You can’t go home again, cautioned writer Thomas Wolfe. But the melancholy Southerner, who died in 1938, didn’t live to witness the birth of television, much less TV reboots.
And so, 11 years after “Will and Grace” ended its eight-season, 16-Emmy run, America is back home again — specifically, at 155 Riverside Drive, New York City, the stylish, rent-controlled apartment of lawyer Will Truman and interior designer Grace Adler.
If you hadn’t been turned off by the massive pre-show publicity — and admittedly, it was relentless and cheesy — then you tuned in last night for the ninth season premiere. Was Thomas Wolfe right after all? Maybe, but who cares? Like a steaming tureen of comfort food, more tasty than nutritious, “Will and Grace” is back. And it mostly satisfies.
The sitcom about a homo and his hag premiered in 1998 during the Clinton administration, reached a creative crescendo by its fourth season and arguably lost steam during the Bush 43 administration. (The less said about the Leo Markus doctor-husband story arc, the better.) While accusations of queer minstrelsy continue to dog “Will and Grace,” detractors should remember that the series opened a mainstream discussion about gay male life; well, at least Caucasian, upper-middle-class, urban gay male life. Between the brazen quips about “lube and Liza,” startling truths were told. Even former vice-president Joe Biden gave props to the show for advancing the cause of marriage equality.
Admittedly, there was a Cliffs Notes feel to the opening of last night’s premiere; the script clumsily recounts plot points of the eight-year run, while presenting the main characters as caricatures. Will, charming but uptight. Check. Grace, neurotic and selfish. Check. Jack, an immature, promiscuous id. Check. And Karen, a boozy, pill-popping conservative. Check, check, check.
But the show was equally intent on establishing its place in the culture wars of Trump’s America. Within the first two minutes, the cast deftly filets conservatives Steven Tyler, Jon Voight, Newt Gingrich and Caitlyn Jenner. Kudos to Megan Mullally’s Karen Walker, called upon to do most of the heavy lifting where it comes to GOP-bashing. Like Alec Baldwin’s brilliant right-winger Jack Donaghy on NBC’s “30 Rock,” real-life liberal Mullally must humanize a woman who pals around with Melania. Sure, it’s called acting, folks, but good acting still deserves bouquets.
The first season of “Will and Grace” in 1998 offered far more nuance than the following seven; characters were played less glibly and the lingering (and unrequited) love for Will exhibited by Grace and Jack would bubble up occasionally, to poignant effect. That formula, which resulted in affecting moments, was quickly scuttled, resulting in the manic, crowd-pleasing formula that dominates the ninth season premiere. (Do we really need reaction shots of characters laughing at each other’s lines, a directorial tic that still annoys.) While name-checking the Ryans (Gosling and Reynolds), Shonda Rimes, QUEERTY, fidget spinners, Grindr and Anderson Cooper, the group lands, improbably, in 45’s White House. As the old TV Guide summary goes, hilarious hijinks ensue. (A visual joke featuring a certain cheese-flavored snack was undeniably cheap, but still satisfying.)
Filmmaker John Waters shocked the world with taboo-busting depictions of sexy trailer-park trash, pansexuality and bizarre fetishes. He soon found it difficult to top himself; later films like “A Dirty Shame” struggle to offend. In a way, “Will and Grace” show creators Max Mutchnick and David Kohan are in a similar bind, pushing against the high bar they erected in sharing the cultural secrets of the LGBT community to unsuspecting but intrigued Americans.
One could argue that the premiere was more slapstick-y than plausible — but worth seeing when cuddly hunk Kyle Bornheimer, playing a Secret Service agent, plants a smooch on Sean Hayes. And detractors shouldn’t underestimate the importance of a prime-time half-hour comic satire railing against our current Commander-in-Chief that may be seen by scores of his followers. If One Million Moms don’t immediately call for a “Will and Grace” boycott in light of this treasonous episode — watch your backs, premiere advertisers Google, Marvel, Chipotle, Toyota and iPhone — then we should lose our faith in the muscle of the alt-right.
Sure, the ninth season premiere was more flatfooted than adroit, more well-intentioned than well-executed, and overly eager to be liked. But it was just as eager to offend conservatives, enlighten fence-sitters and boost morale among those enraged by the current administration. For that reason alone, it’s worth sticking with “Will and Grace,” even as a patriotic duty. If I can’t laugh, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.
And if you need more time to warm up to the show, you have it; “Will and Grace” producers have committed to 16 episodes this year and 13 episodes for its 10th season. There’s ample opportunity for the writers to strengthen story arcs and topple even more sacred cows.