After 11 years and the legalization of gay marriage, “Will & Grace” is back. NBC’s half-hour, traditional multi-cam may be on a brand new soundstage on a different studio lot (Universal), but from the cast to the crew to the layout of the sets, the heart of the show is still ticking like it’s 2006 again.
“Half the crew is back, half the writers, half the producers. We have the same hair and makeup and wardrobe people. We have some of the same cameramen,” star Debra Messing (Grace) tells Variety. “It really is a reunion, and I think this time around we really recognize how lucky we are.”
At a recent taping of the revival, the collaborative nature that comes from a team that has so much history together was on full display. Already working together for a few weeks (Variety attended the fifth episode), the gang had an easy rapport, often not even needing words to know exactly what each other needed in between takes.
“We didn’t know how it was going to feel, but it’s been amazing, and we look at each other and realize the connection we had was really beautiful,” Messing says.
Star Eric McCormack (Will) says that having the first scene of the new season be one with all four characters back together in Will’s apartment helped make it feel like it was “just yesterday” that they were shooting the original run.
“The thing about a sitcom is there’s that one main set that makes it feel like home,” McCormack says. “And it just kicked in when we were in that first scene, playing a game together like we did back in ’98. The way Will and Grace play a game together is so connected and so competitive, and we finished the first take and our director Jim Burrows had a tear in his eye and said it was like we never stopped.”
When there was a lull between a line and the action which was supposed to elicit an audience reaction during the taping, series star Sean Hayes (Jack) turned to esteemed director Burrows and asked if they couldn’t just have the action come faster. Burrows agreed to the adjustment, and the scene flowed smoothly thereafter.
As with any multi-camera show, the writers of “Will & Grace” huddled after each take, discussing what lines garnered the reactions they hoped for and which should be tweaked. But reflecting the collaborative nature of this show, the actors were often involved in the huddle, too, working out not only new inflections to further drive home a pointed line about Jack (Hayes) attending church, for example, but also to offer suggestions for different versions of the line altogether.
Despite an original series finale that saw the titular duo in committed, long-term relationships, having kids, and ultimately getting into a fight that saw them not speaking to each other for years, the revival will pick back up with them as best friends and roommates as if that never happened. “That was more or less a fantasy,” series co-creator David Kohan said at the show’s Television Critics Assn. panel last month. “It was a projection into the future.”
The new “Will & Grace” plans to answer exactly what happened between Grace and Leo (Harry Connick Jr.), as well as Will and Vince (Bobby Cannavale), in order to explain why the friends are still living together a decade later, after being in such serious relationships. But the answers will come sporadically over the first few episodes of the season.
Guest stars will still be a key element of “Will & Grace” (from the returning Connick Jr., Cannavale, Leslie Jordan and Minnie Driver to newcomers Ben Platt, Andrew Rannells, Jane Lynch and Ryan Pinkston), but the show is prioritizing the platonic friendship of its central characters.
And those central characters have a lot of the same problems as in the original run. As Variety observed during the taping, for example, Will still constantly criticizes those around him, and though his dry wit works well with Grace, who needs to be shaken back to reality from time to time, other characters may no longer find that charming.
Kohan and co-creator Max Mutchnick have also designed the revival to reflect the characters’ new reality, which means more talk about emojis, aging (Grace trying to pluck chin hairs, for example), and topical takes on the current political landscape.
Whereas Karen (Megan Mullally) used to constantly talk about Phil Donahue and Marlo Thomas, an alternate take referencing Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner got such a loud live audience reaction, the writers ran with it and updated the runner, at least for the episode Variety attended.
And depending which carefully crafted zinger ends up making the final cut of an upcoming scene in which Will asks Grace what could possibly go wrong in a time span of two minutes, there may be some jabs at the president and his eldest son, as well. “They have their opinions and their sensibilities, and to that extent, it reflects the culture,” Kohan says.
But politics aside, the characters of “Will & Grace” are still as kooky as ever, with the same co-dependent relationship dynamics and quirky character traits that won hearts (and 16 Emmys) the first time around. The show’s creative team considers the new “Will & Grace” as the comfort food for a tumultuous time.
“I know that after this year I really needed to laugh, and a lot of my friends and family needed to laugh, and to be able to do that again has been really healing,” Messing says.
“Will & Grace” returns to NBC on Sept. 28 at 9 p.m.