For the last few seasons, the creators of Will & Grace have stopped at nothing to boost ratings. At first the show’s guest spots seemed like prestigious rites of passage and were almost elemental to both the story arcs and the series’s overall success as an oddity among more traditional family sitcoms (think Minnie Driver, Blythe Danner, Gene Wilder, Molly Shannon); more recently the guest stars have been disposable or distracting (most notable: back-to-back cameos last season by Jennifer Lopez and Janet Jackson, playing themselves). Another popular grievance critics have about latter-day Will & Grace is the lack of ass Will (Eric McCormack) gets. Over the years, the fleeting hope that Will might end up with anyone other than the half-dimensional Jack (Sean Hayes)—a notion that is both comedically deficient, profoundly homophobic and increasingly probable—has been all but squashed. Will’s two best chances for romance, with discreet sportscaster Matthew (played by Patrick Dempsey) and Karen’s newly gay cousin Barry, were prematurely abandoned for reasons that were puddle-deep at best. (The writers’ response to the criticism was apparently to make Grace a flaky whore rather than give Will a real boyfriend.)
The first two episodes of Will & Grace’s eighth and final season don’t help remedy either of the abovementioned problems. But what may have started out as just another gimmick to spike the show’s flacid post-Friends ratings (thanks, Joey), might have given Will & Grace the spontaneity, daring and chutzpah that’s been missing since Grace married that damned Jewish sitcom-killing doctor (Harry Connick Jr., who will supposedly be making an appearance later this season…hopefully to sign the divorce papers). The live season premiere was nothing short of a revelation—not the revelation that Debra Messing has no future in The Theater, but that there’s still some life left in a show that, with any other cast, probably would have been cancelled years ago. McCormack, generally the show’s weakest player, seemed to flourish under the pressure, while Hayes and Megan Mullally were given free rein to flex their Jack and Karen, respectively—stifled SNL-style laughter and all. Years of honing Karen’s substance-assisted upper-crust lethargy made Mullally’s confinement to a motorized wheelchair seem not the least bit unusual (the actress strained her calf muscle during her performance with Donald Trump at last month’s Emmy Awards). And Alec Baldwin, reprising his deliciously absurd role as Malcolm, is proving to be one of Will & Grace’s most enduring guest stars.
By episode two (filmed before the live premiere, obviously), it seems the show is back to its old tricks…and flaws. Messing used to be Will & Grace’s hidden gem, rivaling Jack and Karen for laughs and truly earning her belated Emmy in 2003 (she was the last of the four to win), but ever since her real-life pregnancy Messing has been, well, a mess. There was a glimmer of her previously high-end Lucy-esque hysterics during an impassioned plea for the gay community to forgive an out-of-context anti-gay statement she made on Jack’s television show Jack Talk, but while it was smart to give Jack a real job (as an executive at Out TV), the fact that the character managed to land his own television show reeks of desperation in the writing room. The show’s creators claim the reason they’re ending the show after eight years is because they want to leave on a high note, but unless they take a cue from the inspired season premiere (hey, guys, how about the entire final season live?), they’ll likely have to resort to even more Tom Cruise jokes, more guest stars, and more plots revolving around Karen’s undead husband Stanley, a back-from-the-dead storyline that rivals Blanche Deveraux’s discovery that her supposedly late husband faked his death to get out of the marriage.