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Will & Grace

While noting that "Will & Grace" is clearly NBC's best new comedy isn't saying terribly much, the show does spring out of the box boasting snappy dialogue, James Burrows' usual masterful directorial work, a couple of colorful supporting players in Sean Hayes and Megan Mullally and an agreeably bent sensibility.

With:
Will Truman - Eric McCormack Grace Adler - Debra Messing Jack McFarland - Sean Hayes Karen Walker - Megan Mullally

While noting that “Will & Grace” is clearly NBC’s best new comedy isn’t saying terribly much, the show does spring out of the box boasting snappy dialogue, James Burrows’ usual masterful directorial work, a couple of colorful supporting players in Sean Hayes and Megan Mullally and an agreeably bent sensibility.

In a rare instance of an actress playing virtually the identical role in two network TV comedies, Debra Mess-ing — who starred with straight roommate Ned (Thomas Haden Church) a few seasons back in Fox’s “Ned & Stacey” — now goes the gay roomie route in this NBC entry that must be praying ABC’s “Monday Night Football” viewership is exclusively heterosexual. Yes, we have entered the era of sexual orientation-specific counterprogramming.

What the show doesn’t have is an original premise (ooh, the gay man’s best friend is a woman … and they’re neurotic together!), or a compelling dynamic between Messing and co-star Eric McCormack. He’s Will, but he looks and acts more like a younger, less cynical Dennis Miller. McCormack also doesn’t happen to behave stereotypically gay at least through the first two episodes, which is to say that he possesses no limp wrist or special hankering for Joan Rivers.

But before we congratulate creator/executive producers David Kohan and Max Mutchnick (who also wrote the premiere script) for their rejection of tired gay cliches, there is the matter of Jack McFarland (Hayes), Will’s flamboyant, outrageous, pithy and funny gay friend.

Mullally, whose work is priceless as a wealthy, pill-popping socialite slumming it as an assistant to interior designer Grace, and Hayes infuse “Will & Grace” with its camp energy.

As the sitcom opens, the charming but bland Will is a Manhattan lawyer still reeling from the recent end of a long-term relationship. Grace is about to marry a guy she’s lukewarm about, to Will’s chagrin. She nearly weds the guy anyway, seemingly just to spite Will, but she finally wakes up and hears the show tunes. By the inferior second episode, she will be living with her best pal. Chastely, of course.

If “Will & Grace” can somehow survive a brutal time period opposite football and “Ally McBeal” (not to mention the promising “The Brian Benben Show” in CBS’ retooled Monday lineup), it could grow into a reasonably entertaining little anomaly — that is, a series about a man and a woman who have no sexual interest in one another.

But don’t bet on it. If it’s doomed relationships viewers want, they’ll probably opt for “Ally.”

Will & Grace

Sitcom; NBC, Mon. Sept. 21, 9:30 p.m.

Production: Filmed in Studio City by Everything Entertainment in association with NBC Studios/Three Sisters Entertainment. Executive producers, David Kohan, Max Mutchnick; producer, Tim Kaiser, Johni Marchinko; director, James Burrows; writers, Kohan, Mutchnick.

With: Will Truman - Eric McCormack Grace Adler - Debra Messing Jack McFarland - Sean Hayes Karen Walker - Megan MullallyProduction designer, Bruce Ryan; camera, Tony Askins; editor, Peter Chakos; sound, Ed Moskowsitz; music, Jonathan Wolff; casting, Tracy Lilienfield. 30 MINS.

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