Although ‘Will & Grace’ radically introduced TV’s first leading gay men in 1998, it didn’t have the balls to give them sex-lives. In Trump’s America, the 2017 reboot will have the opportunity to be truly radical, says Brian Finnegan.
In 1998, when Will & Grace first appeared on TV, it radically introduced the first leading gay male characters in an American primetime series. Its premiere followed the demise of Ellen’s eponymous sitcom in 1997, which took a ratings nosedive after the famous ‘puppy episode’ in which Ellen came out (at the same time as her creator, Ellen DeGeneres), and as such was a punt for NBC, particularly because it was co-created by gay producer Max Mutchnick (who based Will and Grace’s characters on himself and his best girlfriend) and from the outset explored and commented on facets of life that were wholly familiar to the gay community but absolutely alien to most Americans.
Those Americans loved it. Will & Grace ran for eight seasons, winning 16 Emmy awards, critical acclaim and the key place on NBC’s ‘Must See TV’ Thursday night line-up. In 2012, then Vice President Joe Biden said, “I think Will & Grace did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody has ever done. People fear that which is different. Now they’re beginning to understand.”
The one thing Will & Grace didn’t do was dare portray gay men as sexual beings. Will (Eric McCormack) and Jack (Sean Hayes) may have talked about hot men, camped it up, and looked for love and sometimes found it, but Grace (Debra Messing) got all the bedroom scenes and sexy storylines. We rarely saw Will or Jack in the sack, except for an episode in which they woke up in the same bed, not remembering the night before, and spent a storyline panicking in case they’d done the dirty with each other.
Following a reunion of the cast for a short anti-Trump episode in the lead-up to last year’s American election, it’s been announced that Will & Grace will return for a ten-episode season. A video promo posted on Twitter by Hayes (who this time around will be co-producing) tells us that a “band of heroes are reassembling to protect the world from aliens and destruction.”
The final words in the ad are “Only they can bring America back from the brink.” over which Karen yells “Make America bueno again!”
Will & Grace was always a political sitcom, not only in presenting homosexuality to America as something to be laughed with, rather than laughed at, but in its juxtaposition of vocally liberal Will with arch-conservative Karen (Megan Mullally). It also relentlessly commented on American culture and entertainment, being one of the few sitcoms of the era to look beyond its own created world and riff on the real one. So, it was a perfect vehicle for political satire in advance of an election that had more in common with a Bravo reality show than a political race.
With that frightening reality show firmly ensconsed in the White House, the promo for the Will & Grace reboot promises renewed satire, both political and cultural, but perhaps the most political and relevant thing for it to do at this time would be to actually claim its sexuality, rather than hide it under a bushel full of campy one-liners. Sure, there have been many developments in LGBT life in the eleven years since Will & Grace went off-air, not least the advent of smartphone hook-up apps, which have changed way we interact and connect, shrinking the spaces in which we congregate and redefining our social scene.
Perhaps Will or Jack could have sex, not with each other of course, but with other men. Perhaps they could deal with the issues of growing older in a gay world that prizes youth and beauty as the only sexual currency. Perhaps they could encounter the drug culture that has gotten new wings with the advent of apps and new sexualised highs. Perhaps they could deal with taking PrEP and what it might mean for their sex lives. Perhaps they could talk about the increasingly prescriptive ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ roles gay men are taking in a cruising culture based on typed messages rather than physical connection.
The late great George Michael once said: ““You only have to turn on the television to see the whole of British society being comforted by gay men who are so clearly gay and so obviously sexually unthreatening.” The same could be said of the original Will & Grace. We turned on TVs in our droves to watch it, and it was invariably laugh-out-loud funny, but the middle class gay men it portrayed were desexualised. They talked about being gay, but because their sex lives were castrated, they were never quite gay enough.
Of course, since Will & Grace first aired we’ve had rimming on Queer as Folk, and choosing whether to douche or not on Looking, but both of those shows were cable fare. Primetime, with the exception of teen gay kisses on Glee, has remained largely conservative when it comes to gay sex. ABC’s Modern Family may have recently normalised gay marriage and same-sex parenting, but we’ve never once seen Mitch and Cam in bed together, although heterosexual couple Phil and Clare have had regular storylines featuring their sexuality and sex lives.
In Trump’s America, which is already rolling back on laws that have been introduced to protect LGBT people, the new Will & Grace has a unique opportunity to celebrate us as whole people, rather than avatars that fill in acceptable details. It has an opportunity to be defiantly gay, rather than acceptably gay for straight people who see us as different, but should not. It’s 2017, the world is swinging towards the right and anti-gay feelings seem not to have shifted in much of the world, despite us being sexually unthreatening, and Will & Grace has a prime opportunity to be a vanguard on primetime TV, in the way it was at its outset almost two decades ago. It should be something we look back on in 20 years time and say it truly reflected its time. Here’s hoping the NBC execs have the balls to let it.