‘Will & Grace’ ready to reclaim its ‘Must See TV’ tiara

Yvonne Villarreal
Los Angeles Times

When “Will & Grace” premiered in 1998, the biggest comedies of the year were “Seinfeld,” “Veronica’s Closet” and “Friends.” It was the year President Bill Clinton denied having “sexual relations” with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The year that gave us Google. A time when the notion that young adults were spending less time with the television set was beginning to percolate.

And there were two thirtysomething writers, Max Mutchnick and David Kohan, on the verge of helping to pave the way for LGBTQ characters on TV with their primetime sitcom that featured two openly gay characters.

“Will & Grace” followed the close friendship between gay lawyer Will Truman (Eric McCormack) and straight interior designer Grace Adler (Debra Messing) along with their kooky cohorts Jack McFarland (Sean Hayes) and Karen Walker (Megan Mullally).

The comedy, which packaged its then-boundary-pushing portrayal of gay men in a simple premise about friendship, ran for eight seasons, racked up 16 Emmy Awards and was one of the last ratings stalwarts of NBC’s venerated “Must See TV” era.

“When the show wrapped, I moved to New York City and went to a therapist,” Mutchnick, now 51, recalls. “The first thing I said to her was, ‘I’ve just finished a run of a popular television show called “Will & Grace,” and I’d like to figure out a way to not talk about it ever again.’”

So much for that.

These days, the show is all Mutchnick and Kohan find themselves talking about as the comedy gears up for its splashy return to NBC on Thursday — 11 years after the series went off the air. The sitcom’s second coming — featuring its original cast — is one of the network’s top assets this season, and its return underscores the value networks see in bringing familiar faces back into living rooms in an age when keeping up with television’s roster of shows requires a spreadsheet.

The duo are gathered in the greenroom of the show’s new home base on the NBCUniversal back lot — here, the walls are adorned floor-to-ceiling with brightly colored collages of “Will & Grace” images. (The comedy was filmed in front of a studio audience on the CBS Radford lot in Studio City during its original run.) They admit being a bit preoccupied; there are some story problems they’re trying to work out on the episode that films the following week, and they’re eager to resolve them.

“We’re not complacent,” Kohan says. “It’s the same anxiety. It’s abated somewhat by experience and age and all that sort of stuff, but still … there’s a compulsion to get it right.”

“Oh, yeah,” Mutchnick adds. “I’m sick to my stomach. I’m still operating from a place of fear, except I eat my breakfast at a much nicer table.”

The 2.0 version of “Will & Grace” joins the small but hard-to-overlook list of flat-lined shows that have been resuscitated. Others include “Arrested Development,” “Gilmore Girls” and the upcoming “Roseanne” on ABC. But only “Will & Grace” has a comeback story with roots in the Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton election.

A few months before last year’s election, Mutchnick rallied the troops — intent on keeping Trump out of the White House. His idea: have the core cast reprise their characters for a video urging people to vote. The 10-minute bit, known as #VoteHoney, featured a pro-Trump Karen making cringe-worthy jokes and a pro-Clinton Grace trying to persuade Jack, still undecided, to vote for Clinton.

“I remember reading the script to the election video, and I emailed Max and said, ‘Why can’t we just do the show again?’ ” Mullally recalls. “He emailed right back: ‘We can.’ Of course, neither of us knew what we were talking about. It was just wishful thinking, because when you end a show, you know that it’s forever and you’ll never come back to do it again.”

But the response was quick and overwhelming, with the YouTube video notching up millions of views. NBC came calling.

“The minute I saw (the video), I thought, ‘It’s the show.’ It felt like the show had come back together,” Robert Greenblatt, chairman of NBC Entertainment, says by phone. “The four of them were incredible. It just seemed like a no-brainer to me … (And) it seemed like the right moment to bring back a show that comments very cleverly on pop culture and politics and the world in general.”

What started as a one-off 10-episode revival season quickly evolved into a 16-episode revival season with a renewal already locked in.

It’s a turn of events all the more unexpected considering that Mutchnick and Kohan sued NBC Studios in 2003. They alleged that the studio, which produced the show, sold the rights below fair value to its sister division, the NBC network, and cheated them out of at least $65 million in profit.

The suit was ultimately settled in 2007.

“Jeff Zucker’s NBC is very different from Robert Greenblatt’s NBC,” Mutchnick says, referring to the former network head. “The energy in the building and in every aspect of the network, it feels very different, and it made it easy to return.”

The cast, who ventured on to various projects to varying degrees of success after the show ended, uniformly say there was no hesitation about reviving their career-defining roles for a longer term.

But change has come in other ways. The original series arrived a year and a half after the “coming out” episode of Ellen DeGeneres’ ABC sitcom, “Ellen” — a landmark moment when few celebrities were out of the closet and there were no gay lead characters on television. Not everyone was receptive, resulting in a swift backlash that included advertiser boycotts and an abundance of hate mail.

But “Will & Grace” continued the push and helped bring queer culture into the mainstream. It broke ground with its portrayal of gay men — of course, it helped that they were white gay men. In fact, former Vice President Joe Biden credited “Will & Grace” for the nation’s shift on gay rights while discussing his endorsement of same-sex marriage on “Meet the Press” in 2012.

“I think ‘Will & Grace’ probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody’s ever done so far,” Biden said at the time.

“Will & Grace” returns to a markedly different TV landscape and zeitgeist. Since it went off the air, gay marriage has been legalized.

And though Hollywood could still make improvements to its representation of the LGBTQ community, television has certainly made strides in its portrayals. Many of the most popular TV shows — such as “Orange Is the New Black,” “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Empire” — feature LGBTQ characters and stories.

‘Will & Grace’

9 p.m. Thursday