NBC’s revival of Will & Grace surprises with an incredibly strong premiere episode that retcons the series finale but proves the series is as funny as ever.
In 2017, the term “television revival” has undergone considerable rehabilitation thanks in large part to the return of Twin Peaks. That series slid back into living rooms with significant fan fare (if not ratings) after it last ended on ABC with a memorable cliffhanger nearly 30 years prior. But, inexplicable as it may seem, following in the footsteps of David Lynch’s return to television is NBC’s big revival of the year: the return of Will & Grace, which revisits the peacock network after 11 years off the air. And while it and Twin Peaks are wildly different shows, their status as preexisting IP that’s not just repackaged and resold, but actually makes a solid case for its resurgence suggests the word “revival” needn’t be met with an obligatory eye-roll.
Surprisingly, after 11 years, Will & Grace is back and it’s good. The writing, the acting, and even the timing of Megan Mullally’s pitch perfect, gin-soaked retorts are as funny as ever. After watching the premiere, ’11 Years Later’, it’s tempting to think it feels like Will & Grace never left. Maybe a better way to look at it is that after more than a decade off, it’s clear the series spent most of that time conditioning itself in case it was ever called back into the NBC lineup. As evidenced by the premiere, the show doesn’t need any time to brush away the cobwebs; instead it’s raring to go from the very first moment.
Back in 2006, Will, Grace, Jack, and Karen said goodbye to the audience with about as conclusive (and sometimes confusing) a series finale as you could get. The aptly titled two-part ‘The Finale’ wrapped the series up by jumping into the future, and into a dream, and into another future, all to provide its two leads with what amounted to happy endings that saw them move forward with new relationships and children, setting aside a hilarious but nonetheless borderline co-dependent friendship to see what life had to offer apart from one another. The show even suggested that their kids, Ben and Lila, would get married after meeting at college. The ending also saw Karen divorce Stan and lose her fortune, while Jack inherited all of Beverly Leslie’s money after the diminutive man was blown off his balcony by a strong gust of wind. Sure, series creators David Kohan and Max Mutchnick probably weren’t thinking revival 11 years ago, but in hindsight, committing to an ending that went that far into the characters’ respective futures meant severely limiting the storytelling potential of the revived series. The answer: eh, it didn’t happen – at least some of it.
Bringing Will & Grace back requires a lot of regression, meaning more than just the characters’ emotional growth seen in the finale has been reversed – essentially the entire ending is little more than a dream. Yes, Will and Vince got married, and yes, Grace and Leo were married, too, but the kids never happened, both marriages failed, and the titular pair are living together again in Will’s apartment. Jack was never rich and Beverly Leslie was presumably never whisked to an ignominious demise by a breath of wind. Meanwhile, Karen is still rich, still married to Stan, and still fueled entirely by gin.
That’s a lot of information to dole out to the audience all at once, and it’s also asking a lot of those watching as well. While some viewers might not have remembered (or seen) the original series finale, Hulu and NBC made a refresher easy by making the entire series available to stream about a week before the revival’s (or the season 9) premiere. Kohan, Mutchnick, and director James Burrows also figured ease of use would be necessary in bringing the characters and the audience up to speed, so rather than a lengthy explanation or time-jumping flashback/forward sequence, the status quo is succinctly summed up in less than two minutes, followed by Jack breaking the fourth wall (seemingly) to ask the audience if they “got it.” It works tremendously well as both a retcon and necessary acknowledgement of the new interpretation of previously established events (and events that will now never transpire) to allow this revival the chance to even happen.
It’s possible that Kohan, Mutchnick, and Burrows could have conceived of a way to forge ahead with the circumstances of the finale and expanded cast of later seasons that included Bobby Cannavale and Harry Connick Jr. as Will and Grace’s spouses (not to mention the kids who would be preteens by now), but it wouldn’t have been nearly as successful as what they came up with for ’11 Years Later’. For one thing, those elements were from a show that was winding down after eight successful seasons, and to continue along those lines would likely inhibit the revival’s energy. More importantly, the creators wisely wanted to get the show back to basics, meaning in reviving the series, they were reviving all the core elements that made it such a success in the first place.
After the business of which parts of the finale have stuck and which are now considered the result of Karen’s dangerously high blood alcohol levels, ’11 Years Later’ quickly settles into a familiar rhythm before going out of its way to remind everyone that it is now 2017. That takes much of the premiere out of the comfort zone of Will’s apartment, and re-establishes that he and Grace can often act hypocritically when their personal and professional interests intersect with their political beliefs, causing them to have a run-in and, eventually, a pillow fight, in the White House.
In its heyday, Will & Grace was never shy regarding jokes pointed at politicians nor was it concerned about making its creators’ stance on political issues known. As such, it’s no surprise that the premiere makes a point to have its characters confront the reality of a Trump presidency with some stinging barbs from Will, Grace, and Jack, and a few well-timed ones from admitted Trump supporter, Karen, who – no surprise – gets some of the show’s best material. The result, then, effectively repositions the series for 2017 and, like so many other shows right now, makes good use of the comedic fodder provided by the current administration.
The series hasn’t let advancing age or time off slow it down, and as evidenced by subsequent episodes (critics screened the first three), it’s also unafraid to confront the issue of its cast and characters getting older and mining that for some strong new material that suggests the premiere wasn’t a fluke. In all, Will & Grace returns in much better shape than anyone could have guessed after being away for 11 years. It’s an entertaining, albeit unlikely return from a groundbreaking series, making it easy to see why NBC opted to renew it for a second season before the first one even aired.
Will & Grace continues next Thursday with ‘Who’s Your Daddy’ @9pm on NBC.
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