How Debra Messing's 'pain-in-the-ass' contract unexpectedly saved the Will & Grace series finale
Warning: This article contains spoilers about the series finale of Will & Grace.
Will & Grace is one for the history books. Again.
Fourteen years after its original end — with a flashforward that saw the estranged titular characters reunite when their kids end up living across the hall from each other at college — this time around, the expecting parents (Grace is pregnant; Will has one on the way via surrogate played by Demi Lovato) are moving out of the city. But there are a few loose ends to tie up: Grace (Debra Messing) is having labor pains; Will’s (Eric McCormack) ex McCoy (Matt Bomer) moves back to New York from London; Jack's (Sean Hayes) dream of finally hitting a Broadway stage might actually come true; and Karen’s (Megan Mullally) ex-husband Stan wants her to meet him at the top of the Statue of Liberty, hoping to finally win her back.
The episode’s title, “It’s Time,” functions on a variety of levels — for all of the characters, but also the series as a whole and its creators David Kohan and Max Mutchnick, who got to change the course of Will, Grace, Jack, and Karen’s lives (“We put them in the right place,” Mutchnick says), and even right some missteps from the series' original run. They talked to EW about that, the episodes they’re most proud of in the reboot, who they considered to play the never-seen Stanley Walker, and those on-set tensions in the show’s final season.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This series finale is so satisfying and comforting in that you just feel like everything is great and going to be okay with these four people and life carries on. And that’s a really nice feeling to have right now in this world with what's going on. So how long did it take you to come to this as the ending 2.0?
DAVID KOHAN: What we were all thinking for Will and Grace is what would be the ideal situation for them, given their circumstances at this particular time? They're having children, they're creating a family. What is the perfect nucleus of that family? Meaning Will and Grace working on it together, which is not to say that they're not going to have other relationships or other loves. But in terms of forming the cornerstone of a life, this is the family unit that they've chosen, which was what we thought was kind of a novel idea but also an appropriate one.
MAX MUTCHNICK: This was the idea that was better for the characters. The last time we did it, I think it was better for society at large and where we were as a country. We did what we thought would be right, which was follow this path of this heteronormative ideal, which is the fantasy that Will and Grace ultimately end up together because their children end up together. And that's not what's ideal for the characters [now]. They end up together because they love each other and their sexuality makes it so they're not going to have kids together, they're not going to be what we know as a traditional family, but they're going to be a family that works for them because they love each other. And love rules the day in this finale.
You brought up about their having kids in the original series finale. At one point this season, once we found out they were both going to be parents, I wondered if we were going to see them as parents, if the kids would have the same names as before...was that ever a consideration?
MUTCHNICK: We didn’t want to have anything to do with the kids. [Laughs] The kids aren't a part of this show. This show is not about that. This show is about those four people and the relationships that they have and what's best for those four people. It's about being at peace with the people that are around you, and I think that's what we tried to do more this time around.
How do you compare your feelings about this ending versus 14 years ago?
KOHAN: The last time, I remember feeling something about it that felt very sort of misty and sad. You're saying goodbye after all these years together and this is going to be it. We wanted to project some fantasy into the future about what happened to them, which felt in a way kind of bittersweet and maybe too much on the bitter side. And this time around, it felt like it lasted the right amount of time, the ending felt like the one that we kind of wanted for these characters. And so, we feel a little more sure-footed this time.
MUTCHNICK: The only thing about this ending that was sad — the only thing — was not being able to provide work for the crew. This reboot showed us more than anything that the lightning in a bottle wasn't just in front of the camera but was also behind the camera. And if we could have found a way for everybody to work, that would have been the perfect ending. But such is life and this is the world that we work in, and that was really the only thing that I was misty about it. I didn't have a sadness about saying goodbye to any of the characters, because I felt like they were doing the thing that they should be doing. We put them in the right place.
