There was a moment in the episode, “Grandpa Jack,” that made me gasp, it was so shocking. It wasn’t when we learned that Jack (Sean Hayes) is now a grandfather, and that his grandson is likely gay. It was a throwaway bit in Grace’s (Debra Messing) office at the beginning of the episode that makes passing reference to Donald Trump’s trip to Puerto Rico.
Grace admonishes Karen (Megan Mullally) for harassing their apparently Puerto Rican coworker. Karen makes amends by throwing a paper towel roll, Trump style, at him: “Heads up, Puerto Rico! Have a good time.” Grace is mortified, but the coworker reassures her, “Every time she does it I make her send a grand to hurricane relief.”
Did they write this episode, like, yesterday?!
While Will & Grace has been filming since August, it’s clear that production reshot the scene to reference current news. More, it must have done so in the last two weeks—a not unheard-of but extremely rare last-minute audible for a broadcast series. (It was only Oct. 3 when Donald Trump was blasted for chucking paper towels at hurricane victims in Puerto Rico like they were T-shirt giveaways at a baseball game.)
But the topical joke only buoyed an already resonant episode.
After meeting young Skip, Will and Jack learn that he is being sent to a gay conversion camp, in order to turn him “normal.” Skip’s parents (including returning guest star Michael Angarano as Jack’s son, Elliot) are terrified that he’ll end up like his grandfather.
The storyline does everything the old Will & Grace did so well, to the point that it had already done versions of it. Out actors Andrew Rannells and Jane Lynch play the conversion camp counselors, barely able to disguise their failures in converting themselves. (Echoes of Neil Patrick Harris playing the ex-gay leader of a gay conversion group in a 2000 episode.) They sing songs and make broad generalizations about gay people and are Jane Lynch and Andrew Rannells, so it’s a ridiculous hoot.
The unexpected emotional wallop comes when Jack finds Skip at the camp to give what is essentially an “It Gets Better” speech to Skip, promising that even though his parents don’t understand or support who he is, that there’s “the family you’re born into and the family you choose.” The family Jack chose, “well, it doesn’t get any better than that.” Skip asks what to do until he finds that family, and Jack tells him: “You are exactly who you’re supposed to be.”
Does it veer slightly into maudlin territory? Yes, as all sitcoms do when they go “meaningful.” In that respect, the tone is actually gratifying. But—and bear with me here—it’s a moment that is likely to be extremely powerful for a generation of gays who grew up, realized who they were, and maybe even came out while watching the first series.
It’s possible we’re imposing too much personal experience onto the episode. But there’s something full circle about watching Sean Hayes as Jack, two decades after Will & Grace played a role in changing mainstream culture’s minds about the gay community, say out loud what was implicit in the experience of watching the show back then: “You are exactly who you’re supposed to be.”
From the fleeting—though satisfying—topical bit at Trump’s expense to the emotional punch of the conversion therapy storyline, it might mark the first time that a TV series revival proved why it needed to be brought back. It’s the best argument yet that, beyond novelty’s sake and fan appeasing, there’s legitimate value in a show’s characters and themes existing again at this particular cultural moment.
It’s a feat made more remarkable in contrast to the comedy revival that’s premiered almost in tandem with Will & Grace, but which has seen the enthusiasm over its initial premiere curbed (get it?) in the episodes since, with fans exasperated that it’s not updating itself to the current zeitgeist.
Curb Your Enthusiasm’s entire marketing scheme posited Larry David as the hero we need now, but who couldn’t be bothered to rise the occasion. It’s a funny conceit that fits perfectly within the fabric of the show, but which ended up being unfortunately prescient to fans’ reaction to the revival.
To be fair, we were bowled over by the Curb premiere. It charged as cumbersomely and entertainingly as ever into water cooler social issues of the moment—in this case gender expression and sexual identity—without being overtly political, a caveat that we actually thought was refreshing.
There was something timeless and timely in its focus on minutiae. Even in Trump’s America, it’s a pain in the ass if your shampoo bottle is jammed. Let’s collectively kvetch about it, led by our Kvetcher in Chief, Larry David.
The big swing setting up the season’s narrative was that Larry receives a fatwa for mocking the Ayatollah during a Jimmy Kimmel appearance promoting his planned musical about Salman Rushdie receiving a fatwa himself for The Satanic Verses. Just typing out that sentence, I’m laughing again. It’s such a Seinfeld-meets-Curb lunatic idea.
But, as more episodes of the new season have rolled out, the series has faltered when it comes to generating any sort of immediacy in its revival, outside the pleasure of its mere existence. Anecdotally, there’s a frustration among fans that it just seems to be spinning its wheels.
“The first three episodes back have felt forced to me, like Larry David doing Curb fan-fic more than doing his show,” wrote critic Daniel Fienberg in The Hollywood Reporter this week. “Lurking in the background has been my itching sensation that David’s annoyance with cookie tongs and his inattentive assistants feel like trifles and, in contrast, the fatwa against him feels like something of substance being treated as a trifle—and the balance hasn’t been right.
“I’m not comfortable saying that in Trump’s America, my desire to laugh at David’s peccadillos is diminished,” he continues. “I just don’t think Curb has been sharp this season.”
Is it fun to have Curb back? Without a doubt, and by no means is the revival bad. And there’s certainly no clause stipulating that every series revival needs to pledge to be political and anti-Trump in order to be greenlit. Hell, even the Will & Grace cast and crew were adamant that their revival would not delve into politics, only for their season premiere to be entirely centered around Trump.
Speaking in broad generalities, Will & Grace and Curb Your Enthusiasm appeal to markedly different comedic sensibilities. One is a multi-cam sitcom shot in front of a live studio audience with a cultural legacy that almost supersedes its comedic one. The other is an auteur-driven observational comedy that thrives on cringe humor.
They serve different purposes for different audiences—audiences that of course have huge overlap—and so comparisons of the two might seem like a stretch.
However, both are legendary sitcoms that had their heydays in the early 2000s and are being revived at almost exactly the same time after long absences, presenting an interesting test case. What do audiences want from these revivals? And are they satisfied with what they are getting?
What’s interesting here is the contrasting expectations. Curb has taken long hiatuses before. David’s brand of comedy is still relevant. The expectation was that the revival would be brilliant. Nerves were high for Will & Grace’s return. The multicam sitcom has fallen out of favor, and there were fears that its brand of comedy, especially when it comes to gay humor, would no longer be “woke.”
It’s not that the new Curb is a disaster or the new Will & Grace is brilliant. But the latter aggressively tackled a problem that everyone always knew it had, while a latent issue with Curb is only now being exposed because of its timing.
Both shows are making us laugh. But only one is really surprising us. With the endless stream of revivals making us glassy-eyed as they pop up one after another, maybe that’s the true measure of success.