Old-fashioned physical comedy and timely pop-culture references make for laughs, all over again
It famously took 40 minutes for the stars of Will & Grace to say yes to a one-off reunion last fall. It takes less than 40 seconds into the first new full-length episode for the following hot topics to hit the table: finger herpes, Patty Hearst, “a man who has aged into a lesbian” (Steven Tyler? So close. Jon Voight? Almost there. Newt Gingrich? Ding!).
That the catalyst for all those subjects comes from the smartphones in their hands — Jack is absentmindedly swiping through Grindr, Will and Grace are playing the celebrity name game Heads Up! — is strictly W&G 2.0; The first iPhone was still at least a year away from release when the series ended its eight-season run in 2006. But, like the slightly tweaked theme song (a little less piano bar, a little more calypso) the 2017 reboot is a blithe, fizzy mix of the familiar and new.
Beneath the pile of strenuously topical pop-culture references — Shonda Rhimes, Kellyanne Conway, Ryans Gosling and Reynolds — that fly like wigs in a Drag Race turf war, the DNA of the show remains essentially unchanged. Its loopy charm still rests on deft physical comedy, shrewdly cast guests (including Dear Evan Hansen’s delightful Ben Platt as the ADHD-riddled millennial so oblivious to gay history that he thinks Stonehenge is where the movement started), and, of course, the giddy push-me-pull-you chemistry between the original four. As the first episode opens, Will Truman (Eric McMormack) is still a type-A attorney with a fantastic collection of fitted shirts; interior designer Grace Adler (Debra Messing), the neurotic sister-wife-slash-partner-in-crime he can’t quit; Jack McFarland (Sean Hayes), the high-strung superstar still in search of a stage; and wayward socialite Karen Walker (Megan Mullally), the pill-popping, boob-honking lush with a voice like a runaway balloon.
What has everyone been up to in the 11 years since we last said goodbye? Don’t ask; they’ll tell. Or Karen will, in a quick sweep that covers the dissolution of two marriages (Grace’s to doctor Leo, Will’s to hot cop Vince), the kids they never had (forget that series-finale flash forward), and the new POTUS that divides them, three to one (on Team Trump, Karen stands alone). Considering that the recent election was the original driving force for this reunion, it’s not surprising to find it the focus of the inaugural episode, and creators Max Mutchnick and David Kohan quickly find a way to get all four on White House grounds: Will comes down to confront the Republican Congressman with the cute dimples and deplorable politics he’s been sending outraged-citizen letters to; Jack tags along and reunites with an ex-Secret Service love; and Grace is there to redecorate the Oval Office, thanks to Karen’s pull with the new First Lady.
The shenanigans that follow operate strictly in sitcom dreamland; who would let these loons into the Rose Garden, let alone leave them on their own in the Oval to pillow-fight like rivals at a 7th-grade slumber party? The weakest elements of the new episodes tend to fall into that kind of silliness and self-congratulation (The “Make America Gay Again” hat left on the back of the Presidential seat feels like a back pat the audience’s preached-to choir doesn’t need).
But these are also surreal times, and the creators of the show that former Vice President Joe Biden once credited with doing “more to educate the American public than almost anybody has ever done so far” on LGBT issues probably never expected, and certainly never hoped, that their particular brand of playful, proudly inclusive queer humor would need to stake its place again in a post-2006 world. That gives Will & Grace’s return a certain import, and it’s clear the cast and creators feel the weight of that too. But mostly, thankfully, they’re just here to make us laugh again about safe words and skinny jeans and Camilla Parker Bowles, and they do. B+