When it comes to people being able to work, you guys are in a bit of a rare position this TV season in that you did get to film a finale. Many shows didn’t get to, of course, so I can’t imagine how grateful you must be that you wrapped back in December.
MUTCHNICK: Oh my God, thank God. It would have been the most unfinished feeling to not get to the end of this season. Thank God Debra had it in her contract that we had to be done by Christmas. I finally found the silver lining in that really pain-in-the-ass clause. [Laughs] We did run into trouble with the retrospective that's airing right after the finale. We weren't finished with that and that was not easy to get to the finish line with the world shut down.
This show has been heralded for how it was groundbreaking and changed the narrative in many ways about gay people and culture. What is the episode or moment from this three-season run that you’re most proud of?
KOHAN: I can think of a couple of things that we shied away from that were topical the first time around that we didn't shy away from this time. One was the heart of #MeToo — we actually did something that addressed that. And also, we addressed our kind of glib attitude towards bisexuality the first time around with an episode this time that I hope somehow kind of redressed that with Billie Lourd as Grace’s niece.
MUTCHNICK: I liked that episode, too, because I liked the fact that we brought a little bit of bias into [it because of] our age and not getting stuff. I love the idea that we came out on the right side of bisexuality finally because the show has made fun of it for so long.
I love that we did conversion therapy. I think it's really good that we were able to lampoon that and pin a lot of it on the vice president. I think my favorite episode of the reboot was “Who’s Sorry Now?”, which was an episode about Grace and Will coming to terms with the fact that not all of this was Will’s "fault." In the time since the show [first] ended and when we started it again, I've grown as a gay person and we've all grown just as people, and I feel like getting to tell the stories that Will’s version of the truth — which is that he's a gay man and he was just doing the best that he could and he wasn't trying to hurt Grace in any way — I'm really glad that we got to explore that and a new facet of their relationship so late in their relationship. “Who’s Sorry Now?” meant the most to me because I think it was a very pro-homonormative narrative.
KOHAN: I think it was a chance to correct a misconception, this notion that if there is confusion about a romantic relationship where he turns out to be gay, there is a blame that’s assigned to him, sort of reflectively, which is not fair or right. And to be able to go and to have that part of their relationship — this buried understanding, this sort of unspoken and resented truth of their relationship — exposed and dealt with was satisfying. It was satisfying because Will finally got to say, “This is not fair and I’m not accepting this anymore.” And for Grace to say, “I understand you and I apologize.”
MUTCHNICK: You did nothing wrong. You were just born a gay man and because the way society is set up you're supposed to be sorry for being gay. I love that we stumbled upon something that has really not been talked about much.
It was obviously teased in the original run of the show and you did it again here a little bit, that we might see Stanley Walker. That was never going to happen, right? Or did you really entertain that idea?
KOHAN: We talked about it in the writers’ room, and short of casting Marlon Brando, who would it be? How would you do it? [Laughs]
MUTCHNICK: The thing that nobody knows is that went as far as exploring casting, and we always wanted it to be Marlon Brando or Orson Welles, and those guys aren't available. [Laughs] So we went to the next obvious choice, which was James Brolin, but I think that was going to be unfair to the show and unfair to Mr. Brolin because, really, he was the loss-leader to get his wife [Barbra Streisand] to come and do a cameo in the finale. So I'm glad we stayed true to the way we've always written the show and didn't show Stanley.
You guys talked about how important it was for things to end a certain way for the characters on camera and there were reports emerging from behind the scenes of the show about tensions; Megan stepped away for a couple of episodes. What did you do to ensure that things wrapped up the way that you wanted them to in front of and behind the camera?
MUTCHNICK: We always work under this kind of motto that everything's about the work. It's just about the work. And so if we stay true to that, then we just keep you guys out of whatever happened on the set this year because it would have done nothing but get in the way of the stories that we wanted to tell.
It was not an easy year, but the permanent legacy of the show is much more important to us than any temporary squabble that would take place on the stage.