'Will & Grace' returns, still funny and flexible

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large
Photo: NBC

It’s always a tricky thing when a show is revived: Whatever cultural framework the series originally existed in has changed, altering the new experience. (It helps if the show creates its own, timeless universe, as did David Lynch’s spectacular revival of Twin Peaks.) The risk is greater with a sitcom; the timely qualities that made a series funny during its first run may have aged poorly in its resurrection. Considering all this, the return of Will & Grace on Thursday after an absence of 11 years is pretty much a success. If you liked it before, you’ll probably be pleased with the new episodes, which are well-executed and excellently performed.

The core gang is back: Eric McCormack’s Will, Debra Messing’s Grace, Sean Hayes’s Jack, and Megan Mullally’s Karen. They’re older, sure, but they’ll still awfully flexible. (There’s a scene in the second episode with Grace and Karen trapped in a shower stall filling with water that has some fine slapstick comedy.) And show creators David Kohan and Max Mutchnick are, of course, smart enough to make the aging process fodder for jokes — you didn’t think two vain gay men such as Will and Jack would miss a chance to snipe amusingly at each other about their little wrinkles and sags, did you?

In this week’s premiere, the writers and cast have a great time reintroducing the characters and the rapid-fire pacing of the gags. The show wisely does not strain to make the new Will & Grace align with old Will & Grace’s series finale details; it just plunges us back into the merriment. Grace is still living with Will — he’s still a lawyer, she’s still designing interiors. Karen still works for Grace; Jack is still freeloading wherever possible and dreaming up new get-rich-never schemes. You might have expected there would be jokes about everyone from Donald Trump to Caitlyn Jenner, but it’s a pleasant surprise that the jokes are so sharply honed and delivered with such relish.

When Will & Grace made its initial impact, it was seen as pioneering both a new frankness and a new casualness regarding the lives of gay people. What NBC feared might prove controversial turned out to be mass America’s opportunity to show that it was ready to laugh at this kind of camp humor. In 2017, the only thing a Fox News consumer might find controversial about this Will & Grace is its regular hammering of the Trump administration. The most frequent vehicle for this topic is a new setup: Karen, we are told, is not merely rich-person-Republican in her politics, but also longtime close pals with Donald and Melania. The show tosses in a premiere episode visit to the White House to make sure we get this point. If you’re one of those people who thinks any Trump joke renders a show “too political,” you should probably steer clear.

As I said, the performances are really solid, with Hayes proving especially excellent. His line readings are whiplash-fast, and he does some physical comedy — bending over, falling down, slipping and sliding — that is so good, it makes you realize that 99 percent of all contemporary sitcoms rely solely on verbal humor. All this, plus an impassioned defense of Madonna circa “Borderline”: Who wants anything more from a Will & Grace revival?

Will & Grace airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.

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