April 30, 1997 – Ellen, the fictional lead character of ABC’s Ellen, officially comes out on public television. Ellen Degeneres, the actress who played Ellen, officially came out 2 weeks prior on the cover of Time.
It’s extremely difficult to understate how much of a landmark event that episode was in terms of prime time television and gay representation. It wasn’t the first time that somebody had been openly gay on television, but it was one of the first times a prime time show on a major network was led by a gay character played by a gay actor. For their efforts, Ellen was rewarded with an “Adult subject matter” warning, had advertising pulled, received reduced promotion, saw sinking ratings, and was cancelled a year later.
That’s where Will & Grace came in. In the Fall 1998 season, just after Ellen had imploded in a single year, NBC premiered Will & Grace, a gay big-city farce safe for conservative audiences who had enjoyed the antics of Robin Williams and Nathan Lane in The Birdcage or Kevin Kline in In & Out. If Ellen was considered the gay Seinfeld, Will & Grace was the gay Friends: Four rich, upper class, liberal young adults living in New York trying to figure their way around the crazy world. Heterosexual Eric McCormack is the titular Will, a gay straight-acting twunk lawyer who struggled to find a serious boyfriend; Debra Messing played Grace, his straight sassy redheaded fruit fly who also struggled to find a serious boyfriend. Together, they formed the approximation of a married couple who shared morning coffee and finished each other’s thoughts while never ever being able to consummate their relationship. Their best friends were Karen (Megan Mullally), a rich sassy married Republican with a squeaky voice and a prescription drug and alcohol habit, and Jack, a vapid sassy gay twinky slut played to the cheap seats by then-thinly-closeted Sean Hayes.
Massively popular and lasting for 8 seasons, Will & Grace promoted acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle by presenting a very specific type of gay to a country willing to accept homosexuality as long as they were white, moneyed, relatively chaste on screen, and willing to present themselves as stereotypes (straight-acting Will and sissy Jack). The gay men were the perfect accessories to the straight women and the straight women were the perfect match for the gay men and rarely should a cock get sucked.
Now, many of you might be saying to yourselves, “Having a display of homosexuals in 1998 was still revolutionary regardless of its sexuality.” I agree. On one hand, Will & Grace was important to America for presenting a steady display of queer people who were just being human. On the other hand, Will & Grace was severely limited and neutered for a wider audience. Will & Grace was the type of show that had the supposedly first prime time gay kiss between two males, except it was a peck between friends as a display of protest on NBC’s The Today Show. The first gay kiss was not a display of love, lust or even affection, it was merely a display of political protest. In addition, this peck between friends was well into the show’s second season, leaving the boys loveless for well over a year.
Over the course of 8 years, the show eventually gave Will a boyfriend so he could get married in the finale. Much like gay rights, it was a slow and gradual change to get Will a serious boyfriend (Season 6), fiancee and eventually husband (swarthy Cuban-Italian Bobby Cannavale who appeared in a total of 15 episodes) well before the United States granted marriage equality. As awful as the show actually was (and it was Emmy-award winning crap), it did hold an important role in adding important visibility in an era where gay characters were few and far between (and virtually non existent on network television).
After 8 seasons, it was cancelled in 2006, never to be seen again (God willing).
In Septemper 2016 (10 years later), the Will & Grace troupe returned with a single 10 minute webisode to promote Hillary over Donald Trump in the then-upcoming presidential election. Karen, a loud and proud Republican, is now a Trump supporter. She bounced into the apartment clad in Trump attire while singing Trump’s name over and over again set to the sporting events “Charge!” fanfare. Meanwhile Will and Grace are bitching about Trump’s presidency and Jack doesn’t know who to vote for.
The webisode is the height of limousine liberal cluelessness.
Grace: It’s all going to come down to undecided voters in Pennsylvania anyways.
Will: Right. *makes crazy person hand gestures* The unemployed, uneducated angry white man. Do we even know anybody like that?!
*Door slams open*
Jack: I’M LIVID!
*Door slams shut in Jack’s face*
Ha ha, Will & Grace. You want to win over undecided voters by saying they’re crazy, angry, and stupid while comparing them to the dumbest, gayest, character on your show. Aren’t you clever?
I don’t actually know whether or not the team behind Will & Grace secretly support Trump. Karen got an extended monologue swooning over her trip to Mar-A-Lago with its lush setting and black servants. She also discusses how great the wall will be, saying that she built a wall in the middle of her house to keep her El Salvadoran maid out of the main parts. This is meant to be abhorrently racist, but the laugh track seems to find it uproarious. It’s not just Karen that’s racist. She has a Latino maid who Grace identifies as Mexican, but is corrected by Will as “El Salvadoran,” to which Grace asks “What’s the difference?” Get it? Racism is funny!
That wasn’t the only political senselessness. Perhaps the weirdest part was Grace trying to convince Jack to vote for Hillary not through policy or appealing to his life, but by saying “we should do it to inspire girls to be president. You could be a part of history.” Still, that wasn’t what convinced Jack…it was that “Katy Perry likes Hillary.” Sure, it’s a joke meant to play off Jack’s sissy vapidness, but when Jack’s standing in for the angry white voter they’re trying to convince, they’re also calling them equally vapid.
