Will & Grace Goes Boldly into a Brave New World—But It’s Hardly Changed a Thing

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Megan Mullally and Sean Hayes are at it again. He’s barricaded himself between a few pieces of folding wall on the set of Will & Grace, and she’s invading that tiny space to mess with him. He’s screaming, “Megan! This is my private space! You can’t come in here!” She’s pressing against him. They’re both laughing so hard that the rest of the cast and crew has noticed and started to take pictures. Debra Messing shoots a video.

“That, to me, sums up the entire experience of doing this show—Sean and I fucking dying laughing over something so stupid that is so funny to us, but from an outside perspective is like, ‘What are they laughing at?’“ Mullally explained in a phone conversation a day later. “That’s how it is every day.”

Mullally and Hayes took to each other from day one, when Will & Grace first began shooting in 1998. Now reunited for 16 new episodes, 11 years since the show first went off the air, the pair—reprising their roles as the crass lush Karen Walker and the endlessly sassy Jack McFarland—are right back at it. He’ll tell her she’s been fired; she’ll relentlessly text him during table reads, at a time when “we’re not supposed to screw around or we get in trouble.”

“It’s always been like we’re the kids, and Eric [McCormack] and Debra are like mom and dad,” says Mullally.

But as far as McCormack is concerned, there are plenty of juvenile antics to go around: “We’re idiots when we’re together,” he says with a laugh.

The central cast and co-creators Max Mutchnick and David Kohan didn’t even notify NBC when they first reunited, filming a 10-minute pro-Hillary Clinton short that went instantly viral, and stoking chatter about a real revival. After what felt like endless months of waiting, it finally became official in January.

Now, with its premiere set for Thursday night—once the home of NBC’s hallowed “Must See TV” lineup—the series aims to conquer a television landscape that has changed immensely since Will and Grace and Jack and Karen parted ways in 2006. But as much as network TV may have changed, the central foursome hasn’t. In interviews the cast and creators emphasize how little has changed in the new Will & Grace: the characters might have matured a bit, but the show they inhabit is the same as it always was. But can an old-fashioned show—even one that was groundbreaking in its time—thrive in a world that hardly resembles the one it left behind?

The initial reunion video was Mutchnick’s idea—and it came from a very relatable place. As Mutchnick remembers, he and his husband were discussing the election—in all its depressing glory—when they starting riffing about what Will & Grace might have to say about it if the show were still airing. Soon enough, he called his co-creator with the idea. It snowballed from there.

“We did it so top-secretly that we all came in different gates of the studio that day,” McCormack remembers. Mutchnick gathered an audience of about 100 people to the studio, claiming they were there to see a test script for a project called Hot Food.

“It was a total inside joke,” McCormack says. “It was only going to take about an hour and a half—and then the curtain went up, and it was the four of us in full character. And it was fantastic.”

The crowd’s reaction was electric, and as Mullally describes it, just like it was when Will & Grace filmed its pilot. When the final video was viewed millions of times online, it convinced Mutchnick and Kohan to pursue a real revival. Their triumph does, however, come with one ironic twist: no matter how popular the short was, it didn’t help Clinton win the election.

“I’m looking at the saddest piece of memorabilia that I will ever own,” Mutchnick says, “which is a letter from Hillary Clinton in my office thanking us for making the online piece. . . When we got it I thought, ‘Whoa this is so cool. We might get invited to something in Washington!’ And then you know what happened.”

It’s one thing to resurrect a show, but it’s another thing to resurrect a show well. Thankfully, the new Will & Grace is an exception—it’s just as delightful and welcome as the old one. Yes, it’s packed with old sitcom standbys—the first episode contains not one, but two spit takes—all delivered by its four central stars, who still share an undeniable chemistry.

But comforting as it may be, Messing believes the series also feels particularly of the moment. “The show from the very beginning always shone a light on hypocrisy or questionable things that are happening within our culture—whether it’s pop culture, whether it’s politics—and you know it was always done in a way that was sassy. And would inspire a belly laugh.“

That impulse is certainly evident in the revival’s first batch of episodes. Most plot details are being kept under wraps, but here are a few we can share: Jack will forge an unexpected new career path in the Bronx. Karen’s got Melania Trump on speed dial, and is making do without Rosario (because actress Shelley Morrison, who will be 81 in October, has opted to retire from the industry). Grace has moved back in with Will after they both wound up spouseless. Will, at least, will still get plenty of action—though likely not through new-fangled dating apps.

