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Fall '98: "Will & Grace"

There's a lot of talent behind Will and Grace. James Burrows (co-creator of Cheers) directs, and one of the producers shares a producer credit for Seinfeld. Combine this with the fact that it features the second gay lead character in network television history, and you have the potential for epochal television; a sitcom that follows the trail Ellen blazed and builds a shining city on a hill, a metropolis of comedy that spreads -- nay, demands -- tolerance of alternative lifestyles by virtue of its comedic might.

That may be a lot to ask. It's hard to ask a sitcom to be any more than a pleasant suburb of comedy; a place that makes people smile, that is a nice place to be, but that fails to excite any real passion. And it's clear "Will and Grace" wants much more to be funny than to be important. It's not about being gay, in the way that post-coming out Ellen was. It is a relationship comedy, revolving around the dyamic between Will, an uptight lawyer, and Grace, a free spirit interior decorator. The twist is that Will is gay, and instead of the usual sitcom bungee cords of sexual tension a deeply codependent friendship lashes everything together. Will butts into Grace's life, Grace gets resentful, lather, rinse, repeat. They are both ably played (you may recognize to Deborah Messing, who plays Grace, from Ned & Stacey and Prey), and they have an inoffensive screen chemistry.

But most of the energy in Will and Grace comes from the supporting characters -- Jack, Will's friend, and Karen, Grace's squeaky secretary. Jack is the campiest, most histrionic and over-theatrical cliché gay male character I've ever seen on TV. He makes Paul Lynde look like Hulk Hogan. He makes Liberace look like a guy who just beat up John Wayne in a bar fight. Don't get me wrong, he's easily the funniest thing about the show and potentially a breakout star. But he's so over the top I kept expecting him to pass out from oxygen deprivation. And Karen -- a grad student in the Mae West school of acting with a voice that is part Tilly sister, part ultrasonic metal polisher -- nearly gave my friend a seizure.

If there is a radioactive element that powers character acting, the show is in serious danger of going Chernobyl every time those two are alone in a room together. Only the insertion of the show's equivalent of an inanimate carbon rod, Will, saves us from a China Syndrome of acting excess.

I sort of enjoyed watching Will & Grace. I could see the craftsmanship that went into it. Jokes were carefully set up three scenes in advance. There was well-blocked and well-executed physical comedy. Plot threads diverged and collided to comedic effect. The cast turned in a solid performances.

But will I watch it again? Probably not. Does this mean it's doomed? I doubt it. Maybe the generous amounts of talent involved will fine tune it into the comedic muscle car it could be. But even as it stands, it's better than most anything else NBC has thrown at the fan recently, and enough people will like it for it to become a happy little suburb on the Must See TV map.

And that might be history-making enough.


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