I was the guy who gave a giant roll of the eyes every time I heard about NBC’s planned revival of “Will & Grace,” which originally ran from 1998 to 2006. My thought balloon at those moments: This is pathetic. Sad! Here’s a partial list of my why-nots:
1) The Walking Deading of network TV. Are there so few new ideas that, instead of merely imitating old sitcoms, which itself is lazy (cough, “Kevin Can Wait,” cough), the networks are zombifying the classics?
2) It was so over. “Will & Grace” was on the air for eight seasons, each containing 22-27 episodes, and by the series finale it was creatively exhausted. It was a big mess of gimmicky guest stars, shrill jokes, and inane plot twists. The comedy died a natural death; let it rest in peace.
3) You can’t go home again. Most TV revivals have disappointed, including “Arrested Development” and “Gilmore Girls.” Their greatest impact — aside from the money and attention they bring to their TV outlets — has been to tarnish the legacy of the original runs.
4) The End (Just Kidding). The series finale of “Will & Grace” jumped ahead about two decades, and we learned that the two best friends — each in a long-term relationship and a parent — had been estranged during that period. Can the show convincingly undo all that?
Now, after having seen three episodes of the new “Will & Grace,” I’m the guy who, like Gilda Radner’s Emily Litella on “Saturday Night Live,” is mumbling “never mind.” Mumbling — not yelling. I still believe in my list of reasons not to revive old shows, and I still feel that the upcoming “Roseanne” revival is doomed to awfulness. But I have to admit that I enjoyed a lot in the new episodes of “Will & Grace” and will probably watch the entire season. The 11-year break has clearly been refreshing for all involved, as a sense of unforced good cheer suffuses the whole enterprise. Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, Megan Mullally, and Sean Hayes appear delighted to be back together — older, wiser, but no less verbally agile.
Essentially, the gang of four does what they did best, shooting zingers at one another, getting into social and romantic pickles, and dancing around the stage like loonies, all while the audience cackles. The script quickly does away with that inconvenient series finale — I won’t spoil how, but it’ll do — and Will and Grace are single, codependent BFFs in New York all over again, with Jack and Karen forever lurking. The jokes are crammed with pop culture references, as always, but they’ve been updated to include hookup apps, Shonda Rhimes, Caitlyn Jenner, and being “woke.” The physical comedy can be trying — Jack’s efforts not to be a “Daddy” in episode two are overextended — but the show’s broad vaudevillian affect has always been its least appealing element for me.
What’s missing this time around is what made the peak “Will & Grace” not just a bastion of sharp wit but a groundbreaking comedy that helped to defuse LGBT issues in the mainstream. The show had a cultural mission, and an impact that, arguably, can be linked to the legalization of gay marriage in this country. Still, the new “Will & Grace” cannonballs into cultural issues, not least of all being an older gay man in the face of younger gay men who don’t know what Stonewall is. And there are clever political jabs everywhere, many of them linked to the fact that Karen — who’s druggier than ever — is pals with Donald and Melania Trump. When Grace wears something Karen doesn’t like, Karen yells, “Lock her up!”
The urgency and purpose of the original is gone, but there are four ace comedians batting around piercing one-liners, along with more “Designing Women” jokes than you ever bargained for.
WILL & GRACE
Starring: Debra Messing, Sean Hayes, Megan Mullally, Eric McCormack. On NBC, Thursday at 9 p.m.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.