In 1998 a new show aired about a gay man and his best friend. Today that doesn’t sound all that strange. We have a cop show where the main character is a lesbian. We have pretty much a queer regular on every CW show out there. Over on Freeform, we have a character who is the center of change for witches, and her being queer wasn’t really a factor. We have Batwoman for goodness sake. Gay characters are, much like real life, everywhere on television now, and representation is so different it barely looks like the world 22 years ago.
The Puppy Change
In 1997, Ellen DeGeneres’s character leaned on a counter and said “I’m gay.”
Those words had not been said in that way by a main character before. We hadn’t seen the journey, we hadn’t had the representation. And while Ellen only lasted a little longer after that “The Puppy Episode,” we saw the world change. Less than a year later, a gay man could be the lead for a show, albeit a comedy. His gay friend was a regular. They let Will have relationships (eventually), and that paved the way for the goal of the show.
Born of Acceptance
In 2017, eight years after the show gave it’s final bow, Will & Grace returned. The original series ending was, to put it mildly, not well liked. It ended with Will and Grace ‘breaking up’ and not talking for years until their children (yes) became friends and got married. Like many series, the ending missed a number of notes. People felt it was unrealistic that those two friends, who had been through thick and thin, would really not talk for 20 years because of their lives went in different directions.
The revival in 2017 retconned most of that. They undid marriages and pregnancies and deaths to bring us back to a state where the show was loved again. When the revival was announced, it was mentioned that the original idea of the series was to bring gay people into our living rooms, every week, so that it would be more accepted. More normal.
Regardless of your feelings of the show, and they can be very complicated, Will & Grace absolutely did what they intended to do. Week after week, people came to laugh with Will & Grace & Jack & Karen.
Acceptance Isn’t Enough
The revival was not born of acceptance, though. We had grown and changed in 20 years. Gay was well on it’s way to being normalized, at least on television. And yes, we had serious flaws in representation (you may remember how terrible 2017 was for death) but we also had ClexaCon and more and more shows on air. So why did they make Will & Grace again?
In a word: Trump.
This was never a secret. They were all so hurt and angry about how even though we were more accepted, it clearly wasn’t enough. While we shy away from political discourse here, it was without question that America had elected someone who hated queers and England wasn’t far behind. Things were bad, and Will & Grace coming back was to remind us that queers are just like straights.
Do we not laugh at the same things as straights? With a few exceptions, we do. And we want to be seen, just like everyone else. We want people to remember we’re people, to love us, to treat us like humans.
The Revival Fell Short
While I greatly respect the cast and crew of Will & Grace for everything they did, much like the original finale their revival missed the mark. One of the storylines was a ‘reverse Puppy’, where Karen came out as straight after dating Nikki (played by the amazing Samira Wiley). It felt like the bait-and-switch that is was, uncomfortable and punching down. It made fun of 20 years ago without lifting it up.
We laughed at the show, and not with the show.
Maybe the reality is that the time has passed for the humour of Will & Grace. We don’t need a show to exist to make a point. At this point, we need a show that exists simply to exist. It’s like Shonda Rhymes says, she’s not about diversifying, she’s about normalizing.
By making Will & Grace focused on a specific target audience, they lost the heart of the show. They held on too tightly to the past, where we needed to just have a moment of representation to force eyes open and diversify the television landscape. Now? Now we need to be normal. We need people to see us for who we are.
20 years ago, Will & Grace helped change the world. They set the stage for representation. And now, as they’ve taken their final bow, we can thank them for everything, appreciate what they did, and hope that television takes that groundwork to make something more.