“I think that’s more Jack’s world, and I think Jack probably lies on both of those sites—about his age, about everything,” McCormack said. “Whereas Will actually has a couple of great dates in the first six episodes. I can’t spoil who they are, but they’re good. . . . No one will be saying that I’m undersexed.”

Dating-app story lines aside, prepare to be startled by just how similar the show feels to the old Will & Grace. Often, reboots show the effects of the years that have passed since a show originally made its exit—but here, with five original writers including Mutchnick and Kohan back, as well as director James Burrows it truly feels as though no time has gone by.

Kohan remembers the first day back as “a happy family reunion . . . It was light salads instead of barbecue, but it was a family reunion.” Mutchnick adds that the only difference at the revival’s first table read is that “every single one of us was wearing” reading glasses.

Mullally may sum it up best: “The weirdest thing about it was it didn’t feel weird at all.”

Will & Grace was never just a sitcom—debuting in 1998, just a year after Ellen DeGeneres weathered enormous backlash when she came out on her sitcom and in real life, it was the first TV sitcom to feature not one but two gay characters right from the start. Many gay fans remember the show as the first one that featured a main character who even partially resembled them.

Messing says that in Grace’s early days, the cast and crew knew they were navigating boundaries that were not to be crossed—yet. “The night we shot the pilot,” she remembers, “we looked around at each other and were like, ‘O.K. this is either going to be off the air in two episodes, or it’s going to run a long time.’ It felt electric, but it also felt brazen. And I think that’s ultimately what people like about the show.”

When asked to name the moment they knew the series would leave a lasting mark on pop culture, several stories emerge: Messing recalls when Burrows—a sitcom guru of sorts, with 10 Emmys to his name—advised the cast, “Hold on tight. Your lives are going to change.” Mullally flashes back to the pilot shoot, when NBC exec Don Ohlmeyer allowed Messing to borrow his gold cigarette lighter—then let her keep it. “Never, ever, ever at that time did the higher-ups intermingle with the hideous lowly actors,” Mullally explains. “I was like, ‘Oh, this shit is getting picked up!’“

McCormack says the whole cast started receiving letters from young men saying how much easier it was to come out to their families, thanks to the show. And everyone remembers the 2012 Meet the Press episode when Joe Biden credited the show with helping to normalize homosexuality in mainstream culture.

To Hayes, Will & Grace was—and is—one link in a series of shows passing the baton from one to another. “We have a long, long, long way to go, which is another reason why I’m glad this show is coming back,” he says.

Hayes was 27 years old when he booked the pilot, and had never done a television show before—but even in that first shoot, he was an immediate fan favorite. “The minute he walked out, the audience just went insane. I mean, the laughs! He got rolling laughs that went on for 30 seconds,” says Mullally.

Popular as he was, Jack was also a lightning rod for criticism. Detractors called him an effeminate stereotype; last fall, Salon even urged NBC to avoid reviving the show largely because of the way it portrayed Jack as “vapid, self-interested and effeminate—so swishy that he’s a one-man conga line, a counterpoint to the more ‘straight-acting’ Will.”

In the revival, Jack hasn’t changed much, and it’s possible those critics won’t be quieted. But McCormack, at least, doesn’t sound like he’s been losing too much sleep over it.

“Everyone wants to have that conversation,” the actor says. “We’re not even on the air yet. I think, first and foremost, we’re going back to basics; if it’s not funny, then the show doesn’t work. So funny is everything right now. We’re not trying to—we don’t have an agenda beyond that. Because if we had an agenda and we weren’t funny, no one would care. So that’s the agenda: funny. And everyone can see where the chips fall after that.”

When asked whether the revival might address, say, Donald Trump’s ban on transgender military service members, Mutchnick and Kohan say it’s a possibility—but emphasize that story and character will always come first.

As for Jack? “I guess I do understand why people say he’s a stereotype,” Hayes says. Still, he objects to that premise: “I am gay, and I’m playing a gay character. So to me, then you’re calling me a stereotype because there’s a lot of me in Jack. Obviously I’m not like that 24 hours a day, but because I can tap into it, I don’t consider myself a stereotype; I consider myself a real human being. You know? And so, Jack to me is very real.”

Like his co-stars, Hayes had no idea that Will & Grace would be both huge and important; when the show began, he was just an actor who was happy to get a pilot. “But to now have been away from it and realized the impact it has had makes me feel so proud; it’s one of, if not the, greatest accomplishments of my life,” he says. “That and marrying my husband, of course!”

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