The first thing that you need to know about the new Will & Grace, which debuts on NBC Thursday, is that they’ve changed the theme song.
Presumably you’ll be more curious about, say, how the show’s signature ratatat comic timing holds up after more than a decade off the air. Or how the show explains away a fairly conclusive finale that would make the show’s current existence as an ensemble comedy — Will and Grace were supposed to be estranged until about eight years from now — impossible. But, really, the music says it all. The iconically already-way-too-much theme, with its Liberace-esque pounding piano chords, has been replaced by a jazzy orchestra. The show is keeping the same tune but, in an attempt to make it sound bigger and more spectacular, the result is a little off.
It’s easy to see why bringing back Will & Grace was appealing: Today’s television landscape rewards the spectacle of an old favorite returning, including the upcoming Roseanne. There’s also a sense that the culture is now vastly more open to gay narratives than it was when the sitcom debuted in 1998. But it’s also easy to see what the show stands to lose in revamping its formula for contemporary audiences. The jokes are bigger at the expense of the humanity the show put front and center in its first run.
When we left Will and Grace (Eric McCormack and Debra Messing) in the putative series finale in 2006, they were on the verge of spending eighteen years apart, not as the result of one big argument (though the show’s eighth and then-final season had its share of those) but simply because they were growing apart. Each was committed to his or her own newfound family life with a respective loving spouse. The pair only connected again in a flash-forward when they dropped off their kids at (gasp!) the same college. While both were happy to reconnect, neither seemed to feel particularly heartbroken over the long absence; life gets in the way sometimes, and life is often good. It was a very weird finale, but it made its point.
The new Will & Grace takes an industrial-sized eraser to the show’s own canon, declaring that the kids — such a long-held dream of Will and of Grace that they consumed seemingly seasons’ worth of plot — were a dream the pill-addicted Karen (Megan Mullally) had. The spouses? They were real, but both marriages ended in divorce. Will and Grace are free to frolic. In the first episode, for instance, both go to President Trump’s White House, Will to obsessively follow a cute Congressman he’s been pursuing (…okay) and Grace to test-drive her potential redesign of the Oval Office (…okay!). Both characters seem frantic in their pitching of punchlines, unmoored from character history and reality in a manner that doesn’t suit the show.
For better and mainly for worse, Will & Grace was always like the other much-ballyhooed Must-See TV hit, Friends, a series that was relentlessly about its characters’ love lives sometimes at the expense of reason. I was no particular fan of Grace’s old husband Leo (Harry Connick Jr.) and the ways in which his love plotline seemed to take over the show. But there is a painful and political charge to ending the marriage of Will to Vince (Bobby Cannavale). A noteworthy gay character in television history got a conditionally happy ending, and that’s been ripped away to service a retread-happy TV landscape. All so that the character himself can… go to the White House to obsessively follow a cute Congressman. Rarely does an opportunity feel missed by not having done something, but the chance to leave Will where he was — a married-with-child gay man at a time when everything about that descriptor was provocative — feels like a road not taken.
But the market is what it is. This reboot was going to happen the moment last year’s election-pegged YouTube video became a viral hit. That proved the characters were missed, and rewatching old episodes on Hulu recently has proven to me just how worth missing they were. Say this much: The humor is tired in the old, comforting way — Karen and especially Jack (Sean Hayes), two of TV’s most ingenious supporting characters, spark with all their old wit. (A sequence in which Jack acts out wearing some horrific movement-restricting version of Spanx is the best of the first three episodes.) Elsewhere, Grace, planning to redecorate the Oval Office, holds a Cheeto against a swatch of fabric to ensure the tones will flatter the President’s skin tone, a joke most political observers have moved on from. Will & Grace has no real angle on Trump, let alone the sort of take that would justify a D.C.-set episode.
But there’s a broad berth one is willing to grant, if for no reason other than nostalgia. I have no particular nostalgic bond with recently-revived series like The X-Files and Gilmore Girls, but Will & Grace can override better judgement when it hits its rhythm. And not all of the political tones the show strikes are quite so repetitious. Will, on a date with a 23-year-old (Ben Platt) finds himself stunned not only that the kid hasn’t heard Madonna’s “Borderline” but that he hasn’t heard of Stonewall. The urgency with which Will lectures him — repeating his history with the knowledge that if it’s not known and cherished, it could fall away — feels special.
Did it need to be aired in a revival of a show whose bright spots (brilliant performances, great rapport) and whose flaws (“Oh my god, it’s Jennifer Lopez/Janet Jackson/Cher/Madonna!”) I was happy having left in my own rear view? Probably not. But even as so much seems off, a lot or a little, it doesn’t seem a net loss to have four queer or queer-ally characters in primetime on network TV at a time in which any companionship is welcome. Forget “Borderline.” (And forget the horrid new theme, for all it tells us about the show.) The tune that runs through my mind was a gay club hit from 1999, just after the show premiered: “It’s Not Right, But It’s Okay.”