Last month, NBC debuted a little sitcom called "Will &
Grace." Despite the fact that it was buried among NBC's lifeless
Monday night fare ("Suddenly Susan," "Caroline
in the City") and pitted against FOX's "Ally McBeal"
(guaranteed to take all the female viewers) and ABC's "Monday
Night Football" (ditto for male viewers), it became the highest
rated new sitcom of the fall season. But what's most remarkable
is that the freshman sitcom features a gay male lead ... and it
hasn't garnered so much as a ripple of controversy. No sponsors
have threatened to pull out. Not a single member of the Christian
Coalition has protested. The show recently landed on the cover
of Entertainment Weekly, and this very week (Nov. 12, 8:30
p.m.) will receive its biggest audience ever when it fills in
for the ailing "Veronica's Closet" on Must See TV Thursday.
Is this the same country that drummed poor Ellen Degeneres off
the air last season? In a nutshell--yes.
"Will & Grace" stars Debra Messing as a slightly
daffy, emotionally unstable career girl who moves in with her
best friend Will (Eric McCormack). Will, as it happens, is homosexual.
So why has "Will & Grace" met with so much acceptance
while others in its wake (a slim list at best) have met with so
much virulent opposition?
The first attempt at a gay lead character on TV came in the form
of 1981's "Love, Sidney" starring Tony Randall. It was
based on a TV movie about a single gay man who moves in with an
unwed mother and her young daughter. By the time the concept made
its way to weekly television, however, Randall's character had
been so watered down (no mention could ever be made of his sexuality)
that his "gayness" was rather moot. The show sank after
a couple brief seasons. Certainly, the most publicized gay character
on TV came last year when Ellen Degeneres came out of the closet
and announced that her TV persona would soon do the same. Almost
immediately, the protests began. Religious groups railed; advertisers
pulled out, and most importantly, ratings slid. Last season, much
to the grumblings of Ellen herself, the show was canceled.
Unlike those previous efforts, "Will & Grace" has
hit upon the perfect formula. Instead of a single gay man or a
single gay woman, "Will & Grace" has the magic gay-man,
straight-woman combo. Recently popularized in such movies as My
Best Friend's Wedding (Rupert Everett and Julia Roberts) and
Object of my Affection (Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston),
the GM/SW duo has proved itself a pop culture fixture.
In addition, "Will & Grace" is funny. In all frankness,
"Ellen" was always a show struggling for identity (ironic,
no?). After a name change and several cast changes, Ellen decided
that "going gay" would be the best route for her show
to take. The jokes just petered off after that, and "Ellen"
was a sitcom without laughs. I dislike "Will & Grace's"
overuse of the standard sitcom joke formula--easy set-up (usually
in the form of a question) followed by easy punchline (usually
in the form of a snarky put-down). Example: He: "Grace, did
you know I was gay when you first met me?" She: "My
dog knew you were gay!" Cue rimshot.
Even so. "Will & Grace" handles itself with dignity
and with humor. ... Now if they'd just get rid of those annoying