Donald Trump

The Timeless Politics of ‘Will & Grace'

The show's original 194-episode run rarely got overtly political, even if its premise proved provocative by 1998 network TV standards

Near the end of what turned out to be the first series finale of "Will & Grace," the aging title characters talked via phone, circa 2030, as they watched TV from separate homes.

"I'm so glad George Clooney came back to 'ER,'" Will noted.

The flash-forward, broadcast 11 years ago, proved oddly prescient (not that Clooney and "ER" are returning anytime soon – but then again, who knows?). 

The groundbreaking comedy makes new history Thursday with its return to NBC, more than a decade after that phone conversation led to a final call at the bar for Will, Grace, Jack and Karen. In 2012 Vice President Biden credited the sitcom with helping change attitudes about same-sex marriage. Tonight, it launches its comeback in time to confront the Trump Era.

The show's original 194-episode run rarely got overtly political, even if its premise proved provocative by 1998 network TV standards: Two best friends, a gay man and a straight woman, living together and trading racy one-liners with their flakier IDs, Jack and Karen.

The program gained ratings – and notice – post-"Soap" and "Ellen," and influenced television, pre-"Modern Family." “Will & Grace” won top comedy honors in the GLAAD Media Awards for seven of its eight seasons, and earned kudos from Biden on “Meet the Press,” six years after its presumed final bow: “I think ‘Will & Grace’ did more to educate the American public more than almost anything anybody has done so far. People fear that which is different. Now they're beginning to understand."

The return of “Will & Grace” took root in current events with an ostensibly one-off mini-episode last September in which Hillary Clinton fans Will and Grace and Donald Trump booster Karen fought to sway undecided Jack (spoiler alert: Katy Perry played a pivotal role in his choice).

Choices and challenges loom for the extended homecoming. Even as the show lives on in syndication, will a current rendering of its campy mix of martinis and double-entendres seem dated? How will the creators explain away the 2006 finale, built around Will and Grace starting new lives with significant others and children?

Among those watching closest may be the team behind "Roseanne," which has a lot more explaining to do (primarily the apparent resurrection of John Goodman's Dan) when it returns to ABC next year. At least “Will & Grace” doesn’t have to worry about casting changes, past or otherwise: Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, Megan Mullally and Sean Hayes are all back.

Still, we're entering new territory when it comes to rebooting old shows. "Arrested Development" and "Gilmore Girls" scored reasonably successful, if so far limited, returns via Netflix. And "Twin Peaks" recently wrapped new levels of weirdness on Showtime.

But "Will & Grace" makes a both more conventional and riskier return for a two-season stint on its home turf of NBC, which Jack once called "a gay network, for God's sake. The symbol is a peacock!" 

The prospects for "Will & Grace" don't rest in quips, politics and renewed hopes for changing attitudes as much as in reviving the friendships that anchored flighty characters. The finale phone-call scene between Will and Grace showed they were able to repair their fractured relationship and settle into their golden years as more family than pals.

NBC is betting viewers could use some more reassurance, with an open-ended visit from some old TV friends. George Clooney may not be available, but Will and Grace will do just fine.

Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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