Wednesday, September 27, 2017

TV REVIEW: NBC's 'Will & Grace'

NBC's Will & Grace returns after eleven years for its 16-episode ninth season on Thursday, September 28 at 9/8c. following a new episode of The Good Place. The comedy stars Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, Megan Mullally and Sean Hayes.

Read on for my thoughts on the comedy revival after screening its first three episodes.

Before I say anything about the new episodes of Will & Grace, I should say that I have never seen an episode from the original run of Will & Grace. As such, that probably doesn't make me the best voice to listen to in determining whether or not the show is still good to watch. It aired before my time as a TV reporter and even before I was really obsessed with television. I'm only a young adult now. So, the show began when I was just a toddler. I am aware of the history and cultural impact of the show. It is largely credited for changing the public's perception of LGBTQIA issues in this country. For that, I am incredibly grateful because I've grown up in more accepting and loving society. One where gay marriage is legal but we still need to fight to uphold our rights every single day. There was certainly a desire on my part to watch a majority of the original run before the new episodes started airing on September 28. But there wasn't ample opportunity to do so because the show was only made available on a streaming platform last week. It's great that Hulu and NBC made that deal in time to add the upcoming new episodes to the catalog. But it came too late for anyone who really wanted to view it all before the new season. It's very unlikely that anyone was able to view all 194 episodes in the span of a week. I couldn't even watch one because I was too busy providing all of the additional coverage for premiere week. This has been a crazy time of year where so many shows are debuting or returning. So, I ultimately made the decision to go into these episodes with no expectations or context at all. I may be alone in this. But it's a unique perspective that could be intriguing nevertheless.

Of course, I'm not completely blind to some of the circumstances from the original show. I know the basic plot setup and character dynamics. Grace (Debra Messing) and Will (Eric McCormack) are best friends who live together. She's a straight interior decorator and he's a gay lawyer. Jack (Sean Hayes) is their gay friend who lives across the hall and is a struggling actor. And Karen (Megan Mullally) is their straight socialite friend who also works with Grace. They get into various misadventures all the time. They comment on what's going on in the world. They have several romantic interests. They get on each other's nerves. But more importantly, the new season quickly rewrites the series finale that aired back in 2006. In that version of this world, Will and Grace went their separate ways, got married and started families. They didn't see each other for years. Of course, the revival has to disregard all of that in order to ensure that everything functions exactly the same this time as it did over a decade ago. The show handles that in a very winking way. The explanation they come up with to explain it all away isn't that great but it is necessary. It also doesn't take up a lot of time either. It's the focus of the cold open in the premiere. After that, the show is able to return to the same stories and rhythms it did in the earlier years.

And these episodes are pretty charming and amusing right away. I wouldn't go so far as to say they are laugh-out-loud funny. There are broad jokes and situations that didn't work for me at all. In fact, the premiere is the most overtly political episode of the first three. It involves a twist that the audience just has to go along with. These characters are able to comment on the current presidential administration in a specific way that I'm not sure I totally buy. Yes, it plays into the fact that Karen happens to be friends with the new President of the United States. The show frequently reminds the audience of that. But it's a lot of broad comedy with jokes that don't feel as pointed as they could be. It's an easy and simple reintroduction into this world that shows that these writers are still interested in tackling stories like this. They still want to live in the real world. That's admirable. The specifics of the story just didn't work for me. But the following two episodes were a significant improvement. Yes, it's bothersome that each episode appears to have three stories and the C-plot is always incredibly thin and broad. But the main stories in both of those episodes work incredibly well. These series revivals have become quite popular over the last few years. It's the networks trying to recreate what worked in a previous time. But shows hit at a specific time and work because of when they air. Not every show is well-equipped to make this transition into 2017 storytelling. But this show seems fully aware that these characters have aged and the situations they get into have new meaning for them at this stage of their lives.

So, everything seems to have a bit more depth to it because the characters are aware that their situations have changed even though things seem incredibly similar to the lives they have always been living. The second episode tackles the generational differences within the gay community. It centers around Will and Jack figuring out if they are comfortable dating younger men. It has the feeling of a story wrapped up in a history lesson the show only barely wants to teach. But it's still quite effective while playing nicely with a broad story between Grace and Karen that has emotional depth to it as well. And then, the third episode is the one with the most obvious ties to the original series because it features the return of Harry Connick Jr. as Grace's ex-husband, Leo. It's a story that will probably hold more significance to viewers who have seen all the details of their lives together. But it played well for a newcomer like me. It touches on the question of Will and Grace possibly being too close. That's probably a story that has come up multiple times over the course of the series' run. But here, there's a feeling of hindsight to fully appreciate the life these characters have lived. They are able to reflect back and see which choices were healthy and which were not. They are still fundamentally big and broad characters who squabble over petty things. But there's still an undercurrent of humanity that makes everything work. In particular, Messing shines in the third episode because it's a comedic story with a hint of drama too it - which is something she does much better than the other way around.

So in the end, Will & Grace still feels like a fine and necessary show in 2017. That was the biggest hurdle it needed to overcome in these new episodes. NBC is betting big on it being the crowning achievement of its Thursday night lineup. It's already been renewed for another 13-episode season without seeing how these new episodes do in the ratings. That carries a significant risk to it. But no matter what the ratings ultimately are, NBC has managed to rebuild its Thursday night lineup in a terrific way. It finally has a strong two-hour comedy block again. It was only a few years ago when it seemed like NBC had given up on comedy. And now, it has Superstore, The Good Place, Will & Grace and Great News. All of which are pretty solid shows. I'm planning on reviewing all of them this fall as well. It's interesting how much of it is a simple recreation of the last time NBC had a successful, two-hour comedy block on Thursday. These shows all come from writers who've worked on the past success stories for NBC. Plus, Will & Grace is a literal continuation of a show that worked on this night. It should work again as well. The new episodes are perfectly fine creatively and the buzz surrounding the show appears to be strong as well. Now, we'll just have to see if my cluelessness about the original series hinders my reviewing capabilities in any way.