BEST OF 2017

How ‘Will & Grace’ Staged TV’s Greatest Comeback

The creators of ‘Will & Grace’ and the legendary James Burrows on how the show refashioned a ’90s hit into one of 2017’s most successful (and important) comedies.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

When Will & Grace was set to return to NBC after 11 years, there was a blustering, impossible to ignore, orange elephant in the room: Donald Trump.

There was, as there is for any revival of a celebrated TV show, lots of hand-wringing from fans and critics alike leading up to its comeback—Will it still be funny?—but concern over how political the show would, or even should be, created the most friction.

Leading up to the revival’s September debut, the show’s actors gave interviews promising that the show would be topical as always, but not news-driven. Yet the premiere episode was so focused on Donald Trump that its entire final act took place at the White House. In other words, the show had to get the Trump stuff out of the way.

“I think that’s a pretty good description of it,” the show’s co-creator David Kohan tells The Daily Beast. “The show came back in the wake of this ‘Vote Honey’ campaign reunion sketch. It was political, and I think there was an expectation for that. But at the very end of it, we even wrote in lines that had a meta component to them, talking about how we’ll go there for one episode but that’s not really who we are, so let’s not stray too far from who and what we are.”  

Indeed, Karen (Megan Mullally) ends the sketch by telling Will (Eric McCormack) and Grace (Debra Messing), “When you two talk about politics you get so preachy.” Grace nods: “We should just be what we’ve always been.”

And that’s what the Will & Grace revival, which will air its 2017 finale with a special Tuesday night Christmas-themed episode, has miraculously pulled off, and against the expectations of even its most devoted fans: a show that feels largely what it’s always been. Just, y’know, a little bit older.

By a ratings benchmark, the revival thus far has been an indisputable success, something that was never going to be a sure thing in a revival-weary culture and for a show that was hardly living in its glory days, rating- or quality-wise, when it signed off in 2006. But as Josef Adalian praised in Vulture, the new episodes have regularly finished in the Nielsen Top 10, the series tripled NBC’s numbers in the Thursday 9 pm timeslot, and is the network’s second most-watched show, behind This Is Us.

It certainly assuages a fear that the James Burrows had before returning to the Will & Grace helm. The legendary director, who has directed over 1,000 episodes of TV including Cheers, Frasier, and Friends, is maybe the most vital thread in the fabric of Will & Grace’s celebrated original run. He directed every single episode of the series, and continues to do the same with the revival.

“The boys are great at writing the show, and they’ve used their 11 years away from it to become richer and more fervent in their voice,” Burrows tells The Daily Beast, referring to Kohan and his writing partner and Will & Grace co-creator Max Mutchnick. “I was the one who was always concerned about will America come back and watch this show? It’s not trailblazing anymore. The climate has changed in American television now. There are so many things to watch. I wasn’t sure that they’d come to the dance, but they certainly did.”

But it’s not just about numbers. A clear affection for the new episodes from fans and critics was clear from its fall premiere, and has shown no sign of diminishing over the first half over the season.

The ticker-tape pop culture references still fly by at dizzying speed, with viewers often left gasping at last-minute topical references to breaking news. There was comfort in how broad, madcap, and even corny the show was still confident enough to be; there are few comedy pleasures more luxurious than bathing in a Sean Hayes spittake as Jack. And there is a palpable beating heart that feels at once nostalgic and, in a strange way, current and vital in these times. More, these characters are older, and so the subject matter has been able to evolve, too.  

In separate interviews with The Daily Beast, Kohan, Mutchnick, and Burrows all credit the cast’s growth as actors for the success of the revival. “All you need to do is take a look at that cast and see that they haven’t changed that much over the last 11 years except for needing glasses and needing longer to cross the stage because they have creaks in their bones and things like that,” Burrows says. “Their comic timing hasn’t changed.”

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But ask the cast what makes this show work, as we did a few weeks before it premiered this fall, and they all give credit to the writing.

And while that writing deserves credit for certainly feeling familiar, there have been standout moments, be it the “Grandpa Jack” episode, in which Jack delivers a heartfelt monologue to his (clearly gay) grandson about accepting himself, “Rosario’s Quinceanera,” in which Karen mourns the loss of a loved one in her own way, or “Who’s Your Daddy?” which has Will and Jack coming to terms with the fact that they’re now an older generation of gay.  

