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This is what Will & Grace needs to do to connect with modern audiences

This is what Will & Grace needs to do to connect with modern audiences

A fan-favorite is returning to the NBC sitcom

This week sees the return of Will, Grace, Karen and Jack for a new run of the television comedy.

And with it brings some questions of how modern day audiences will connect with the sitcom that packed more gay jokes in than any other series to date.

When Will & Grace launched in 1998, this was a year after Ellen DeGeneres came out. Most thought the show could never survive, but audiences connected with it anyway. The series won multiple Emmys, including for all four members of the cast, and it ran for eight years.

But what do you actually remember from the show?

Most of the overarching storylines were forgettable. Much has been made of the fast-forward finale, which showed the main characters not speaking to each other for decades, will be completely ignored.

But when did Will & Grace ever really care about story? While you can tell which season is which in Friends by who is dating who, the overarching plot, or whether Matthew Perry looks healthy or not, you can’t really do that with Will & Grace.

Jack goes on Grindr in Will & Grace promo
Jack goes on Grindr in Will & Grace promo

It was a farce, utilizing slapstick and fast-paced crude writing that was not intended to be realistic.

The show comes from a centuries-old concept of comedy: watching rich privileged people act like fools. This isn’t just the 90s sitcoms (like Frasier and Friends), it goes back to 5th century BC in Ancient Greece. The idea of painting up-tight superiors as buffoons, parodying them to make a point about wider society, began with poets like Aristophanes.

This isn’t really in fashion anymore.

Look at the nominees for this year’s Best Comedy at the Emmys. Veep, Atlanta, Black-ish, Master of None, Modern Family, Silicon Valley, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt are all shot with a single-camera.

But even if Will & Grace can awaken our nostalgic feels for the soundstage sitcom, there are other concerns.

Eric McCormack/Twitter
Will and Grace cast in 2016

Eric McCormack is a straight man, playing a gay guy, making gay jokes. The concept of his character is he is the ‘straight man’, figuratively speaking, to Jack’s more flamboyant character that indulges in stereotypes for comedic effect.

While the words may be put in his mouth by a gay writer, it doesn’t change that people may feel offended by this.

Will also needs to be seen as sexually active. Neutered by the decade and of sensitivity to the audience, it’s no longer good enough to have Grace shown in bed with a multi-episode partner while Will is not shown even giving a guy he’s dating a peck on the cheek.

Will people accept Jack on television again, considered once the archetype for flamboyant gay stereotypes on television?

Much has been made of by the cast that Will & Grace will include transgender issues.

Debra Messing said she hopes the show will embrace ‘trans, queer and all of these new conversations about gender identity’.

Will & Grace cast first reunited for mini episode in support of Hillary Clinton.
Will & Grace cast first reunited for mini episode in support of Hillary Clinton.

While they may haven’t watched the show in a while, I have, they may have forgotten they did cover them in the show’s run.

And it was extremely dated.

In one episode, Jack gets a lap dance from a female stripper and he get an erection. Horrified, he flees the apartment. ‘Oh, my God,’ Will jokes. ‘It’s finally happened. You’ve gotten so gay, you’ve looped around to straight again.’

In fact, it turns out the stripper is trans. When the stripper tells Jack, he says: ‘So, you’re not a girl?’ And she responds, ‘Not yet, but God willing, by fall I will be.’

Jack is relieved, saying he is still ‘gayer than Christmas.’

Believe it or not, this is one of the better portrayals of trans people in the show.

And, as always, having LGBTI characters is all well and good but you also need people who are POC as well as diverse in age, disability, size and so on.

Will & Grace was considered ground-breaking at the time. If it wants to be seen as progressive, it needs to bring in trans characters where the joke isn’t just about trans identity.

Look at Difficult People, a Will & Grace for modern audiences, about a narcissistic gay guy and a straight woman in New York City. They have a trans character, but the joke is about how she’s a ‘truther’ rather than her being trans.

Shows like Transparent, Happy Endings, This Is Us, and Please Like Me have all portrayed gay characters in a realistic way. Many would likely be considered responses to, and improvements on, the characterizations of LGBTIs characters in Will & Grace.

The only thing to do is to wait and see what Will & Grace has in store. If it’s funny, that’s what matters. But we don’t want to go back to a dated portrayal of LGBTI characters on television either.

Joe Morgan is the editor-at-large at Gay Star News. You can follow him on Twitter.