Will & Grace says goodbye

BY Matthew Van Atta

May 18 2006 11:00 PM ET

If Ellen
brought American television's first lesbian star out
of the closet, then Will & Grace broke
barriers by turning a gay-themed comedy into a prime-time
hit with mass appeal. But as the popular NBC sitcom about a
handsome gay lawyer and his attractive heterosexual
best friend ends its eight-year run on Thursday, the
show's producers insist it was not their goal to make
pop culture history.

"We never set out
to do anything that special," cocreator David Kohan
told Reuters this week. "Honestly, we were making a fairly
traditional sitcom with a twist."

"A romantic
comedy is only as good as the obstacles that keep the
couple from getting together," Kohan added, paraphrasing a
favorite maxim of Sydney Pollack, the veteran producer
he once worked for. "And so, we thought, What if we
have an absolutely insurmountable obstacle?
"

The idea was also
inspired by a friendship between Kohan's writing
partner, Max Mutchnick, and a woman he dated before coming
out of the closet. And so the premise for Will
& Grace
, the ultimate star-crossed couple,
was born.

Debuting in 1998,
the series starred Eric McCormack and Debra Messing in
the show's respective title roles—single gay lawyer
Will Truman and his straight interior designer Grace
Adler, who share a Manhattan apartment after she
leaves her fiancé at the altar. Rounding out the
quartet of series regulars were its two comic
foils—Sean Hayes as Will's platonic but
flamboyantly gay pal Jack, and Megan Mullally, a boozy
socialite who worked as Grace's assistant.

What made the
show a prime-time hit was not social commentary, but the
sharp, rapid-fire comic patter among the four leads and an
evolving galaxy of quirky characters and guest stars.
"Within about two or three episodes, you kind of
forget [about the show's] premise—that it's a
woman and her gay best friend—and you just accept it
as a group of friends, and that happened incredibly
quickly," said Craig Tomashoff, West Coast bureau
chief for TV Guide magazine.

Still, the show
derived much of its humor from its gay pedigree (Karen to
Jack: "Honey, you're so gay, you can see it from space!"),
and some viewers complained the show perpetuated
stereotypes. Mutchnick shrugged off such criticisms.
"It's there and it's true. It is part of that world,"
he said of Jack's outlandish behavior, compared with
Will's more subdued persona. "We were kind of hoping to get
across to people there are more Wills in the world
than there are Jacks. But that doesn't mean that there
aren't Jacks."

The series also
was a frequent lightning rod for Christian conservatives
offended by its irreverent treatment of sexuality, gay and
straight. Shelley Morrison, who played the show's maid
Rosario, said, "When we taped before a live audience,
we had three policemen on the set. One time this
couple came up to me, and the man put his hand over my mouth
and said, 'You'll burn in hell for this.' Some people
could not take the subject matter, but most just said,
'Thank you for making us laugh."'

While noted for
celebrating themes of diversity, the show avoided a
preachy tone that many critics said killed the Ellen
DeGeneres sitcom Ellen, which made history by
introducing the first openly gay lead character in
prime time. Before Ellen, gay life on TV was
consigned to supporting characters (like Billy Crystal
on Soap) or individuals of ambiguous sexual
orientation (Tony Randall on Love, Sidney).

Arriving after
the demise of Ellen, Will & Grace was the
first gay-themed, prime-time comedy to gain a
mainstream following and become a huge commercial success.
"This was the show that really brought TV comedy out
of the closet," said Robert Thompson, head of Syracuse
University's Center for the Study of Popular
Television.

However, Thompson
questioned whether some in the gay community might be
offended by the fact that McCormack's character seemed
ready, as the series neared its conclusion, to forsake
a relationship with another man in order to raise a
child with Grace. Mutchnick urged viewers to stay
tuned for the final episode, promising that he and Kohan
were "very careful in the finale to not sell out any
of these characters."

Messing, making a
guest appearance Tuesday on the CBS Late Show With David
Letterman
, said she was sure the finale would
leave fans of the show "satisfied. It addresses each
one of the characters, and it ends in a good way for all
four of us," she said. (Steve Gorman, Reuters)

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