27 May 2006 | liquidcelluloid-1
A great cast, perfect chemistry, smart writing and a classical style, "Grace" is a flawed sitcom juggernaut
Network: NBC; Genre: Sitcom; Content Rating: TV-14 (for strong language and strong sexual dialog); Available: Syndication and DVD; Perspective: Classic (star range: 1 - 5);
Season Reviewed: Complete Series (8 seasons)
On the surface "Will & Grace" will seem like just another shallow, sex-based studio-audience sitcom, and beneath that it is -in fact - just another shallow, sex-based studio-audience sitcom. But David Kohan and Max Mutchnick have put together a sitcom with all the elements of a classic screwball comedy, given it a modern attitude and a tad of bite that the genre is starving for since the departure of "Seinfeld". In the network sitcom machine, they have proved to be light-years ahead of the hacks.
"Grace" makes a favorable comparison to "Seinfeld". It features a tight-nit cast of distinctly different friends, all of them vain and narcissistic to the point that the world outside their own social life is expendable. They include long-time best friends lawyer Will Truman (Eric McCormack) and designer Grace Adler (Debra Messing, "Seinfeld"), her obscenely wealthy, pill-popping, gin-swilling assistant Karen Walker (Megan Mullally) and flamboyant man-child and would-be actor Jack McFarlane (Sean Hayes). McCormack plays Will as one of the funniest straight-men in recent TV history, the height of irony since Will and out-and-proud Jack are gay, which in network execu-speak makes "Will & Grace" "gay-themed". Grace is straight and ties her happiness to her success or failure in relationships with men and Karen is whatever she wants.
"Just Jack" Hayes writes himself a ticket to chew up the screen and has an impeccable gift for slapstick, but without a doubt the breakout star of the series is Megan Mullally who makes Karen Walker into one of the best supporting characters in TV history. Always by her side is Rosario (Shelley Morrison). Like the Toto to Karen's Princess Centimillia, Rosario is the funniest human prop in recent TV memory. Whatever is going on in the scene just wheel in Rosario, let Karen demean her and it's almost a free laugh from me every time.
So you could talk about "Grace" as a sitcom or as a work of Hollywood social conditioning. In a usually mindless genre, Kohan and Mutchnick looked into their crystal ball and jumped out in front of the impending rise in gay-themed shows based in a politically correct agenda that would crest while this one was one the air, and ultimately have the most debatable and divisive sitcom to come along in quite a while. An achievement, to say the least. Time was good to "Will & Grace" and as the rest of TV caught up with it, it took a step further. A culturally aware satire, with a great ability to take topical current event hot buttons and turn them into a spry one-liner that smashes pulp in the faces of everyone who expects to hear it make a point. Whether "Grace's" technique of simultaneously admitting and challenging broad gay stereotypes speaks well for its audience is highly debatable and something I don't feel qualified to answer.
The real truth is that "Will & Grace" is an opposite sex platonic love story masquerading as the more network-acceptable gay-themed sitcom. Because any network, particularly NBC, would mandate that Will and Grace "got together" in any other scenario, Kohan and Mutchnick made Will and Jack gay and effectively removed that potential problem to their platonic love story, between Will and Grace as well as an adorably co-dependent relationship between Jack and Karen.
I've changed my stance on "Will & Grace" over the years. Maybe it was the consistently great performance and active vocal lobbying amid the reality invasion from McCormack, maybe it was the degrading rate of every sitcom around it that, but the show won me back after suffering a long drought in the middle of the series. During that drought the show made some head-scratching choices, taking the show into melodramatic territory. The series picked up the "never-be-alone" TV mandate and made Grace as miserable as possible trying to find a man, from an insufferable arc with Woody Harrelson to the addition of the comically anemic Harry Connick Jr. as Grace's white knight globe-trotting doctor husband. In the last 2 seasons, (and with the help of Alec Baldwin guesting as Will's insane new boss) the show pulled itself back out to its former glory.
Baldwin would be one in a handful of big celebrity guest stars that would come through the "Will & Grace" universe over the years. For all of its crude sex jokes, "Grace" recalls a classically styled sitcom in the way its characters will interact with the stars of today playing themselves in the same way Lucille Ball used to interact with Bob Hope on "I Love Lucy". Highlights include Jack meeting his idol Cher and Parker Posey hitting on Will and low-points involving a slap fight with Jennifer Lopez and Michael Douglas embarrassing himself in a character role as a gay cop. The show also went to the wall with gutsy "live" shows and slapstick that most TV isn't limber enough to go for.
Yes, some of the jokes were as subtle as a javelin in the eye and the characters skirted dangerously close to being one-note. But the writing is whip smart and doused with terrific pop culture references and a phenomenal cast glued together with everlasting chemistry catapulted it far ahead of most post-"Seinfeld" sitcoms. "Will & Grace" didn't re-invent the wheel, but played well within convention defying techniques of the classic sitcom. It broke some mandates and followed others religiously. But most importantly (with the exception of some out-of-place cartoon moments) the show felt truly real and had an undeniable sweetness to the relationship. One thing is for sure, with the exception of that aforementioned hole in the middle of the series, it is always good for a laugh.
* * * ½ / 5