“Will & Grace” is coming to an end (again), and it’s going out with kind of a whimper. Perversely, that’s a good thing.
When the show premiered in 1998, “it was revolutionary to have two gay characters,” said Debra Messing, who stars as Grace. Will (Eric McCormack) and Jack (Sean Hayes) were gay, and Karen (Megan Mullally) turned out to be bisexual. In 1998, that was a Really Big Deal because it was so unusual.
Yes, the lead character had come out on “Ellen” 17 months earlier. And there had been gay characters on American sitcoms for 30 years.
But almost all those gay characters were supporting players. Only once before had a gay man been a central character in an American sitcom, and not only was the lead character in “Love, Sydney” (played by Tony Randall) deeply in the closet, but his sexuality was only hinted at in that series’ two-season run. The 1981-83 sitcom was not a success — which is why, odds are, you’ve never heard of it.
“Will & Grace” was so unusual 22 years ago that NBC wanted to downplay the gay in it. That sounds silly today — it was silly then — but it was true, nonetheless. McCormack recalled that, before cast members met with television critics for the first time in 1998, they had a “big meeting” with network executives in which they were told “don’t play up the gay too much” because NBC execs “were afraid of America not tuning in right from the beginning.”
Their fear was misplaced. “Will & Grace” was an immediate hit. “And the next thing you know, the gay of the show was allowed to have its own life,” McCormack said shortly before the show ended its original, eight-season run. “It was not something we had to hide or play up too much. It was just a part of this show. … The number of people in the Midwest that now watch a show with two gay characters, I think, is remarkable.”
And before the show returned in 2017, McCormack said, “The message is completely the opposite. Now the message is … we represent a lot of different people, gay and straight, in this country. And we’re not apologizing or underselling what the show is.”
Director/executive producer James Burrows — a TV legend whose credits include “Mary Tyler Moore,” “Taxi,” “Cheers,” “Frasier” and “Friends” — called “Will & Grace” a “seminal show in the history of sitcoms.”
In 2012, then-Vice President Joe Biden came out in favor of gay marriage — before President Barack Obama and three years before the Supreme Court made it legal — and said, “I think ‘Will & Grace’ did more to educate the American public more than almost anything anybody has done so far.”
He might have been right. Representation does matter, and no show represented the way “Will & Grace” did.
And yet, when “Will & Grace” returned to NBC in 2017, it was far more unusual to have a show back on the air after an 11-year absence than it was to have a show with gay characters. (Although it certainly wasn’t alone in rising from the TV grave.) And after three more seasons and 52 more episodes (to add to the original eight and 194), the fact that Will and Jack are gay is almost incidental. It’s certainly not the Really Big Deal that it was in 1998. And that’s the good thing — television and America have arrived at a point where gay people are part of the landscape.
Which is not to say that TV doesn’t still have a lot of work to do when it comes to diversity. African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics and other ethnic minorities continue to be underrepresented. There are plenty of gay characters on plenty of shows, but, for the most part, they’re supporting players.
(And, by the way, if you’ve ever emailed me about how there are too many gay characters on TV, well, I’m sure you think there are too many gay people in the world. And, yes, you’re a homophobe.)
“Will & Grace” wasn’t always a great show (or even a particularly good one), but it was an important one. Perversely, the fact that it’s slipping away without a lot of fanfare is proof of that.
The final episode of “Will & Grace” airs Thursday at 8 p.m. on NBC/Ch. 5. It will be followed at 8:30 p.m. by a half-hour retrospective of the series.