‘Will & Grace’ Has a Celebrity Cameo Problem
10.20.17
Photo Chris Haston via NBC

First things first: I’m that kween who is unabashedly here for the return of Will & Grace. While watching the premiere last month, I full on chortled. Out loud! Actual laughing out loud, or ALOL, if you will. And I never laugh out loud; I go through life quietly smirking like Jimmy Fallon doing a Robert De Niro impression. But Will & Grace got me. It has always gotten me. The slapstick-y Borscht Belt antics of the crew are, and always have been, an antidote to the grimness of the world. There are subtler, woker and more incisive takes on LGBTQ politics, but the sitcom has the distinction of being that rarest of hybrids: a liberal creation with a middlebrow sensibility. It’s The Big Bang Theory for coastal elites.

But even die-hard show kweens like myself can acknowledge the sitcom’s Achilles’ Heel: its dependence on a revolving door of guest stars. Plenty of shows make use of guest performers, of course, but Will & Grace has become notorious for stuffing more stars into a half hour than a game of Celebrity Family Feud. Is this a telethon or a sitcom? Unclear.

Photo by Chris Haston/NBC

Most sitcoms have more traditional supporting characters who complicate things and collude with the stars. Think Andy Dwyer and April Ludgate on Parks & Rec or Jenifer Lewis’ Grandma Ruby on Black-ish. Even Phoebe and Joey on Friends were originally secondary characters. But Will & Grace pushes all of its goods to the front: Even though Karen and Jack often act as foils or comic relief for Will and Grace, the characters are essentially all leads. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; I’d definitely watch a full episode of Karen Walker aimlessly walking around New York insulting people.

However, it’s a structure requires that new complications, often in the form of guest stars, show up to keep things interesting, making cameos a tentpole in the series. That gets tricky, quickly. Since the premiere of the returning season, we’ve already seen turns by Harry Connick, Jr. (plucked from the mothballs to play Grace’s ex Leo once more), Hamilton’s Anthony Ramos, and Dear Evan Hansen’s Ben Platt. Tonight’s episode will welcome Jane Lynch, Andrew Rannells and Michael Angarano. We’re only five episodes in! What gives?

In the show’s heyday, the guest stars were best used to highlight a problem that one of the central four is struggling with. Think Mira Sorvino as Will’s first “Grace,” Matt Damon as Jack’s straight rival in the gay chorus, or Minnie Driver and Candice Bergen as the only people who could get the best of Karen. They all served a really crucial role beyond the thrill of seeing a talented performer ham it up with some of the funniest people on television. They pushed the central foursome into new, sometimes difficult territory. Since the series’ return, the guest stars haven’t been so well used.

The new iteration of Will & Grace hasn’t quite figured out how things are supposed to move. The thin plots and conspicuous lack of frown lines lead one to believe that everything is going great for the central foursome. Good news for them, I guess, but bad for the plot. This was especially clear in the re-emergence of Connick’s Leo. For much of the series, the character was a driving force in the development (and ultimate fissure) of Will and Grace’s relationship. Last week’s appearance, however, didn’t add anything new. If anything, it was sort of a regression: Leo told Grace that she always chose Will over him; they kissed goodbye; everything stayed the same.

Photo by Chris Haston/NBC

Maybe things are improving, though. In this week’s episode, Jack discovers that his biological son has a son who is being sent to conversion therapy camp. Jane Lynch and Andrew Rannells show up as ex-gay counselors. They are allowed the luxury of being punchline machines without having to do much heavy-lifting, but, more importantly, they present an obstacle that must be overcome, a great impetus for a cameo. It’s a plot line reminiscent of Neil Patrick Harris’ guest turn early in the series as the head of an ex-gay support group. Back then, Jack spent the episode trying to seduce Harris’ purportedly straight group leader, but in last night’s episode, Jack’s focus is on rescuing his grandson, while also wrestling with the idea that he is old enough to have spawned a third generation. That’s an amazing opportunity for growth for his character, and I’m hoping it bodes well for the future of the series.

Revisiting Will & Grace after all these years reminds me of how much the world and audience has changed since it last aired. When I first tuned in, I was that baby kween getting through life (quietly) in a college dorm. Now, I’m a full-grown adult chortling in my living room. The series is best when it remembers that the characters, like the audience who loves them, aren’t done changing yet. By now I’ve accepted the show will forever be a revolving door of celebs — so by all means, NBC, book Beyoncé or Viola Davis or Selena Gomez, but when you do, don’t put them front and center. Make them a function of whatever the fab foursome has to overcome to get to their better, more hilarious selves.

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