After three seasons back on TV, Will & Grace airs its second series finale tnight, putting an to end one of the flashiest and most high-profile sitcom revivals. While the show returned to NBC in the fall of 2017 with a lot of fanfare and a warm reception, it's ending with a relative whimper. And so with the finale upon us, it's time to take what lessons we can from this three-season revival and what it means for TV networks eager to revisit their glory days.
Clearly, NBC's biggest error in their Will & Grace plan was in over-zealously renewing the show before they knew what kind of a hit (or miss) they had on their hands. First off, they reacted far too optimistically to the revival's initial reception. The general response was good! While critics weren't unanimous in their praise, a good number of them were. The relatively low stakes of a show like Will & Grace — which was never a crown jewel sitcom for NBC, but which held fond memories for a lot of fans — meant a revival that warmly re-introduced familiar characters to the TV audience could be received with good will, without danger of sacrificing all our critical faculties. But after a strong initial set of episodes, the sparkle began to wear away, while at the same time the ratings, which had kicked off at over 10 million viewers for the first revival episode in September, were down to less than half that by January. Season 9 ended with the show pulling in 3.6 million viewers. But by that time, NBC had long since renewed the series for Season 10, and in fact extended that renewal to Season 11 before Season 10 even began. Midway through its second year, NBC was locked into a show that viewers were fleeing, and that had long since dropped out of the pop culture conversation that initially greeted its return..
Famously, the inspiration for a Will & Grace revival was the success of a short-form video meant to support the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign. "Vote, Honey" was a ten-minute video where Will (Eric McCormack), Grace (Debra Messing), Karen (Megan Mullally), and Jack (Sean Hayes) were back again, same as they ever were, cracking jokes and spiraling into comedic hysteria over the Trump-Clinton election. Given her extreme wealth and penchant for chaos, Karen was slotted in as the designated Trump supporter. The video was a viral hit, and suddenly everyone with a financial stake in Will & Grace saw dollar signs. Of course, nobody gave much thought to the rather limited sphere of influence that a viral video can have. Perhaps the fact that the pro-Clinton video didn't exactly help Hillary win the election should have been the first indication. Viral videos are a great platform for things like hit TV show reunions. They're a blast of nostalgia, a decently impressive flex in terms of wrangling the talent together again, and they're viewable without making the commitment of watching a regular TV series. But none of that translates to long term success, something we should all keep in mind whenever a handful of West Wing alums reunite for a stunt and everybody starts clamoring to bring that show back.
Likely due to the success of "Vote, Honey," the revived Will & Grace returned as a far more political show than it ever was in its initial run. Classic Will & Grace was definitely a show with its feet firmly planted in the culture. Particularly gay culture. But it never mentioned, say, the war in Iraq, the George W. Bush presidency, or even 9/11 in anything more than the broadest of terms (Britney Spears showing up as a hyper-patriotic conservative Christian talk-show host, for example). But the revived Will & Grace seemed to take as its mission statement a responsibility to take on current events and the new Trump administration, which never seemed to be the show's strong suit. The show's original run was predicated on a campy irreverence that didn't always work but which allowed Karen to say some really awful things but still stay on the right side of funny, or for Will and Jack to spar over some inside humor about the gay community. Translating that to the hyper-earnest "resistance" movement against Trump was a bad fit from the get-go, and it made the revived Will & Grace feel fundamentally "off" from the original. The show eased up on the politics in Seasons 10 and 11, but by then, a large percentage of the audience that had tuned in to those early Trump-heavy episodes had already fled.
One particularly unfortunate offshoot of the Trump-ification of Will & Grace is that the Karen character was flattened down to existing as merely the Trump supporter. As Karen was perhaps the show's most popular character in the initial run, this felt like a bitter pill to swallow. Was it out of character for a rich, out of touch, often cruel woman like Karen to have gone all-in on Trump? No. But it made it awfully hard to find her as delightfully funny as we used to. Effectively, it sidelined her from the get-go, as you got the sense that the show's writers had either forgotten how to write Karen effectively or were more interested in making her a MAGA symbol.
When we talk about prospective reunions for shows like Friends and The West Wing — I'm not saying those reunions should happen, but they're the shows most often discussed in terms of fans enthusiasm — we talk about how popular they are on streaming, having both spent years as comfort-show cornerstones on Netflix (Friends has since left Netflix but will soon debut on the upcoming HBO Max platform). Will & Grace was unavailable to stream for years, frustrating fans who wished to revisit it, before it dropped on Hulu shortly before the revival series premiered (but crucially, well after the revival was ordered in the first place). It's very plausible that fan demand for a Will & Grace revival was just redirected demand for access to the eight seasons that already existed. Revival series are, after all, the ultimate in TV comfort food, as the networks try to whip up those tasty treats we once loved so much. But what's becoming more and more obvious is that the real comfort food is the actual episodes we used to watch. TV reruns may be passé in Peak TV era, but they still hold appeal. Maybe the next time a network with money to burn wants to revive a show we all once loved, they'll consider just… letting us watch the show we once loved.
NBC airs the (second) series finale of Will & Grace tonight at 9:00 PM ET, followed by a half-hour look-back special imagainatively titled The Will & Grace Retrospective.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.