When it was originally on: 1998-2006, then rebooted 2017-2020.
Original network: NBC
Where you can stream it now: Hulu or Amazon Prime
Had I seen it before: Yes. I’ve seen the first 4ish seasons of Will & Grace. I’ve like it as a light sitcom to put on to fill the void
What IMDb says: Gay lawyer Will and straight interior designer Grace share a New York City apartment. Their best friends are gleeful and proud gay Jack and charismatic, filthy-rich, amoral socialite Karen.
Why I picked it: I always like to make room for some good ol’ network sitcoms when I do these pilot projects, and I haven’t had enough slots to accommodate Will & Grace in previous iterations. This was a long-running sitcom that actually had something to say about the world, which isn’t necessarily true of other albeit-funny network sitcoms. Watching how Will & Grace balanced humor with social commentary sounded interesting.
What I liked: The Will/Grace friendship really does come fully formed in the first episode. I love how the pilot gives us both very serious moments and fun light-hearted moments between the two. We’re lured in with funny jokes, but by the end we’re watching two people have a serious discussion about whether or not Grace should marry her current partner. These scenes have the weight they deserve, and it honestly caught me by surprise. The way this pilot navigates such different tones and pull them both off shows great promise, and its anchored by fantastic performances by Debra Messing and Eric McCormack.
There’s a great moment in all this where Grace accuses Will of telling her to not get married just so she would be “alone” like Will. Will responds with “I didn’t think I was alone.” It’s this powerful moment that says so much more than the words do: in Will’s mind, his friendship with Grace is enough, but in Grace’s mind, she still needs a romantic pairing in addition to Will. Maybe that’s partially because it’s 1998 and gay marriage isn’t legal yet, so even the best romantic relationship Will can hope for still can’t fully exist in society the way Grace’s marriage hypothetically could, and so he ends up valuing his platonic friends in a way Grace doesn’t. Or… maybe I’m reading too much into it. Either way, I think to be able to even hint and these deeper relationship conflicts within a 22-minute pilot for a network sitcom is amazing.
And it’s not like the pilot doesn’t have time for jokes either. Jack steals almost every scene he’s in and the patter between him and Will already feels like the fully-baked version of this relationship I know from other episodes. McCormack makes for a brilliant “straight man” (in the comedic sense… not the sexual orientation sense) to Jack’s more flamboyant personality. I think there’s also something great about having two gay characters affectionately rolling their eyes at each other. For its time, there’s something to be said for showing how gay people don’t all have the same personality, and that they have plenty of room to be annoyed with each other.
What I didn’t like: Will & Grace is kind of hard to talk about because the negatives have less to do with any shortcomings of the creative team, and more with the fact that this is a 1998 pilot and just isn’t going to be what it would be if we made it for the first time in 2023. There’s still ways it which in plays up stereotypes that I like to believe we’ve grown past. Even Will, who in theory is the foil to Jack’s effeminate flamboyance, still has lines about Grace’s fashion choices, as if to remind us that he’s at least a little more feminine than your typical straight man even if he’s far more reserved than Jack. It’s still ultimately Grace’s straight woman problems that drive this first episode’s plot line, with Will more or less just there to play therapist for her. (We do get a pretty funny scene of him at work though, so the show certainly acknowledges that he has a life outside of her). There’s also the obvious flaw which is that NBC has made yet another show with an all-white cast despite being set in New York City.
There’s also these weird moments of sexual tension between Will and Grace, like when Will goes on and on about how Grace’s partner isn’t good enough for her, while reaching out to touch her arm. It’s a speech we’ve seen straight male characters give their female best friends right before the female character realizes they belong with their best friend. They’re almost hinting at the possibility Will could “turn” for Grace as though the platonic friendship alone isn’t enough to keep audiences interested.
But alas, it was 1998, and all these creative choices were made based on what writers and the network thought mainstream audiences could accept at that time. Hell, there’s a very real possibility that straights “shipping” Will and Grace did keep them interested when they got these teases. There’s still meaningful ways in which this show pushed straight audiences out of their comfort zone, and gave gay audiences some version of representation that didn’t exist before. I do also want to point out the one of the show’s two creators is gay himself, so it’s not like there weren’t gay people involved in these decisions behind the scenes.
Do I want to watch Ep. 2: Yes! Or whatever Season 4 episode I had last left off at. I forgot how good the show can be.