Critics Roundtable: Can 'Will & Grace' Revival Live Up to Its Groundbreaking Past?

Jim Halterman
Q&A NBCUniversal

(l-r) Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, Megan Mullally, Sean Hayes

Unless you've been living under a rock, you're well aware that NBC's iconic sitcom Will & Grace is making its return to television this Thursday. The Emmy-winning comedy ran on the Peacock network from 1998-2006 and focused on the friendship between gay lawyer Will Truman (Eric McCormack) and his straight BFF, interior designer Grace Adler (Debra Messing), as well as Will's outrageous friend Jack (Sean Hayes) and Grace's do-nothing socialite assistant Karen (Megan Mullally). The show won 16 Emmys over that initial run with all four stars winning (Mullally won twice!) and the show winning Outstanding Comedy Series.

After the buzz last fall's surprise, election-themed reunion video generated, the decision to bring the show back was an easy one. Sixteen episodes will air in this return season and, 13 episodes will air in the revival's second season, which NBC ordered before a single scene had been shot.

But all that joy and merriment aside, the world has changed in eleven years and the return of Will & Grace prompts the question: Is this a good thing? TV Insider asked six television critics (including TV Guide Magazine's Matt Roush and Damian Holbrook) their thoughts on the show's return, what the show meant to them and, of course, which guest stars were amazing and which never really needed to happen. If you want to weigh in, please feel free to leave us a comment below.

Will and Grace - Sean Hayes, Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, Megan Mullally

NBCUniversal Portrait Studio, August 2017 -- Pictured: Sean Hayes, Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, Megan Mullally, Will & Grace

During its original run, what did Will & Grace mean to you?

Daniel Reynolds (The Advocate): I was 12 years old when Will & Grace premiered and its run continued until my junior year in college. Looking back, I can see how Will & Grace played a key role in my coming-out journey. Thanks to Will and Jack, there were always positive representations of out men on television to reference in order to counter the harmful myths surrounding gay identity. When I visited my first gay bar, I remember having a conversation with an older gentleman, who told me how lucky I was to have Will & Grace. I still think of that moment sometimes, and I know just how right he was.

Matt Roush: Will & Grace felt like an instant classic, but with a difference. The writing, performances, direction were all state of the art sitcom hilarity, but no longer could a show embracing elements of gay culture be seen as "ahead of its time" or a well-kept secret. It was a hit for everyone to share and enjoy, and not having to champion it as an underdog was beyond refreshing.

Alicia Lutes (Nerdist):  Will & Grace was one of the first series on TV I remember loving on an obsessive level and connected me with my family. Living with my grandparents, there weren’t exactly a lot of series (beyond Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, which is great) we could all agree on. But even my old school grandparents could get down with the brave new world Will & Grace felt like it was exploring. It showed the importance and validity of curating a “found family” and allowed me to really accept my inner Jack, as someone who has no chill and sings literally e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g.

Andy Swift (TVLine): I was 11 years old when Will & Grace premiered, so it was sadly among the many shows on my conservative parents’ do-not-watch list. In fact, I didn’t end up watching it all the way through until I was in my mid-twenties, at which point I found it to be one of the most relatable shows I’d ever seen. It holds up!

Debra Messing and Megan Mullally

Damian Holbrook: So I was already covering TV at TV Guide Magazine when the show launched so it was huge for me to see the pilot first and realize that FINALLY we could have a comedy fronted by a gay character that wasn't a mess. It was also incredibly heartening to see that, at its root, was just a basic sitcom that celebrated its gay characters without being "that gay comedy," and that the cast was so uniformly perfect. All of that was validated when the show garnered both critical acclaim and awards. Usually gay characters got Emmys for dying.

Trish Bendix (NewNowNext): I didn't know I was gay yet, BUT I did have gay (male) friends and suspected I was not super straight. That being said, it didn't really matter to me how I identified—more that the show was unapologetic and progressive, and best of all, hilarious. I think, in the long run, it has meant more to me because of its continued legacy, and how it's influenced television and modern American culture at large. So even if I didn't grasp its magnitude at the time, I do now--and it shouldn't be understated.

How much do you think the show changed perceptions of the LGBTQ community?

