“I was sure we’d be cancelled.” That’s what Debra Messing told the audience at the Paley Center for Media in NYC on Monday, June 5 when she was asked about filming the pilot episode of Will and Grace in 1998. Sitting next to the show’s creators, Max Mutchnick and David Kohan, and her partner-in-show, Eric McCormack celebrating the show’s 25th anniversary, she’s singing a very different tune now.
Her fear wasn’t unwarranted: The show debuted only 2 months after Ellen DeGeneres’ own show was pulled off the air after she came out as a lesbian. However, Will & Grace defined its legacy right from the start, being unapologetic while equally hilarious in following the complicated lives of two single best friends, one of them an openly gay man, in NYC – and was celebrated for it.
In speaking to Eric McCormack and the show’s creators at the event, I asked them each to choose an episode from the show’s historic 11 season run that they felt best exemplified the show’s legacy and impact on the LGBTQ+ community, in honor of Pride Month. For creator David Kohan, it all goes right back to the beginning.
“The pilot,” David said, “The very first episode was what kicked it all off. And, even though things changed over time and things were refined, it was there. It was there in the pilot.” The “it” he’s surely alluding to is the undeniable chemistry and love Will and Grace have for each other right, and the groundwork that was established that love is love – whether that love be romantic or familial or friendship.
Meanwhile Eric, who deservedly won an Emmy for his role as the openly gay lawyer Will Truman, thought the two-part Thanksgiving special in season 3, ‘Lows In The Mid-Eighties’, best captured the legacy of the show. The episodes feature flashbacks to the fateful night in 1985 when Will finally came out to Grace while meeting her family, which include Debbie Reynolds as Grace’s mother, for the holidays. “That’s my favorite,” Eric admits. “For a lot of personal reasons, it’s the flashback to Will’s coming out and Jack encouraging him to do it. The work that Deb and I got to do, having already played the characters for two and a half years, and to then finally show them as kids are in love, but with him confused and Jack as the wise sage to get him through that. That’s my favorite.”
Perhaps a perfect bookend to that episode is Max’s pick. During the show’s reboot from 2017-2020, the creative team explored parts of the core pair’s journey that were overlooked the first time around. In season 10, it is revealed that Grace never read a rather lengthy letter from Will he wrote right after their failed engagement and his coming out. While the episode in season 3 was laser focused on Grace’s pain and humiliation, in this episode, the aim is to show just how devastated Will was after Grace couldn’t forgive him, and the fact that she never apologized for walking out on him when he needed her most. When she finally reads the letter, she finds out just how close she was to losing him, as he admits he had thoughts of hurting himself.
“I really liked the episode that we did in the reboot about Grace being unable to apologize,” Max said. “What that unearthed about their relationship and about who they are to each other and what they’ve meant to each other — that’s the one. That’s one that stands out for me.”
Speaking of the reboot, when the idea was floated during the panel discussion at the Paley Center with Isaac Mizrahi of the show returning again, the team pretty definitive said that would never happen. (Although, Debra did like the idea of doing Will & Grace: The Golden Girls, and honestly, I’m here for it, who do I send money to?) However, with so much struggle facing the LGBTQ+ community right now, and the show always being up to the task of tackling important conversations, I asked the creators what would be the issues they’d most like to tackle with the show if it were still on the air today.
“The banning of literature and books is way up there,” Max said, “because nobody got in our way when we wrote.” David agreed, adding, “The scapegoating and the using it as a hot button issue for political expediency; It’s so disgusting.” And right there — it’s times like this I really do miss the show the most.