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Sunday, October 26, 2008

Will power

My feature on the 10th anniversary of the start of Will and Grace in this month's GCN magazine
Jennifer Jason Leigh! Can it really be 10 years since Will and Grace first hit our TV screens? Debuting in the autumn of 1998 against the backdrop of shifting – and sometimes static - cultural mores regarding gay-themed entertainment, Will and Grace became one of America’s most successful sitcoms of the ‘90s and Noughties, running for eight years and winning just about every showbiz gong along the way.  

But the show also divided queer commentators into those who believed the series celebrated gay life, however cautiously, and those who felt the show was mincing to the tune of a reactionary heterosexual agenda. 

On July 22, 1998, the final episode of the groundbreaking sitcom, Ellen, aired in the US, little more than a year after 42 million people tuned into watch its creator and star, Ellen Degeneres, make television history by coming out as a lesbian on screen and off. 

However, it turned out that Americans, or at the very least, television executives, were just not ready to embrace an out and proud prime time sitcom heroine, and soon even gay supporters such as Chastity Bono were criticising the show for being “too gay”. The ABC network, a Disney subsidiary, slapped a kiss-of-death parental caution warning onto the start of each episode, ratings slumped, and Ellen was cancelled. 

Even though the decade had been heralded as ‘Hollywood’s Gay Nineties’, it seemed a television show revolving around a homosexual lead character just wouldn’t – or couldn’t – make it. But it was into this seemingly hostile television environment that Will and Grace was launched just two months after Ellen’sunceremonious dumping – and its fate couldn’t have turned out more different. 

The Odd Couple-with-a-twist sitcom about a gay man living with his straight female best friend had luck and timing on its side. In many respects, its very existence owed as much to Rupert Everett, as it did to Ellen Degeneres. Everett was coasting on a wave of rave reviews throughout 1997 for his scene-stealing role as Julia Roberts’ wise-cracking gay confidante in the smash hit romantic comedy, My Best Friend’s Wedding.  

The platonic gay man-straight woman dynamic was suddenly in vogue, featuring again in The Object of My Affection, with Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd, and as a subplot in As Good As It Gets, with Helen Hunt and Greg Kinnear.  

The central template for W&G, therefore, was palatable to the American networks. Devised by Max Mutchnick (a gay man) and David Kohan (straight), the guiding maxim for W&G was: do the opposite of what Ellen did in its final season. In the words of Dale Carpenter, an influential gay conservative columnist, Degeneres forgot that “a serious discussion of gay issues has no intrinsic interest for mainstream Americans”, and that he, for one, prefers, “not forcing the issue on the unwilling masses”. 

Nobody could have accused W&G of being too in-your-face when it made its debut on NBC on September 21, 1998. The pilot was a sharp, witty confection that successfully set up the primary relationship between handsome, sophisticated lawyer Will Truman (played by straight, married actor Eric McCormack) and his gangly, neurotic interior designer housemate and best friend Grace Adler (Debra Messing, formerly of Ned and Stacey).  

It was clear from the get-go that neither protagonist was going to upset anyone too much, irrespective of sexual orientation. Instead, Mutchnik and Kohan decided that the outrageousness factor would be displaced to the pair’s non-titular sidekicks, camp-as-knickers wannabe actor Jack McFarland (Sean Hayes) and helium-voiced, boozy, bisexual, pill-popping socialite Karen Walker (Megan Mullally), who, overnight, became the show’s breakout stars. 

The first reviews of the show were respectable, though qualified. Showbiz bible Entertainment Weekly rewarded the show a B+ rating, calling it “the season’s cleverest, most intricate sitcom”. At the same time, however, the magazine noted that there was “an air of potentially offensive, wistful wish-fulfilment in the show:  if only Will were straight, the series implies, both the protagonists' romantic problems…would be instantly solved”.  

That writer was the first to pick up on the show’s curious (to the say the least) gay politics, particularly in relation to its queer characters Will and Jack.  From the pilot episode, indeed through the entire first season, Will didn’t seem to have any love life, not to mention a sex life. Indeed, so careful were the show’s writers and producers not to make Will “too gay” that focus groups on whom the programme was tested often failed to grasp that Will was even gay at all! 

