Will & Grace & Donald

The NBC show’s return after 11 years found its old chemistry—and a new, spectral cast member.

Will and Grace are about to have a pillow fight in Trump's White House.
Yes, that is Will, and that is Grace, and that is the two of them about to have a pillow fight in the Oval Office. (Chris Haston / NBC)

This post reveals plot points about the Season 9 premiere of Will & Grace.

Earlier this year, the New York Times technology columnist Farhad Manjoo conducted an experiment. For a week, he tried to ignore news about Donald Trump. And for a week, he failed. He could find, Manjoo noted, “almost no Trump-free part of the press.” What he learned instead from his Trump-filled “Trump-free” period was that “coverage of Mr. Trump may eclipse that of any single human being ever”—and that the president is helped along in his osmotic form of fame by his apparent transcendence of politics themselves: Trump permeates the world’s events and the stories that are told about them, even when the stories are not about the workings of government. The 45th president, as a result, has become profoundly unavoidable, there even when he is not—“the ether,” Manjoo wrote, “through which all other stories flow.”

On Thursday evening, the ninth season of Will & Grace premiered on NBC after a more than decade-long hiatus—the latest show, in the manner of Gilmore Girls and Full House and Twin Peaks, both to foment and capitalize on nostalgia for the American ’90s and aughts. The reunion of Will (Eric McCormack), Grace (Debra Messing), Jack (Sean Hayes), and Karen (Megan Mullally) offered the irreverently slapstick comedy you’d likely expect, but also something you might not: more proof of Farhad Manjoo’s theory of Trumpeted media. The president is the uncredited cast member of this particular revival, not strictly there, but in another way osmotically omnipresent. Gathered within that casually immaculate apartment on the Upper West Side are Will and Grace and Jack and Karen, just as they were before, and also Donald.

“Eleven Years Later” opens on a scene that finds the initial quartet engaged in that iconically Will & Grace-ian activity: They’re gathered around Will’s couch, playing a version of charades (this being, now, the digital age, the game is being played with the help of Heads Up! on an iPhone). Will and Grace are a team, of course, and they are—11 years have passed, but so little has really changed in that apartment—almost perfectly in sync. “Rich hostage!” Will says. “Melania!” Grace guesses. Will amends his clue: “Beret!” he says. “Patty Hearst!” she replies.

It’s the first of many, many Melania jokes. And it’s the first of many, many, many Trump jokes. “What’s happening, what’s going on, who won the election?” Karen asks, after the gang rouses her from a reverie. “Your guy,” Will and Grace reply.

The first episode of a new season, particularly a new season that has arrived after such a long hiatus, will have to engage in the awkward world-building that a typical pilot will: (re)introducing characters, (re)establishing story lines. “Eleven Years Later” makes quick work of the exposition in its first scene. It undoes the story established by the series’s previous conclusion—Will and Grace, platonically in love, meeting romantic life partners and going their separate ways; Will and Grace’s children meeting in college and getting married—and retcons it all. Surprise! All that other stuff was merely the drug-addled dream of one Karen Walker: no kids, the marriages have ended, Karen is still rich, Jack is still a struggling actor, and Will and Grace are, once again, living together in Will’s apartment, per an arrangement they publicly insist is temporary but privately know is not.

“Got it?” Jack asks the audience, of all that inertia-happy change, cheekily breaking the fourth wall.

So the new Will & Grace takes its characters as they’d been left, for the most part, in the old one—and then worm-holes them straight into this moment of 2017. “You are so woke,” Grace tells Will, in the episode’s joke that lands with the biggest thud. Later, as she sips coffee from a product-placed Starbucks cup, she counters an accusation from Will with an indignant “that is fake news.” Later, she makes a “lock her up” joke. Later, Jack tells Will, of a conservative congressman to whom Will has been writing letters of protest, “Kellyanne Conway, he’s hot!” Did you get the memo that Will & Grace is set in 2017 now? Just wanted to make sure.

