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Will & Grace (1998)
Rarely falls flat; a great sitcom overall
Let it be said first of all that I LOVE Will and Grace. To appreciate my comments fully, I feel it's necessary that you know a bit about me. I'm a gay 20 year old student at Oxford University, England, and as well as Will and Grace, I adore Frasier, Buffy and Angel.
I wasn't wild about the show at first. Throughout the first season six years ago, I sometimes felt it was too much about homosexuality and that some of the jokes fell flat. Sure, it was funny, but no funnier than Friends, which was my favourite sitcom at the time. I now realize that this is because it was difficult watching such depictions of gay people when I was coming to terms with my own sexuality.
But Will and Grace is SO gay, and I accept that now. It epitomizes homosexuality not only in its paradox of judgmental stereotyping (of EVERYONE) and liberal-minded attitudes, but also in its occasional warmth, poignancy and contrasting harshness.
It isn't the perfect sitcom. Many episodes (6x22 'Speechless' is appropriate to mention here) fall flat and lack the sparkle one expects from a sitcom. But when an episode contains a perfect balance of humour, depth, character development and (although not necessary) celebrity guest stars, it is perfect (case in point: 4x16 'A Chorus Lie').
What makes Will and Grace consistently better than Friends is its refusal to employ schmaltz to make an audience (particularly an American one, raised on a diet of sentimentality) feel more comfortable. Obviously, anyone would *detest* Karen, and possibly Jack, in real life. In this way, the show conforms quite neatly to the traditional British custom of creating characters that one loves to hate: whiny, petty, prejudiced, insecure creatures who are all the more endearing because they are true to life (see: 'One Foot in the Grave', or indeed most British sitcoms).
At the same time, paradoxically, the characters are so completely monstrous - Karen being the clear example - that they seem unrealistic. In fact, although they are ostensibly awful, they are merely gross exaggerations of every human being, replete with the same fears, prejudices and pettiness of which we all are guilty and which are brought to the fore in comedic form. In this way, the show continues the great theatrical tradition of the grotesque: characters who seem unbelievable but are simply magnifications of human flaws.
Of course, this is not to say that Will and Grace does not include the occasional sentimental or poignant scene. For the sitcom to work, there must be moments, however fleeting, of self-doubt or self-realization: thus Jack (mild spoilers ahead) *must* realize that he is a terrible actor and Will *has* to realize that he is causing his own loneliness (end of spoilers). These rare occasions of insecurity are all the more moving, just as the petty moments are funny, because they are that much more realistic.
The show - like any artistic creation, whether filmic, literary or aesthetic - has its faults. A feeling that the series' arcs were stagnant and stationary (the inevitable fate of all sitcoms) and that the humour relied too much upon the same themes resulted in an over-reliance on celebrity guest stars and hackneyed, traditional storylines (spoilers: babies and marriage). This paradoxically resulted in yet more lack of character development, as they found themselves trapped in dead-end storylines that had run out of potential. Recently, with the inclusion of recurring guest stars such as John Cleese, whose portrayal of Lyle Finster has sparked a sitcom brilliance unseen since Basil Fawlty, the show has recovered renewed vitality that should theoretically see, if NBC has nothing to do with it, a prolonged run of at least two more seasons.
Kudos must certainly go to the actors. Eric McCormack, a Canadian actor with all the range that classical training provides, is a delight as long-suffering Will, whose straight-acting personality is coupled with an occasional queer-sensibility that renders the character all the more charming. Grace, the faux-businesswoman whose lazy and disgusting habits have been accentuated in recent seasons, is played to perfection by Debra Messing, a sublime blend of Old Hollywood glamour, innate comic timing and real-world vulnerability. Sean Hayes and Megan Mullally, whose comical symbiosis forces me to mention them as though one entity, are the epitome of overacted (but not, if you understand, overoveracted) and larger-than-life humour. As is usually the case, it is these supporting actors who have taken centre-stage, rendering every moment of shared screen-time a delicious, unrivalled pleasure.
In short, Will and Grace is the quintessential situation comedy because it acts as a sort of funhouse mirror, almost poetic in its way, depicting that which is real, but within a presentational format that goes beyond realistic, and still contains inherent flaws in both plot and character. It is this imperfection, so prevalent in real life, which renders it that much more enjoyable.