At long last, TV creates the perfectly imperfect gay lead

It has been eight years now and, finally, Will, Grace, Karen and Jack are all grown up. At least, let’s hope so. We’ll know more after the very last episode, on May 18.

When the showed had its debut in 1998, Will Truman, the show’s groundbreaking male lead, was hardly the gay gay that America now accepts so easily on broadcast television. Painstakingly over the years, Will has developed from a discreet flirt into a male with an openly gay onscreen relationship.

In the beginning, Will was created as the anchor for the adrift Grace. “When we first conceived the show, Will was a lot of different things. In fact, he was too many different things,” says David Kohan, co-creator/executive producer of “Will & Grace.” “We tried to embody the whole spectrum of being a gay man in America in Will, and he became a very schizophrenic character. So we split him in half and made Jack. The more competent, together, controlling qualities remained with Will.”

“Initially Will was the rock. He was the one that was more together than Grace,” says producer Jon Kinnally. “There was a thought that Will, being the first leading man who was gay on a sitcom, should be shown as put together. He shouldn’t have so many neuroses. He shouldn’t be so screwed up. This is not the thinking anymore.”

Will and Grace started to play a game of musical chairs. He remained the perfect package but was given interesting human flaws, while she stopped crumbling over her bad hair days.

“Now, they’ve almost switched places,” says producer Tracy Poust. “Grace is actually a little more laissez-faire, and Will is the one who’s been having crisis after crisis. She’s been there for him. We’ve intentionally flipped it so she could grow a little bit.”

A few seasons in, Will was given a basket of weaknesses. “We took the pulse of the character,” says exec producer Max Mutchnik. “We weren’t taking the pulse of the country to see if Will was ready to grow. As soon as he felt ready to date, we did that. As soon as it came time to have a healthy relationship, we did that. In the end, it will show what a fully fleshed-out healthy gay man Will Truman grew to become.”

Back in 1998, “Will & Grace” did not exactly kick down the closet door. The storylines were hardly as overt as they came to be. In fact, the writers realized that many viewers did not catch on to the fact that Will was really gay.

“My mother loved it but didn’t get it,” Poust says with a laugh. “We opened that door slowly. In season one, we had a little moment of Will flirting in a hallway, and that was a really big deal for us. We were able to put this nice moment on TV. The next step was being able to talk about Will’s relationships. It wasn’t until the next year that we actually put him in a relationship onscreen. Now he has a boyfriend and they can be physical and it’s so natural. It feels so easy now, but in the beginning we had to tiptoe.”

“When we first started, the network, they’re always a little leery,” says Kinnally. “Even I thought there would be some backlash. I thought groups would write in or boycott. And that didn’t happen. I always thought it was because the Monica Lewinsky scandal happened around the same time the show premiered. We sort of got in under the radar.”

“We owe her a lot,” says Poust.

And there were other issues in the public’s eye. ” ‘Will & Grace’ was coming on the heels of ‘Ellen’,” says Poust. “We were putting a gay man on TV that had integrity and who wasn’t just the funny gay sidekick. We had to find a way to tell new stories and still be allowed on TV.”

Nommed for a GLAAD award, “Will & Grace” has been great entertainment, but what does Mutchnik think of the fantasy role models he helped bring to life?

“It’s inherently an unhealthy relationship because it keeps them from the real deal. Something has to snap at some point,” Mutchnik says of the two title characters. “That’s the danger of this relationship, if it’s the ultimate significant relationship you have. I think the Will-and-Grace dynamic is best when you come to it with a husband or wife at home, as it were, the someone you sleep with.”

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