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‘Will & Grace’ Struggles to Find its Place 11 Years Later

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Prior to 1998, few gay characters were depicted in mainstream entertainment, and fewer still were the leading characters on network programs. With its debut, “Will & Grace” changed history, by bridging the gap that existed between LGBT and straight audiences.

For many in the first camp, it became an icon; a major sitcom that didn’t relegate its gay characters to be sidekicks and punchlines, instead celebrating them by giving them well-rounded characterizations and plots that went beyond their sexuality. The show succeeded for eight seasons because despite this, it didn’t alienate its straight audience, who outnumbered those who looked to it for representation.

The relationship between gay New York lawyer, Will Truman, and his straight female best friend, Grace Adler, was relatable, captivating, and hilarious—the joke often being that they did have the perfect relationship, except without the sex.

Hot on the heels of a recent surge of nostalgia television, which has brought us a mixed bag—containing “Fuller House,” “Girl Meets World,” a forthcoming “Roseanne” reboot, and new seasons of “Gilmore Girls,” “Twin Peaks,” and “The X-Files”—after eleven years off-air, “Will & Grace” returned for a ninth season on Thursday.

The cast first reunited for a web special that was released prior to the 2016 Presidential Election. The mini-revival played on topical political humor and pretended that nothing had changed in the lives of the four main characters, which was a fun treat for the fans who had missed them over the past decade, rather than a serious attempt at continuing the series’ story. And its positive reception led to the decision for the series’ small screen return, however even with 20 minutes and network backing, the season nine premiere failed to surpass the YouTube short in terms of comedy, story, or quality.

In fairness, the season eight finale in 2006 was bizarre at best, and left the writers in a difficult position when attempting to resume the story. An 18-year time jump depicted that the titular best friends fell out, went no contact and raised their respective families.

Given that we’re only 11 years into that look into the future, unless the series somehow survived going in a very different direction—one in which “Will & Grace” don’t actually talk or interact—any attempt to explain the discrepancy between the new beginning and the old ending would likely be weak. Going with the “it was all a dream” trope, however, surpasses weak and treads into insulting-to-the-viewer territory.

The premiere cried out “exposition, exposition, exposition” as it attempted to beat the audience over the head with the fact that now in their 40s, no character development at all has been achieved for any of the four main characters.

However, while the familiarity might be comforting in a brief and teasing web short, it’s depressing to see that a decade later Will and Grace are still single and living together, and just as neurotic and co-dependent as ever.

To its credit, the show was self-aware and attempted to make light of the lack of change, but it wound up feeling hollow, like little more than a cheap grab for attention riding on sentimentality and nostalgia, and lacking all the charm of the original.

Heavy-handed political humor tying Karen to Trump dominated the plot of the first episode, but the jokes fell flat as they tried to force the viewer to believe that the show was still relevant. When done properly, political humor can be brutal and hilarious, such as on HBO’s “Veep,” but it has to be sharp and fresh to land. Tired and stale jokes about Trump’s coloring only went to show that the writers were no more informed than their characters and reemphasized that the show no longer has a place.

It was a brilliant show in its first airing, but in 20 years, comedy has changed. While “Will & Grace” was first notable for its well-rounded depiction of LGBT characters, that isn’t to say that stereotypes didn’t play a heavy role in its humor.

Found most strongly in Jack, the effeminate and promiscuous lover of Cher, these nods to mainstream conceptions of gay culture were part of what allowed this “edgy” show then to retain a mainstream straight audience on a primetime network. However, today, this show wouldn’t be made. Many of the jokes would be seen as derivative or just offensive.

But “Will & Grace” laid the groundwork for the culture that rejects it today, as greater representation of LGBT characters in media has led to less tolerance for politically-incorrect humor.

So despite its important part in entertainment history, it struggles to find its role today.

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