Don’t get me wrong — I love comfort TV. But this time, I don’t want to settle for a warm bath of nostalgia.
With three major hurricanes in less than two months, a president embroiled in too many scandals to count, neo-Nazis openly marching in the streets, and the leader of North Korea threatening to bomb us with nuclear weapons, our lives are mired in a seemingly neverending loop of turbulence. And as our anxieties increase, television executives are betting that audiences want nothing more than to curl up on their couches and retreat to a calmer, saner past. From “Full House” to “Gilmore Girls,” “X-Files” and “Roseanne,” “Miami Vice” and even “The Munsters,” television is reviving old shows at a breakneck pace. Curious, given that we’re living in what more than a few people have described as “the Golden Age” of television. The proliferation of cable channels and streaming services — which might have led to a glut of trite, flavorless pap — has instead inspired a race to the top. If box office returns are any indication, more people are staying home to watch these shows than ever before.
Still, when I first heard about the “Will & Grace” revival, I was excited. Not just because I was eager to spend some time with old friends but because I thought it would be a great way for the show to update itself — to make up for, as it were, some of the deficiencies and limitations of its era, revisiting the four main characters but through the lens of today, a time when LGBTQ rights and awareness have leapt forward. I expected this new version of the show to be aware of how fundamentally narrow it was, focusing as it did on four very privileged white people, offering us almost no exposure to lesbians, or bisexuals, or transgender people.
Which is not to say I didn't like “Will & Grace” when it came out. In 1998, there was so little that reflected my experience in the popular culture that I was happy to see any representation of gay people on television. Sure, Jack was swishy and cartoonish, a kind of desexualized gay clown, but he was also unabashedly out and proud. Will was uptight, but he was a handsome, successful lawyer. The show was often riotously funny. Karen was a hoot, and I'm sure I wasn't the only gay man who saw in her hilariously un-P.C., over-the-top bitchiness a kind of homage to drag queens. Her verbal duels with her housekeeper Rosario (Shelley Morrison, who unfortunately isn't taking part in the revival) mark them as one of the funniest comedy “duos” in TV history.
But a few seasons in, I started to get antsy for the show to take more chances. I wanted Will to, if not have a steady boyfriend, at least hook up once in a while, like pretty much every gay man alive does. (Will managed to land one in season six). It became hard to understand why a good-looking man like Will would remain so sexless, outside of NBC not wanting to push boundaries.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Our television landscape is littered with shows that upend stereotypes not just about underrepresented communities, but even the conventions of sitcom and drama storytelling itself.[/quote]
So it came as a bit of shock to read in a recent New York Times interview with both Robert Greenblatt, Chairman of NBC, and James Burrows, who's returning to the revival after directing every episode of the original run, that when it comes to the new seasons of “Will & Grace” — yep, NBC has already committed to a season two, before the first has even aired — that “nothing” is going to change. “It's literally the old show,” Greenblatt is quoted as saying.
Well, not exactly nothing — the producers have decided to scrap the storyline of the finale where Will and Grace were both married (to Vince and Leo, respectively) and instead have them living together, still single some 11 years later. Jack, apparently, is still living down the hall. I imagine there will be a few tweaks and tonal adjustments here and there (NBC did not provide any screeners of the first episodes), so what “Will & Grace” promises is to bring us back to the mid-aughts, pretty much picking up from where things left off.
But let's think about this for a second: If the season finale never happened, then Will and Grace have been living together after almost 20 years, which means both of them are suffering from a not-exactly-mild case of arrested development. I'm sure there is comic gold to be mined from this scenario, but it's also probably the easiest and safest route to take — and the least interesting to me.
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]The ‘Twin Peaks’ revival was about how potent our desire to return to places we once knew is, and how thoroughly misguided and empty.[/quote]
What this and all these other revivals seem to be pointing to is our collective desire to escape and return to a time we imagine was kinder, more innocent, less complex. We want to surround ourselves with the familiar in order to avoid the uncertainties of the now. But this is folly of nostalgia — we have a tendency to remember things as being far better than they actually were. It's not just that by pretty much all metrics the lives of LGBTQ people have substantially improved since 1998, the year “Will & Grace” premiered. It's that television itself has substantially improved, allowing for a far more diverse set of characters, experiences, and even emotions to realize themselves on screen. Our current television landscape is littered with shows like “Black-ish,” “Fresh Off the Boat,” “Transparent,” “Looking,” “Atlanta,” and “Insecure” (just to name a few), offering us characters and storylines that upend stereotypes not just about underrepresented communities, but even the conventions of sitcom and drama storytelling itself.
Perhaps the greatest lesson we can take away from our current obsession with nostalgia comes from none other than David Lynch, who brought us a heavy dose of nostalgia himself this year with the revival of “Twin Peaks” on Showtime. But what made that show so revelatory was how Lynch seemed to anticipate his audience's desire for nostalgia and decided to subvert it. “Twin Peaks: The Return” is about so many things, but what stood out for me is how much the show was about how potent our desire to return to places we once knew is, and how thoroughly misguided and empty. What Lynch showed us was that we could not return — and even if we did, nothing would ever be the same. And perhaps this is a good thing, to move on, to recognize that all our desires to revisit memories and familiar places are just our way of expressing our uncertainties about the future. Better, if we are afraid of what's to come, that we confront it head-on than simply retreat into our shells.
Which makes me wonder if revisiting the hijinks of Will, Grace, Jack, and Karen is what viewing audiences really need right now. To whom will this kind of nostalgia appeal the most? Perhaps ironically, I don't even see myself as the target audience for this revival. Instead, I’m imagining the many straight couples in the suburbs or in red states who might turn on their TVs and pat themselves on the back for being “tolerant” because they’re watching a sanitized, all-too-safe show about LGBTQ people. I'm particularly worried about how this revival might give people a false sense of comfort, letting them persist in believing everything is fine when, since Trump's election, LGBT rights have been under much-renewed attack. With the president's transgender ban on the military, several states pushing “bathroom” bills and the vice president and several members of Trump's cabinet (not the least of which is his attorney general, the person in charge of enforcing civil rights laws) being openly hostile to LGBT rights, then I'm not sure we can afford this nostalgia, even as much as we want it.
I understand how dissecting the revival of a TV show may feel heavy, humorless, needlessly serious. Why not just watch the show and enjoy it for what it's worth? Perhaps because television isn't just about comedy. Shows like “Will & Grace” have been credited for doing more to advance gay rights than almost anything that was going on in politics at the time. And this is not just gay media organizations like GLAAD talking, but even former Vice President Biden himself who credited “Will & Grace” with changing so many hearts and minds.
I'm sure I will check it out, out of curiosity. I'm sure I will laugh at lines that’ll be smart and sassy and somehow made relevant for 2017. I'm just as susceptible to the pleasures of comfort television as the next guy. I watched “Survivor” for almost 10 years and still watch “Project Runway.” But after a couple of episodes, will I keep returning to the predictable comforts of “Will & Grace,” with dozens more daring shows vying for my attention? I doubt it.
Would “Will & Grace” be better had the show updated itself and allowed its characters to grow into different, more mature people? Perhaps not. Perhaps this is the only way we will appreciate them, stuck in a time loop, providing us with an illusion of stasis. But if this is all audiences want, then why not just watch reruns?