It’s only natural that so many TV shows this year have crafted episodes that subtly (or explicitly) nod towards the #MeToo movement. After all, one urgent meaning behind the hashtag is how sexual harassment and assault have been here forever. The call is coming from inside the house, victimizing your family, your friends, maybe you. And the bad guys have been here all along, too. Heck, sometimes they’re your family, your friends — maybe you, too.
Not a new topic, is what I’m saying, and certainly not a new TV subplot. An episode like Girls‘ brilliant “American Bitch,” which aired in Feb. 2017, feels relevant on an hourly basis. And you can credit Law & Order: SVU for ripping from 2018’s headlines since 1999. But lately, you’ve felt the floodgates opening. It’s most obvious when shows are about, well, shows: GLOW, BoJack Horseman, Murphy Brown, and the renegade final season of UnREAL offered examples of showbiz self-reflection, considering power-imbalanced sexual harassment phasing into outright assault. And The Good Fight, the great weird drama of our terrible weird year, turned what can only be described as “The Bachelor in Paradise episode” into a mini-masterwork of Consent Noir.
There is, arguably, a new capitalist imperative for stories in this arena. Weird to put it this way, I know, but: September’s nation-gripping Ford-Kavanaugh hearings drew the kind of Walking Dead ratings even Walking Dead doesn’t draw anymore. Not the worst thing in the world, obviously, if stories that closely examine the victims of sexual harassment become mainstream enough to evolve toward cliché. TV episodes in 2018 that focused on this topic haven’t always been great, or even good. But there hasn’t been a truly terrible outing yet, nothing that hits that particular Newsroomy sub-basement level where the point gets missed entirely. (Though this week’s Romanoffs sounds like a real winner.) (The Romanoffs is a show!)
Often, narratives get structured around the possibility of catharsis: A showdown with the perpetrator, say, which took place on Jessica Jones and was the major plot arc of the Murphy Brown episode with the thematic megaphone title “#MurphyToo.” There’s value in that formulation, but it can also feel escapist, so much better than life. Thursday’s episode of Will & Grace took a subtler approach, heartbreaking because it was so low-key, effective because it suggested the events were so painfully regular, inspiring only in its suggestion that things might get better in the span of long decades. Grace (Debra Messing) set off on a long car ride with her father, Martin (Robert Klein). They were driving up to Schenectady to pay their respects to Grace’s mom (Debbie Reynolds, R.I.P. forever). Martin also wanted to visit the grave of his best friend, Harry. The mention of his name rankled Grace, and if you knew the episode was called “Grace’s Secret” you might’ve guessed why.
But the clever script, written by veteran sitcom scribe Suzanne Martin, initially suggested that Grace just didn’t want to spend hours in the car with her father, because her father is annoying. Just some classical sitcom construction here, and aren’t elderly fathers are grumpy by nature? There was no immediate flaregun moment declaring this episode might get Very Special. In fact, Grace and Martin’s journey initially felt like the B-plot given the antics back in New York. Jack (Sean Hayes) was celebrating his impending nuptials with his two best friends. Both Will (Eric McCormack) and Karen (Megan Mullally) thought they were the designated Best Man at Jack’s wedding. This competition played out with lip sync performances, Karen rocking Wicked Witch of the West Wizard of Oz cosplay, even a proverbial Transponster moment where characters on a sitcom turn another character’s life into a trivia contest.
Meanwhile, Grace and Martin stopped in a diner. Her father casually flirted with the waitress, calling her “sweetheart.” Grace complained about that, but Martin complained right back. Men can’t be men anymore, you get the picture, real Last Man Standing material. The subject of his late best friend came up again. Her father never understood “this thing you had about Harry,” a dislike that dates back to Grace’s childhood. There was a bit of history here. Martin recalled getting Grace a job working for Harry, still felt embarrassed that she’d stolen some money from him. “I kept telling you he was creepy,” Grace said. “It was a different time,” her dad handwaved, and Harry was a “flirty guy,” a character trait brought up casually, like saying someone’s tall. “What’d he do,” Martin said, “Pat you on the tushy?”
The conversation got heated. Grace was edging toward something. Martin wondered if she could be misremembering. “I remember everything about that day,” she said. “I don’t want to talk about it!” Martin said, sensing this whole dialogue was spiraling out of his control.
