When Will & Grace first premiered, it was shocking that there could be a whole show on TV about gay people. Gay people on TV had always been sight gags, supporting roles, or worst-case scenarios. Coming out was the reason Ellen Degeneres's sitcom tanked. When the first episode of Will & Grace aired in September 1998, the country was still five years away from the U.S. Supreme Court deciding that gay people were legally allowed to have sex with each other in the privacy of their own homes.
A few friends and I used to gather in a Capitol Hill apartment at the appointed time and watch this edgy, unpredictable, funny, lifelike show about people like us. It was unbelievable that this was on TV. We couldn't believe someone as gay-acting as Jack was allowed to be unapologetically depicted. What about broadcast norms? What about the Christian moralists? This was long before YouTube, long before Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. Bill Clinton was still the president, 9/11 had not happened, and Capitol Hill was full of gay restaurants (yes, that was a thing) and gay bookstores (also a thing) and gay coffeeshops and gay rainbow-windsock stores and gay party tchotchke stores selling penis-shaped swizzle sticks. (Shout out to the Pink Zone.) You met other gay people by going to these places, or by making eye contact with other gay people on the street. There was no other way to find each other. Grindr would not come along for another 11 years.
In the first scene in last night's episode—which I watched, because I'm a grandpa—Jack is checking his Grindr account, the first of many signs that the show's creators have tried to bring their once shocking and brightly defined cardboard cutouts into the contemporary era. Karen is now friends with Melania Trump. Will is writing letters to his congressperson about the gutting of the EPA.
But something about the execution didn't work for me. It was slapstick all the way. In two separate scenes, there were spit takes. The timing, which used to feel quick and clever, felt creaky and canned. Even with Trump jokes galore, it wasn't edgy or unpredictable or lifelike, and it wasn't all that funny.
Nor did it make sense. In the episode, somehow both Will and Grace each get invited to the White House under separate auspices, and neither of them tells the other, even though they're best friends who live together. Huh? Maybe this is just early reboot jitters, maybe it will get better, maybe they will push harder with the characters they have and stumble into funnier or riskier territory. Or maybe the world has gotten better in lots of ways that are easy to forget, and the risky territory of the show's old context had a lot to do with what made it great.
I certainly felt old watching it. The actors, on the other hand, haven't aged a day.