Even if that webisode is a fitting capsule for “everything wrong with 2016” it still managed to be watched 7m times (according to the current counter), encouraging NBC to try a revival series in 2017.
The premiere episode of 2017’s Will & Grace hit the big red reset button on the last several seasons of Will & Grace. Both Will and Grace have been divorced and their children have been disappeared into the ethers of Karen’s alcohol and Xanax-soaked hallucinations. Grace is already residing with Will in his apartment, and everything is back to normal. Let the vapidity begin!
Leading up to the premiere, the whole point of the show to point out just how terrible Donald Trump actually is. A few days in advance, WaPo published a list of the biggest Trump disses within the episode, enticing liberal viewers to come back in order to bask in the mutual Trump hatred. So, imagine the surprise people got when the worst insults were limited to hoary old jokes like “Donald wants to make it look like he’s in the Oval Office once in a while” or Grace holding a Cheeto up to a fabric swatch to make sure the fabric complimented Donald Trump’s skin tone.
Actually, the show was much worse than soft shoeing the Trump insults. The basic plot points of the premiere lay waste to rich white liberalism, painting the show’s die hard “liberal” Democrats as politically performative and opportunistic. Meanwhile the Republicans might not hold human values (Karen honks Grace’s breasts twice and is hardly reprimanded), but they have a political consistency that seems far more honest than either of this episode’s leads.
Back in the “real” digital world, Debra Messing (Grace) is a strong valued gay ally and HIV activist. But, she’s also been a rabid Hillary supporter on Twitter, launching into rabid attacks at people who still support Bernie Sanders in his senatorial positions. She had a lengthy “Twitter feud” with Susan Sarandon, and was blaming Sanders’ supporters for Hillary’s loss as late as August 24. She has proudly placed herself at the center of The Resistance, which makes this plot all the more weird.
In the premiere episode, Will and Grace are both die hard liberals who begin the episode professing their liberal bona fides at each other. Will is sending letters to his Republican senator (wait…isn’t he in New York!?) because the senator is leading the charge to repeal EPA regulations of something or another while Grace confides she finds him evil. As soon as she leaves, Will reveals his true reason for sending letters: he wants to score a date with the handsome gay Senator (Eddie Matos, a Puerto Rican actor which reminds us that Puerto Rico is a US territory still mostly without power and in dire need of help). Meanwhile, Karen was hanging out with Melania Trump and scored Grace the opportunity to decorate the Oval Office, which Karen eagerly takes so long as nobody is looking.
Both Will and Grace are portrayed as hypocrites who are performatively liberal, but eagerly sell out their purported morals as soon as the opportunity arises. For Will, the temptation is sex; for Grace, the temptation is fame and money. Since this is a sitcom, both Will and Grace catch each other selling out and cut each other down to size; since this is a farce, this confrontation culminates in a pillow fight. If not for fear of being judged, these two characters would have gone against everything they valued.
I’m not entirely sure what this whole episode is supposed to be. Is it NBC toning down the anti-Trump sentiment fueled by Saturday Night Live? Is it NBC normalizing Trump hatred? Is it them trying to undercut liberal politics? Is the final beat, where Grace thinks she got a solid punch against Trump by leaving behind an HRC hat that says “Make America Gay Again,” meant to be a joke? Is it meant to be serious? Or, maybe the hat is a protective note aimed at gays? I’m also not sure what Debra Messing is doing in a show that is barely anti-Trump?
What the fuck is this show at this point in the culture? What is this show serving when we have a wider variety of queerness in Empire and Modern Family and Transparent and RuPaul’s Drag Race and Orange is the New Black? Guy Branum, whose comedy has been built on struggling to figure out where he stands in gay and straight culture, wrote an article seeing new representations of himself in the show; that is, he saw a new gay construction of aging single gay men struggling to figure out their place in gay culture (it should be noted that he has seen the second episode that will air next week). Other people I’ve talked to have found a modicum of comfort in the old fashioned format where everything feels familiar and cozy. But, other people have felt that the premiere made them feel that much older to see how far we’ve come; these men were reminded of their own aging after watching these older men continue to act out lazy boring stereotypes of characters without emotionally moving forward.
Personally, I was hoping to find some additional insight into the show, a show that was so far from my own experience that I dismissed it as a baby gay. I was hoping to see some additional insight with a decade’s more experience in a broader gay culture. Some things did move forward. The premiere already featured a gay kiss between Jack and a secret service agent, while Will turned into a gay character more comfortable with public displays of horniness. But, good god, do I personally find these people alien and shallow. This show feels tone deaf in the modern era, and it actually pissed me off. If there is a God, why would he let Will & Grace back on the air? If everything in the world has been inevitable since The Big Bang, why would that inevitability have rebooted Will & Grace? This show sent me into an existential crisis, and I’m not sure I’m finished with the crisis. I’m most certainly finished with Will & Grace.