Openly gay actor Leslie Jordan, who won an Emmy for playing the pint-sized Southern closet case Beverly Leslie on the show, said in a recent interview that Will’s lack of boo-tay was a necessary evil in W&G’s formative years. “Max [Mutchnik] and David [Kohan] were very smart,” he said. “They knew what their parameters were at the time. It had to be digestible to Middle America.”  

The show increased Will’s number of trysts in later seasons, but it wasn’t until the sixth series that he got a long-term boyfriend (played by the strapping Bobby Cannavale). In retrospect, it’s too much to ask for any lead character – gay or straight – to get a happy ever after straight away; after all, something has to provide the fodder for storylines and, as television academic Glyn Davis has noted, the show specialised equally in “disastrous heterosexuality”, citing Grace’s inability to find or keep a partner, Karen’s bad parenting and Will’s parents’ divorce.  

The character of Jack – the id to Will’s ego - proved equally problematic. In one way, Sean Hayes’ jazz-handy, over the top drama queen portrayal was extremely progressive, as it depicted a modern gay man who was overwhelmingly comfortable in his own skin, and the character forced a lot of gay men in particular to acknowledge, if not entirely confront, their own internalised homophobia. 

But, at the same time, his campy fluttering was often, for entertainment purposes, blatantly cartoonish and stereotypical, leading some to theorise that heterosexual TV executives were using the show to mock that which they more most afraid of, and, as Shane McNamara wrote at the time in the now defunct Gay Ireland, to reduce homosexuality to a perception or concept, rather than treat gay people as actual human beings (the mixed messages were only exacerbated by Hayes’ refusal to publicly state his own sexual orientation). 

For good and for bad, W&G was making its impact on pop culture. The show got a massive boost at the start of its second season by being switched to the network’s prestigious Thursday night prime time slot (following on from Friends and competing against Ally McBeal).  

Its tight writing, double entendres, cheeky sight gags and zingy one liners helped it maintain consistent top 20 ratings, and the series was nominated for 11 Emmy awards in September 2000, winning three for Outstanding Comedy Series and Supporting Acting gongs for Hayes and Mullally. Over the show’s eight years, it picked up a total of 83 Emmy nominations, and 16 wins in total (including a second for Mullally, and single wins for McCormack and Messing).  

It also quickly earned a reputation for stunt casting, and became seen as a fun, culturally savvy laboratory for huge names to try their hands at comedy. Among the huge array of guest stars over the years include Madonna, Cher, Britney Spears, Janet Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, Joan Collins, Ellen Degeneres, Rosie O’Donnell, Matt Damon, Michael Douglas, Glenn Close, Elton John, Kevin Bacon, Gene Wilder, John Cleese, Sharon Stone, Debbie Harry, Demi Moore, and Irish hunk Stuart Townsend.  

The show’s ratings took a dip in its final two seasons, having lost Friends as its powerful lead-in. The finale of the series aired on May 18, 2006, drawing 18.1 million viewers. Since then, its stars have experienced mixed fortunes. Megan Mullally landed her own talk show the following September, but it was cancelled a year later due to poor ratings. She was last seen guest starring on Boston Legal, and in an episode of Kathy Griffin’s My Life on the D-List. 

Sean Hayes, meanwhile, went onto musical theatre work and also starred in The Bucket List opposite Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. His production company, Hazy Mills, is currently developing a new series, BiCoastal, about a man with a wife and a boyfriend on the West and East coasts of America. 

As for Will and Grace, Eric McCormack has starred in a TV movie remake of The Andromeda Strain, while Debra Messing has had the most post-W&G success, starring inThe Women, opposite Meg Ryan, and having her mini-series, The Starter Wife, turned into a regular series by the USA Network cable channel.  

Ten years ago, gay-themed television seemed in a perilous state. Will and Grace defied, and subsequently, re-defined industry expectations by playing the game, even if that was perceived as neutralising its gay quotient. Then, as now, it’s probably best to leave the politics aside, and just take it at face value for the well-produced, consistently funny comedy it is. And as for all those other concerns? In the words of Karen Walker: “Oh coulda, shoulda, Prada.”

1 comment:

rosie said...

What an erroneous article. Megan Mullally has just completed a successful run in Young Frankenstein on Broadway. She hasn't been out of work since Will and Grace ended. Sean Hayes only did a 3 week stint in musical theatre, he's been concentrating on films.