I love how Messing physically played Grace’s reactions during this scene. At first, she was standing up, putting on her coat, actively retreating from her father even as every word she said dug deeper into hidden history. But when Martin said he didn’t want to talk about it — a final defensive maneuver, after going on the offensive with familiar lines about different eras and faulty memories — her whole posture changed. “No,” Grace said, “We’re talking.” Messing pulled off her coat, threw it on a chair, sat back down, took a long pause. It was a feat of old-pro multicam performance. Very little physically changed onscreen — no fancy visual maneuvers, no musical cues, the background diner audio played throughout. But you had the feeling a spotlight was shining on Messing, that the whole world had frozen around them.
Grace’s monologue was straightforward and devastating. “It was hot, so I had to have my hair up,” she remembered. The workday ended, Harry called her into his office, and she recalled the story in microscopic details, the events replaying like videotape she’d rewound every day since. “He closed the blinds. He pushed me up against the wall. I tried to scream, but he told me ‘Quiet.’ Then he started kissing me, and touching me. And then he pulled down my pants, put his fingers up…”
That was all too much for Martin, of course. He begged her to stop. Klein’s performance here was great, too. In the span of a few minutes, he went from a familiar household archetype — Grumpy Old Dad — to a new kind of archetype, the Old Man Realizing He Didn’t Know Anything At All. Will & Grace lingered through a long pause between father and daughter. An impending commercial break demanded some kind of laugh line. Credit Martha Kelly (from Baskets) for giving the third great performance in this scene as the waitress Patty. “I hate to interrupt the party, but we ran out of shrimp salad,” she told the quiet pair. Sensing their general demolishment, she added: “I know, I’m disappointed, too.”
Will & Grace didn’t linger long. In the next scene, Martin expressed an internal change. He was sad to think that he didn’t protect his little girl. He promised to never visit Harry’s grave again — and he expressed awe at how Grace had carried this secret her whole life. How had she lived with this for so long? “You just kinda split yourself into two people,” she said. “The person it happened to, and the one who gets through the day. And then you grow up, and your life gets bigger, and that stuff gets smaller.”
In this moment, the structure of “Grace’s Secret” lined up perfectly with the kind of story it was telling. For Grace, the memory of her assault became a kind of B-plot in her own life. The horror she faced was so common that it coexisted right alongside the familiar sitcom antics of her world, mere screen minutes away from Megan Mullally doing a micdrop with a broom. There are shows that approach this subject matter with more complications, or that dig deeper into the psychological trauma attached to the kind of attack Grace is describing. By the time their road trip ended, Grace and Martin were joking about the ethics of remarriage after a spouse’s death: From history-remaking revelation to lighthearted banter, in two sitcom act breaks!
Still, there was something profound here, in the 215th episode of a sitcom long-lived enough to evolve from transgressively boundary-breaking social phenomenon into a pleasantly nostalgic network standard-bearer. The sheer banality of circumstances that led to the moment felt emotionally honest — a bit truer to life than the typical way sitcoms approach current events, with every character in a room blabbing laugh lines about trending topics.
Fascinating, too, that two of the most important figures in Grace’s story were already dead. Her attacker, Harry was never seen, and his invisibility felt freakish in its own way, like how BOB on Twin Peaks mostly exists offscreen. And Grace’s late mother, we discovered, was her one confidante: The only person who ever heard the story, back in that “different time” when an abused teenager could only tell her mother about the horrors she experienced thanks to Dad’s Best Friend.
And maybe the most interesting thing about “Grace’s Secret” was how few people actually heard that titular secret. Grace returned to her apartment at the very end of the episode, NBC already rolling their impatient credits over the bottom of the screen. Will, Karen, and Jack were all on the couch. Grace kept the details of her trip vague: “It was a lot of things. But it was good, really good.” And she then she joined them on the couch. Their life goes on, bigger than ever. In a strange way, this felt emotionally true: After a long day’s journey into the dark night of her past, Grace returned to her regular comedic situation, TV friends on a TV couch making TV jokes for a live studio audience.
But I love how “Grace’s Secret,” in its own quiet way, suggested a slight transformation. Though nothing was fixed, there was a genuine evolution. “I don’t want to talk about it,” Grace said, when Martin kept talking about Harry. “I don’t want to talk about it,” Martin said, when things got too real. And then, miraculously, they talked about it.