Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Loud and Proud

By Devin D. O'Leary

NOVEMBER 16, 1998:  Last month, NBC debuted a little sitcom called "Will & Grace." Despite the fact that it was buried among NBC's lifeless Monday night fare ("Suddenly Susan," "Caroline in the City") and pitted against FOX's "Ally McBeal" (guaranteed to take all the female viewers) and ABC's "Monday Night Football" (ditto for male viewers), it became the highest rated new sitcom of the fall season. But what's most remarkable is that the freshman sitcom features a gay male lead ... and it hasn't garnered so much as a ripple of controversy. No sponsors have threatened to pull out. Not a single member of the Christian Coalition has protested. The show recently landed on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, and this very week (Nov. 12, 8:30 p.m.) will receive its biggest audience ever when it fills in for the ailing "Veronica's Closet" on Must See TV Thursday. Is this the same country that drummed poor Ellen Degeneres off the air last season? In a nutshell--yes.

"Will & Grace" stars Debra Messing as a slightly daffy, emotionally unstable career girl who moves in with her best friend Will (Eric McCormack). Will, as it happens, is homosexual. So why has "Will & Grace" met with so much acceptance while others in its wake (a slim list at best) have met with so much virulent opposition?

The first attempt at a gay lead character on TV came in the form of 1981's "Love, Sidney" starring Tony Randall. It was based on a TV movie about a single gay man who moves in with an unwed mother and her young daughter. By the time the concept made its way to weekly television, however, Randall's character had been so watered down (no mention could ever be made of his sexuality) that his "gayness" was rather moot. The show sank after a couple brief seasons. Certainly, the most publicized gay character on TV came last year when Ellen Degeneres came out of the closet and announced that her TV persona would soon do the same. Almost immediately, the protests began. Religious groups railed; advertisers pulled out, and most importantly, ratings slid. Last season, much to the grumblings of Ellen herself, the show was canceled.

Unlike those previous efforts, "Will & Grace" has hit upon the perfect formula. Instead of a single gay man or a single gay woman, "Will & Grace" has the magic gay-man, straight-woman combo. Recently popularized in such movies as My Best Friend's Wedding (Rupert Everett and Julia Roberts) and Object of my Affection (Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston), the GM/SW duo has proved itself a pop culture fixture.

In addition, "Will & Grace" is funny. In all frankness, "Ellen" was always a show struggling for identity (ironic, no?). After a name change and several cast changes, Ellen decided that "going gay" would be the best route for her show to take. The jokes just petered off after that, and "Ellen" was a sitcom without laughs. I dislike "Will & Grace's" overuse of the standard sitcom joke formula--easy set-up (usually in the form of a question) followed by easy punchline (usually in the form of a snarky put-down). Example: He: "Grace, did you know I was gay when you first met me?" She: "My dog knew you were gay!" Cue rimshot.

Even so. "Will & Grace" handles itself with dignity and with humor. ... Now if they'd just get rid of those annoying supporting characters.


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