Roush: It championed the gay life as part of everyday (if upscale NYC) life without pretention or too much self-importance. It didn't marginalize gay characters with a "special guest" status. It showed that characters like these were here to stay, and welcome in a mass marketplace.

Lutes: For all the stereotypical instances the series fell into, it by and large did, I think, push the social conversation forward and normalize sexuality—something that was, at the time, deeply taboo. I truly think Will & Grace helped show a lot of people (my grandmother, for example) that LGBTQ people aren’t scary, hysterical, AIDs-ridden delinquents coming for your children to turn them gay. It humanized and contextualized the community and celebrated self-acceptance.

Swift: I definitely think Will & Grace helped to improve the public’s perception of the LGBTQ community—or at least the L and G part of the alphabet—by simply existing. For many American viewers, Will and Jack were their first gay “friends.” And from the moment it premiered, every straight girl wanted a Will of her very own. While that last part is obviously problematic for a number of reasons, these well-rounded characters were constant reminders that, beyond labels, we’re all just people. 

Holbrook: Oh my god. Everyone wanted a Will or Jack. And honestly, the gays I knew all wanted a Grace (they already had Karens). I have always maintained that this show opened the door, even if just slightly, for mainstream projects like Brokeback Mountain to even be considered by name actors. In fact, I once wrote a piece in TV Guide Magazine about the show's legacy of A-list guests stars that applauded Eric McCormack for playing an out and proud gay man years before Heath and Jake saddled up and that he had done so without all of the "Oh, he's so brave" praise other actors had received. Weeks later, I got the nicest thank you email ever from McCormack, who was so touched that someone had finally pointed out that the show was doing for the gay community what the film studios hadn't dared yet.

Bendix: Hugely. People who weren't familiar with gay people or culture were introduced to characters who made it clear that gay people are people. Much like with Ellen's beloved sitcom and subsequent coming out, Will and Jack were lovable humans, and their sexuality was just one part of them. They weren't ashamed, and neither were their friends, co-workers, or loved ones (for the most part). Visibility is so important, and Will & Grace provided much-needed visibility for gay men, especially in a post-AIDS era where LGBTs were still very much under attack socially and politically.

Reynolds: I agree with former Vice President Joe Biden, when he said Will & Grace “probably did more to educate the American public [on LGBT issues] than almost anything anybody has ever done so far.” In fact, I consider the show the gold standard for what LGBT visibility can accomplish in changing hearts and minds. According to the Pew Research Center, 57 percent of Americans opposed same-sex marriage in 2001, and acceptance has steadily increased since then. Today, it’s been measured as high as 60 percent. While Will & Grace can’t be given all the credit for this swing in public opinion, I do think it played a pivotal role by airing during this time period.

Who was your favorite Will & Grace guest star?

Lutes: Oh gosh, there are so many! Elton John’s gay mafia moment was certainly iconic. But also…Matt Damon? Will Arnett? Kevin Bacon? James Earl Jones? Madonna? Sharon Stone?! I guess if I had to choose, I’d say Patti LuPone. The way Jack lost his s**t over this Broadway L-E-G-E-N-D was not only deeply relatable for me but also just fabulous to experience.

Swift: My favorite guest star was Nick Offerman as the plumber Karen had sex with on Thanksgiving in 2001—two years before Offerman and Megan Mullally were married. I’ll never not love seeing them act together.

Holbrook: There is no choice for a self-respecting gay man other than Parker Posey as Jack's Barney's New York boss Dorleen. Also, and I know this doesn't count as a guest star, but Anastasia Beaverhousen (Karen’s oft-used pseudonym) could be a series regular and I would throw a damn parade.

Will & Grace - Sean Hayes, Cher

Pictured: (l-r) Sean Hayes as Jack McFarland, Cher as herself

Bendix: Cher was definitely iconic, but I'm going to go with Chloë Sevigny as the bisexual woman Monet who had it bad for Will. She's a queer icon in her own right, and I loved that episode. I also really appreciated their bringing in the celesbians for cameos—Ellen, Rosie, Sandra Bernhard, Martina, Wanda Sykes (pre-coming out, but still). Oh, and Glenn Close as an Annie Leibovitz type was pretty special, too.