While, as Kohan says, writing about the lives of two lead gay characters is no longer groundbreaking in 2017, the ways in which the show is tackling it certainly is. What it means to be gay in America may be different in 2017 than it was in 1998, but writing Will & Grace is still the same process, which is likely what has made the new content feel current and meaningful while still, as the show always managed, not feeling preachy.

“It’s not like, ‘Oh wow, 20 years have passed and it’s not a novelty anymore to have gay characters and gay issues on television so this really opens it up for us!’” Kohan says. “The situations arise and it’s all filtered through what the characters would do. It’s not like the parameters have widened and we’re thinking how to take advantage of that.”

Burrows takes it a step further. The show never could have approached the storylines in these episodes in the way it did this fall during its original run, he says.

It had never done anything as straight-forwardly tragic as the death it tackles in “Rosario’s Quincanera,” and, while a gay conversion camp storyline was approached as sideshow B-matter in an episode guest starring Neil Patrick Harris in the original run, making it the A-story of “Grandpa Jack” was only possible because Hayes’s evolved acting instincts and the believable maturation of Jack over the last 11 years made it so.

Again, the trio separately heap high praise on Hayes’s performance in the standout episode. “The success of that episode in part speaks to Sean Hayes’s growth as an actor, and his willingness to take on a subject that was heavy and real and stick with it, and not undercut it with any comedy and allow the story to have comedy in it,” Mutchnick says.

Still, to make noise in a crowded 2017 TV landscape, you can’t just produce great performances, you often have to produce news. That’s certainly what the revival did when it began, midway through the season, inserting jokes riffing on the moment’s actual breaking news.

A gag with Karen, Grace, and their Puerto Rican co-worker referencing Trump’s infamous tossing of a paper towel roll to a crowd in Puerto Rico after the recent hurricane appeared in an episode just two weeks after the event happened, an unheard-of turnaround for a broadcast production schedule. Later, the show would reference Harvey Weinstein while revelations about his misconduct were still being published on a daily basis.

“The topicality of the show has been a happy accident in response to production falling behind,” Mutchnick explains. Either scenes with guest stars had to be shot at the last minute, or there was a free day during because of delays in production of a later episode.

For some critics, this one included, the joke, coupled with the emotional effectiveness of the gay conversion therapy storyline, turned “Grandpa Jack” into the revival’s standout episode, and finally settled any nerves about the quality and even necessity of the revival. The dual topicality of the two moments might have marked the first time that a TV series revival proved why it needed to be brought back. It was the best argument yet that, beyond novelty’s sake and fan appeasing, there is legitimate value in a show’s characters and themes existing again at this particular cultural moment.

Burrows, for one, agrees. He remembers, for example, when there was talk of a Cheers reunion in the ‘90s. He and co-creators Glen and Les Charles flat-out did not want to do it.

“We felt we were on for 11 years, we made our point, and we didn’t think that we wanted to go back there again,” he says. “Plus the cast got older and stuff like that. We didn’t want to do Old Cheers. And I don’t think we’re Old Will & Grace. I think we’re doing contemporary Will & Grace.”

The idea, though, of “contemporary Will & Grace” is exactly what gave fans of the original show such a panic attack. While the series certainly made its mark—Joe Biden famously credited it with changing Americans’ minds on gay marriage—and was thoroughly enjoyable in repeats as a product of its time, much its humor would seem tone-deaf today. In other words, would the revival be “woke”?

Now that they’ve acclimated to the process of writing for these characters and this subject matter in 2017, and have delivered on their promise of “wokeness,” we asked Mutchnick and Kohan if they thought, based on their experience these last few months in the writers room, there really was anything to all that hand-wringing.

“I can certainly understand why there were some anxieties surrounding that,” Kohan says. “From our perspective, it was always just about does it feel relevant to us? Are the voices of these characters and the tone of the show seem like something will feel right if it’s on the air right now? And the answer was always yes to us, so we didn’t worry about it too much.”

Mutchnick’s answer cuts the chase, and sort of makes us all feel silly for worrying in the first place.

“It’s not like the show wrapped and Dave and I went and checked into a country club and lived the good life for the last 11 years,” he says. “We have been living in the world that everybody else is living in, perhaps we watch TV in a better room than we did. But we’re as focused and as connected to the world that we live in today as we were then, and as you are.”

Plus, as Burrows says, funny is funny. And the new Will & Grace revival, despite all anxieties, is certainly just that.

“To be able to go to work everyday where I pee in my pants from laughing is, at my age...I pee my pants normally,” he says, “But to do it because the people make me laugh is just a wonderful experience.”