted and over-honored as a “groundbreaking” moment in the pop culture world and vital to the advancement of gay rights.
It was in fact, like so many products of its time “gay” entertainment for straight people. After all, the show was titled “Will & Grace.” The premise throughout was the complicated (and increasingly melodramatic) relationship with a gay man (Eric McCormack) and a straight woman (Debra Messing) whose friendship took precedence over their respective personal lives with others. Sure, Will Truman was supposed to be gay, but anybody could see his heart really belonged to Grace Adler. He certainly didn’t get much action.
The gay character who was supposed to be cutting a swath through New York’s men was the cartoonish Jack McFarland (Sean Hayes) who was reasonably attractive until he spoke. At that point only chloroform could make him a suitable bed partner. And he was less interested in relationships than goofing around with the equally cartoonish Karen Walker (Megan Mullally) the wealthy, drunken pill-popping “assistant” to Grace.
Throughout the series, lesbians and women in general got short shrift, either in terms of wisecracks, or expressed horror of the female body; the thought of having intimate relations with a woman. Icky, shuddered Will and Jack. (We wrote of this — the propagation of the myth of gay men’s fear and/or revulsion of women, their parts and sex with them — several times during and after the run of the series. But, apparently we were alone in our objections.)
The show was riddled with witty cultural references of the era, and was sensationally acted by the four leads. But it was a “breakthrough” only in that it was there, not that it truly affected change or policy. (With apologies to former Vice President Joe Biden, who thinks the show did more for gay rights than anything else of its time. I’m sure that those fighting in the bloody trenches, attempting to pass legislation and participating in out-front activism, loved that!)
SOMEWHAT more irritating, as the years passed was that Sean Hayes, the actor who played the most stereotypically “gay” character on the show, Jack, was widely known to be gay. He just didn’t want to come out. Okay — nobody is obliged to reveal or label themselves, believe me, we get that!
But after about the fourth phenomenally successful season of “Will & Grace” as the character became even loonier, it was clear Hayes would never be free of it, this was his defining role, escaping from Jack would be all but impossible. Also, his secret was no secret. He didn’t employ “beards,” he lived openly. If the show was supposed to be the life-affirming thing GLAAD insisted it was, year after year, award after award, was it not time for Hayes to step up and say, in the famous words of Ellen, “Yep, I’m gay.” But — he might have added — that doesn’t define me as a human being, nor does this role represent gay men; it’s sitcom stereotype.
He didn’t and that was his right. He had family and friends and surely also considered his career after “Will & Grace.” Still, his coy resistance stuck in the craw with some, as the series was showered with praise for its “bravery.” (As Hayes was about to make his “Promises, Promises” Broadway debut in 2010, he gave an interview to the Advocate that more or less addressed and answered the question. He lives quietly — “like an 85-year-old man!” he has said — with his husband and that has to be respected. Not everybody cares to exhaust themselves as a role model.)
In fact, “Will and Grace” was for the majority of its run, a fabulous, surreal showcase for four brilliant actors. (Let’s forget the last few seasons — Bobby Cannavale, pregnancy and, good grief, the human opioid Harry Connick, Jr.!)
It was a sitcom, as attached to reality as “Leave it to Beaver” or “The Honeymooners” or the current lamentable, “Mom.” It was as relevant to the overall reality of gay life as Showtime’s “Queer as Folk.” Although, for all the soon-tiresome hyper-sexuality of the latter, it did, often awkwardly and obviously, address some of the more pressing issues of AIDS, substance abuse, gay-bashing and relationships. But “QAF” was an hour-long cable drama, not a network half-hour meant to entertain a broad audience.
“Will and Grace” succeeded as it was meant to succeed, as an unthreatening, mostly hilarious, “safe space” — and classic TV entertainment.
NOW “Will & Grace” is back. The first episode unloaded on the president. It wasn’t funny — because NOTHING is funny about 45! But, I suppose it had to be done. Four Horseman galloping around D.C. are hard to ignore.
Last week’s second episode found the quartet back in familiar-ish territory. No politics. Will and Jack face early middle age and the prospect of dating younger men; men who are ill-informed on the struggles of gay liberation, the agonies of coming out, etc. However, in sermonizing to a fatuous potential amour, Jack forgot to mention that for many, many young gay people, especially in the conservative middle of the country, the struggles, agonies and dangers are as terrible and soul-scorching as ever. Not everybody lives in the bubble of a cosmopolitan big city.
(Funnily enough, the actor who played opposite Eric McCormack, was supposed to be 23. McCormack looked better! In fact, as has been noted, all the actors appear remarkably preserved. Vitamins!)
Also, Karen and Grace expressed their true feelings for each other in a Lucy/Ethel kind of scenario. It was mildly, warmly amusing. No bust a gut a moments, but can we expect that now? (The biggest laugh — and it was pretty good — came when Jack’s flighty young date referred to Stonewall as “Stonehenge.”)
So it’s here again. Perhaps unnecessary as a “statement” but vital, maybe, for much needed escapism. The mere fact of it being here is comforting in a cozy cashmere throw kind of way. Or in mood that begs to dig out a vinyl copy of “True Blue” or “Like a Prayer.”
And turn it up loud.
Because as Jack said, in the episode’s last line, “Old Madonna is the best.”