[Editor’s Note: The following review contains light spoilers for “Will & Grace” Season 9 (2017), regarding the characters’ current living arrangements and how the new season deals with the former series finale.]
The opening scene of “Will & Grace” Season 9 — or Season 1 of the revival, or whatever NBC is intent on calling it — should strike fear in the hearts of any TV fan. As the core four bluntly brings viewers up to date on who’s single (everyone but Karen), who’s living together (Will and Grace), and who’s nonexistent (those kids from the
series Season 8 finale), there’s a moment where Jack turns to the camera and speaks directly to the audience: “Got it?” he asks.
The triggered anxiety shouldn’t stem from the blunt exposition or an uncharacteristic fourth-wall break; it stems from how Jack’s rhetorical question to the audience at home is reminiscent of another ’90s sitcom revival which did the same thing: “Fuller House,” the worst of television’s zombie horde, featured a scene in Season 1 where the entire cast turned and stared blankly at the camera. They were calling out Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen for not returning for the sequel series, but the confounding moment came to represent all that was wrong with a wretched first season, too smug in its self-references to bother being funny. And now “Will & Grace” is doing the same thing.
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But then Grace saves the day: “Got it,” she says, snapping a photo of Jack. It’s a callback to an earlier joke when Jack yelled at Grace for missing his “full adorable” face. Jack wasn’t turning to the camera; OK, he was, but he was also miming for Grace’s, hoping to get a candid profile picture and keeping the show comedically honed in the process. In hindsight, the cutesy re-introduction was needed to explain how “Will & Grace” ended up what it is now, and Jack’s quip comes to exhibit how the series’ finely crafted comedy is more than an easy laugh.
To say the first three episodes of the new season are equally clever would be a lie; they only get better from the track-laying opener, as the cast proves itself to be as energetic, opinionated, and hysterical as ever. Up to their old tricks, Will and Grace finish each other’s sentences and help each other through crises. Jack and Karen selfishly scheme for attention, fame, and sex. The foursome lives their lives, with rapid-fire callbacks, zingers galore, and timely breaks for a few heart-to-hearts. “Will & Grace” is nothing like other, lazy revivals. It’s here on its own terms and quickly proves there’s nothing to fear from these very funny folks.
There may even be a bit more to learn. The first episode tackles the Trump of it all, as Karen (Megan Mullally) gloats over “her guy” winning the election and Will (Eric McCormack) fixates on a congressman who’s out to destroy the environment. Grace (Debra Messing) is annoyed by Karen’s boastful posturing, but she gets sucked up into one of her schemes nonetheless, and the secret agenda behind Will’s letter-writing campaign is quickly exposed by Jack (Sean Hayes).
Their adventures lead them to D.C., the Oval Office, and repeated jabs at the red-ballcap-wearing madman running America, but these issues are all deftly incorporated into a rather zany sitcom episode. The cast flies around the screen with the lovable energy of yesteryear, putting to doubt any worries they’d lost a step after 11 years away. Twists on already clever one-liners build into enticing wordplay, and topical pop-culture and political commentary never overwhelms the character arcs. Episode 1, “11 Years Later,” is about re-establishing the series — which is needed even if you don’t remember how the show originally ended — and creators Max Mutchnick and David Kohan (along with director James Burrows) do so with heart, humor, and a helluva sharp jab.
The following episodes are also honed around clear objectives: Episode 2, “Who’s Your Daddy,” tackles the changes in gay culture since the series last aired by sending Will and Jack on dates with guys in their early 20s (one played by Tony winner Ben Platt). Episode 3, “Emergency Contact,” helps explain the evolved relationship dynamic between Will and Grace, whose codependency issues have always been a regular topic of conversation, but has reached a new level now that they’re still living together, still single, and still without kids in their early ’40s. (Again, that finale never happened.)
All this comes together to form a series with purpose. The new “Will & Grace” isn’t a political agenda thinly veiled as a situational comedy; it’s very funny, and it’s always been keenly aware of the culture, be it social issues or whatever’s going on with Jada Pinkett Smith. But it’s as refreshing to see the first three episodes return with something to say, rather than just to cash in on nostalgia, as it is to see the cast buzzing with excitement to be back in these roles.
“Will & Grace” is good not just by comparison to its past self, but in comparison to the rest of broadcast comedy. While “The Good Place” stands alone, this revival is already better than CBS’ multi-cam entries and can hold its head high next to ensemble single-camera series like “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” “Speechless,” and “Superstore.” It’s a rare comedy from yesteryear that fits in today’s landscape, carving out and laying claim its own corner of the screen.
“Will & Grace” used its first scene to explain how it could come back, but the rest of it is showing us why it should.
“Will & Grace” Season 9 (2017) premieres Thursday, September 28 at 9 p.m. ET on NBC.