The original Will & Grace finale is a fiery talking point for any fan of the series, especially now that the comedy is returning 11 years later with a polarizing rewriting of history: Ostensibly, Thursday night’s premiere will pretend that finale never happened.
The series famously ended with a time jump into the future, on a timeline that would take the characters past 2017, with Eric McCormack’s Will and Debra Messing’s Grace not just respectively married and with grown children, but also estranged. As they reunite while dropping their kids off at college, it’s revealed that the gay lawyer and his best friend hadn’t spoken in years.
As we wrote in our review of the show’s first three episodes, Thursday night’s premiere won’t so much as pretend those events never happened as much as it fudges timelines a bit in order to manufacture a scenario in which Will and Grace are once again single, on speaking terms, and, of course, living together.
McCormack himself even admitted to us that “the only thing I ever heard in terms of Will & Grace fandom that was divided was the finale.”
There was, however, one element about the polarizing episode that undeniably worked, both in terms of plot and fan satisfaction. In the show’s vision for the future, Megan Mullally’s Karen and Sean Hayes’s Jack are closer than ever. Karen, thanks to plastic surgery, hasn’t aged a day. Jack’s still Jack, but he’s calmed down.
Then, in a sweet moment, they walk to a grand piano and sing a duet together to Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable.”
The scene is beautiful. Unlike how some fans felt Will and Grace’s relationship was handled, it didn’t betray the fabric of the characters’ relationship. In fact, it maybe accomplished even better what the writers might have hoped the rift between Will and Grace would telegraph: how close friendships evolve over time.
In the case of Karen and Jack, the duet, while a more sentimental moment than the show typically crafts, signaled that these vapid characters, who could sometimes veer into hysterical levels of caricature, had finally emotionally matured. They could express their love for each other, and recognize the value of their relationship in their lives.
Admittedly, we rewatch that scene often, and it still, 11 years later and after dozens of viewings, makes us cry.
Turns out, it does the same for the stars, too.
“I can’t even think about it,” Mullally tells us when we bring up the scene. “It makes me cry. Literally weep.”
It’s only recently, with the show coming back and a press tour behind it, that she has even been able to talk about it in interviews without getting emotional. (She does visibly tear up while we discuss it during our conversation in Los Angeles this summer.)
“We couldn’t get through it,” she remembers, flashing back to trying to film the farewell scene. “We couldn’t rehearse it. The camera guys, when we were blocking it for camera, were all tearing up, too. We could not get through a take.”
She thinks they only ever got through one full take of the performance, and it was the one we see in the show.
“Right after they called cut—I’ll never forget it. I think it’s OK to say it, he won’t mind. But right after they called cut, Sean turned around and went upstage and sat on a chair and just cried. And then I sat with him and we cried together. I knew it was ending. But we were all in various levels of denial. But it was ending. It was really, really ending.”
She lets out a big laugh, suddenly realizing the occasion for our conversation: the revival. “But then it wasn’t ending! Little did we know. It’s like a miracle.”
A few minutes later I’m talking with Hayes about the scene, too, attempting to confirm Mullally’s reports of him being, well, an emotional disaster.
“Yep,” he nods. “I cried my eyes out. It was really amazing to have that. I’m just literally reliving it as you’re talking. Yeah, I remember that so vividly. It was hard to get there.”
“It was such a massive part of my personal life, that show and that job as an actor and everything that went with it,” he explains. “So to get to do it again is everybody’s fantasy. There’s been many movies like this, to go back in time and relive college or high school again. I feel like this is that opportunity, that not everybody gets to have. Isn’t that something? Isn’t that special? I think so.”
Having seen the first three episodes of the revival, the strength of the episodes is how uncannily so much of it feels like the core cast is reliving that special time. The humor, in its all hokey-smart embracing of the silly and the socially conscious, is right back in the show’s signature lane, even if it’s Donald Trump and Grindr references that we’re in for this time.
It all confirms the theory that McCormack floated when we talked about the headline-making news of how the revival would handle the finale.
“I don’t think there will be that many fans that are upset that we rewrote the finale, and those who are upset would be probably have been more upset if the show had become a show about parenting,” he said. “Everyone just wants to see season four again. That’s kind of where it is.”
Exactly where it is.