In its return, “Will & Grace” is pretty much the same show you may recall. Depending on your perspective, this will be either a feature or a bug. For many, it will likely be both.
There is a whiff of nostalgia hanging over the first three installments of the show, which echo the taut rhythms and polished brightness of Must See TV from back in the day. The cast remains sharp and able to tackle physical and verbal humor with aplomb. But the first episode, in which the gang visits the Trump White House, reeks of the kind of smarmy self-congratulation that marred many otherwise decent comedies that came up around the same time as “Will & Grace.” In that installment, there’s an obliviousness on display that makes the whole thing feel smug and more than a little dated.
But, all in all, there’s nothing about the early stages of the revival that is likely to put off its most ardent fans or even mildly enthusiastic viewers. The characters insult each other and finish each other’s sentences; Karen (Megan Mullally) is still sauced and sassy; and there’s a trip to a bar called the Cockpit. Millennials are mocked, but then, you were likely expecting that.
Much has been made of the fact that the original iteration of the show, which ran from 1998-2006, helped alter the opinions of some Americans regarding the rights of LGBT citizens. There’s no doubt “Will & Grace” deserves a portion of the credit for the changes in American society on that front. And in its return, the NBC comedy acknowledges the fraught, regressive era we live in, though it’s not entirely sure how to grapple with it.
It makes sense that ditzy rich lady Karen would be friends with Melania Trump (who is not seen on the show). But the stakes for all marginalized Americans at the moment are still very high. So it’s a little jarring when the new “Will & Grace” demonstrates that it’s still a product of the decidedly un-woke ’90s: Will writes to a member of Congress — but mostly to flirt with him.
The worldview of the show remains suffused with the idea that sincerity is a bit gauche, which can be tiring, especially when “Will & Grace” decides to indulge in moments of sentiment that are not always earned. Those interludes are quickly wrapped up with jokes and insults, of course, which is just one sign that the revived show hasn’t quite mastered the art of weaving in and out of seriousness and snideness in an era that is both surreal and scary.
If “Will & Grace” wants to remain more or less above the fray — which is absolutely a valid way to go — it needs sharper jokes while it speeds hurriedly by current events. Some witticisms and pratfalls land with laugh-inducing force, but a number do not, yet the show’s air of pleased self-satisfaction rarely wavers.
The characters haven’t changed much: Will (Eric McCormack) and Grace (Debra Messing) are both single again, and the revival ignores much of the show’s original finale. But even if the central duo’s apartment or worldviews haven’t evolved, TV has. Viewers now have many more choices in the half-hour realm: There are many different kinds of tones, protagonists, and comedic philosophies. We’re no longer in the era in which a sitcom creator hoping for success throws a few attractive people in a perfectly furnished New York apartment and makes them recite the kind of rat-a-tat banter that only rarely approximates how actual human beings speak.
Not that there’s anything wrong with “Friends” or “Seinfeld” or “Will & Grace” or their countless imitators. But checking in on this foursome is like visiting relatives you haven’t seen in a while. You have affection for them, and you may find them entertaining now and then, but time away from them has allowed you to realize that they are a little exhausting.
It’s mainly the transitions between grounded moments and zingy, moderately hostile banter that give “Will & Grace” trouble. It’s hard to take Will or Grace’s political outrage seriously when they goof around in the Oval Office, where a key moment revolves around a spit-take. There’s a pervasive sense that the show thinks its jokes are edgier and naughtier than they are. The phrase “fake news” should be retired, and the idea that Trump looks like a Cheeto is far from original.
Weirdly enough, this revival recalls “Gilmore Girls,” another nostalgia-driven return that had its pleasing moments but also had some trouble transitioning to the present day. As characters age, dilemmas that may have seemed diverting or lightly intriguing in the past can sometimes take on a more complicated, darker coloration. That’s all to say that Rory Gilmore’s flailing came off a lot differently when she was in her 30s, when most people have figured out where they’re headed, than when she was a much more guileless, naive character in high school and college.
As we negotiate the terrain of endless reboots, it’s clear that being too devoted to the dynamics it mined in the past can hold a show back. On “Will & Grace,” Jack still behaves like an adorable, caustic man-child, but the character is a struggling actor well past 40, and that can’t be all that fun. Sustaining his gleeful Jack-ness has to be more work these days (and in a promising development, Sean Hayes finds ways to indicate that very fact).
Will and Grace haven’t been able to make their romantic lives work, and it’s hard not to wonder how much loneliness lurks behind their well-maintained visages. There’s more pathos in this premise now, which actually could be mined successfully, with a more finely calibrated blend of irony, wit, and sentiment.
By far the most promising episode in the early going is the third one, in which Grace runs into her ex, Leo, who’s played with welcome warmth by Harry Connick, Jr. When Will or Grace touch on the possible regrets and absences of their lives — even lightly — those moments ground the entire enterprise in an effective way. After all, the show is now about four middle-aged people whose devotion to each other stretches the bounds of believability (or rather, the generous believability granted to reasonably well-made network sitcoms). Why not show us why they’re loyal to each other, or let them drop their sarcastic guards a bit more often? It’s not the ’90s; comedy can breathe more now.
The cast has always had the chops to sell a version of this show that has a little more depth and sincerity, flashes of which we get in its return. The best way for “Will & Grace” to celebrate its past, in other words, is to more fully join the present.
Cast: Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, Sean Hayes, Megan Mullally
Executive producers: Max Mutchnick, David Kohan, James Burrows.
Comedy; 16 episodes (3 reviewed); Thurs. Sept. 28, 9 p.m. 30 min.