More than anything else, though, the most 2017-ified element of the revived Will & Grace is the way Donald Trump has infused its proceedings, part zeitgeist and part poltergeist. The president is rarely mentioned by name, but there he is nonetheless, omnipresent in the show’s action. One of the distinguishing features of Will & Grace in its original version had been its hermetic quality: The majority of the show’s action took place in the confines of Will’s apartment and Grace’s office, the rest being summoned merely through the stories characters told each other about the worlds beyond. (At one point, Will & Grace poked fun at itself for that when Jack, as one of his many experimental business ventures, opened a coffee shop ... in the hallway between his and Will’s apartments.)

Thus 2017-ified, though, Will & Grace has expanded in its worldview—so decidedly that much of the action of the Season 9 premiere takes place not in Will’s apartment, and not in New York, but rather in Washington. At the White House. Grace has come to redesign the Oval Office, after Karen recommended her for the job to her friend “Melanio”; Will has come to meet the congressman, whose politics he loathes but whose angular face he does not. Cue Jack flirting with a Secret Service agent. Cue Karen perched on a couch in the Oval Office, knees bent underneath her, Conway-style. Cue the fabric swatch that Grace color-tests against a bag of Cheetos. Cue Will and Grace getting in a pillow fight before the Resolute desk, the pillows’ contents exploding with feathers as a portrait of Andrew Jackson gazes on.

It’s merrily slapstick and absurdly wacky—a smooth continuation from the Will & Grace of old—but, this time around, with a notably dark undertone. Will hasn’t registered for a West Wing tour, and initially a White House aide stops him before saying, “Oh, what the hell, rules don’t mean anything anymore” and letting him in. Grace looks into a drawer in President Trump’s desk and finds a Russian-to-English dictionary and a fidget spinner. Will, before he realizes that the answer is “Grace,” asks, “Redecorating, for this president? What fool would take this job?”—and then goes on to mutter that whatever changes might be made will likely be redone within a year anyway. Impeachment jokes, collusion jokes, nihilism jokes—Will & Grace, as all such sitcoms will be, has always been quietly political; now it is self-consciously so. Grace, having abandoned her plan to be the redecorating fool, does make one design change. Before she leaves the Oval Office, she leaves a red cap on the chair of the Resolute desk. The show’s camera zooms in so audiences will be sure to note: The hat says “Make America Gay Again.”

Which is to say that this is a revival that frames itself, with extreme self-awareness, as part of “the resistance.” In spirit, it is operating along the same lines as Saturday Night Live, and, increasingly, much of late-night comedy. It is trying to work, it seems, at the level of Black-ish’s “Lemons,” another sitcomic treatment of the young Trump presidency. And in some ways, it earned that. The revival came about, after all, after the Will & Grace cast reunited in 2016 to encourage members of the public to vote. (#Votehoney, went the Karentastic hashtag.) And the creators may have been correct in their apparent assumption that the show’s viewers would embrace performed political convictions. But: Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Melania, Cheeto, Kellyanne, fake news, Russia, Melania, Trump, Trump, Trump. It is unsubtle. It is aggressive. Black-ish used its sitcomic treatment of the Trump presidency to offer a sensitive meditation on the state of the American psyche; Will & Grace uses its version to emphasize its own bona fides as a member of the resistance. Did you get the memo that Will & Grace really hates the president? Just wanted to make sure.

The irony, however, is that the show’s political myopia reads, in the end, less as resistance and more as capitulation. Trump may have been readily mocked, in the course of these 22 minutes of television; he has also been steadily present. He is a celebrity who wants above all, it seems, to be talked about, and in that sense Will & Grace has bowed to his wishes. And the show, for all its self-congratulation about political action, does nothing in the way of actually acting. At the end of the episode, Will’s letter-writing campaign to his environment-destroying congressman has ended with an as-yet-unfulfilled flirtation. Grace has scrapped the redecorating job. She has left an empty cap on an empty chair. Nothing has changed. The status quo has been ratified once more. Will and Grace, reunited again, return to an apartment that is as cozy and plush as it ever was, and shut the door.