Reynolds: Jack mistaking Cher for a drag impersonator and then instructing her on the right way to sing “If I Could Turn Back Time” is one of the great moments in gay TV history.

Roush: I'll go with the one that popped first into my head: Cher, in the classic bit where she's being schooled by Jack (mistaking the genuine article for a drag queen) on how to be a better Cher until she slaps him, Moonstruck-style, to "snap out of it." Her second heavenly appearance I don't remember as well. Pop-culture nirvana.

Who was the worst guest star?

Swift: I’d have to say my least-favorite guest star was Madonna, who popped up as Karen’s crazy new roommate in a Season 5 episode. I know that show loved it some stunt casting but it just didn’t do anything for me.

Holbrook: My god, I hated Bobby Cannavale's Vince.

Bendix: Unpopular opinion: Britney Spears. She was not believable as "a hardcore lesbian" and her acting was so flat! Maybe they should have had her play herself instead of Amber Louise.

Reynolds: I love Janet Jackson…but not as a guest star on Will & Grace.

Roush: I was shocked to learn Jennifer Lopez appeared more than once, at a point much later in the run when these kind of stunts were no longer nearly as special and felt much more calculated.

Lutes: Britney Spears (Sorry, girl).

What do you think of the Will & Grace's revival? Just what we need or should've stayed over in the past and why?

Holbrook:  I am thrilled the show is coming back because this is a revival done right. It has all of the original players, behind-the-scenes team and energy. Clearly this cast is as connected as ever and that can only mean more of that feeling that these people are actually important parts of each others' lives. I don't know if it's just what we need, because TV is woefully low on the original ideas, but I will take it. I have watched so many supercuts of Karen Walker's greatest moments on YouTube, so it'll be nice to have new material.

Bendix: I was skeptical at first but after going to the taping, I am on board with Will & Grace Part Deux. We have gay characters on television, but they don't lead their own shows--especially not primetime sitcoms--and rarely are two of them major characters that are in every single episode like Will and Jack are. And since Karen is bisexual, that means 3/4 of the cast are LGBT. Unfortunately, that's still seen as taboo on TV so if the reboot can help push the needle forward by forcing networks to become copycats or, better, more innovative and inclusive with their own programming, then I'll take it.

Reynolds: We need these characters to remind America that LGBT people are not monsters, but rather human beings worthy of dignity and rights. The show actually still feels fresh, because, sadly, no other “gay show” took off on network TV after Will & Grace first left the air. In addition to enlightening viewers, I hope Will & Grace will remind Hollywood that gay shows can be successful and thereby open doors of opportunity for more queer content and characters.

Eric McCormack and Debra Messing.

Roush: NBC may need the new Will & Grace more than we do, but last year's viral video revealed the cast had lost none of its comic vigor and the writing none of its contemporary bite. Given the state of the culture, how much has changed (and sometimes hasn't), this feels well-timed, less a retread than a celebratory reunion with funny, fabulous friends.

Lutes: I am, in general/as a rule NOT a fan of revivals/reboots. That said, there was something JUST so magical about Will & Grace, it might be the exception that proves the rule. I’m ready for more Karen and Jack, please!

Swift: I don’t think we necessarily need the revival but I do think the characters deserve to be seen again in 2017. Though there’s still much work to be done, society has progressed on so many LGBT issues since the series originally wrapped more than 10 years ago. I want to see Will and Jack exist in a world where they’re more loved and accepted than ever.

Our contributors:

Daniel Reynolds, Senior Editor of Social Media, The Advocate, @dnlreynolds

Matt Roush, Senior Critic, TV Guide Magazine, @TVGMMattRoush

Alicia Lutes, Managing Editor, Nerdist and creator/host of Fangirling!, @alicialutes

Andy Swift, Senior Digital Editor, TVLine, @andyswift

Damian Holbrook, Senior Writer, TV Guide Magazine, @damianholbrook

Trish Bendix, Contributor, NewNowNext and co-host of Hollywood QCast podcast with TV Guide Magazine's Jim Halterman, @trishbendix

Will & Grace, Season Premiere, Thursday, Sept. 28, 9/8c, NBC

AlertMe