It’s official: “Will & Grace” is returning to television. Fans of Jack, Karen, Will, and Grace, rejoice! “Will &Grace” is an interesting case study: when the sitcom first aired in 1998, homosexuality was still technically illegal in parts of the US (the Supreme Court’s ruling in Lawrence v. Texas, which universally decriminalized homosexuality in the US, wouldn’t happen until 2003) and a large percentage of Americans held very anti-gay views (specifically, over 50% thought homosexuality was “always wrong“).
By all rights, the show should have fallen flat. It featured a flamboyantly gay main character, Jack, it played into over the top gay stereotypes (an approach that some in the gay community found frustrating) and celebrated gay culture. Yet rather than rejecting the show, viewers embraced it wholeheartedly—it was among the top 20 highest rated shows for half of its eight season run and garnered 16 Emmys and 83 nominations. It was so influential in changing US attitudes towards homosexuality that in 2012, then-Vice-President Joe Biden said “Will & Grace” “probably did more to educate the American public” about LGBT issues “than almost anything anybody has ever done so far.” Since 1998, “Will & Grace” has aired in more than 60 countries, familiarizing audiences globally with gay culture.
Since “Will & Grace” went off the air in 2006, several networks have tried to duplicate the show’s success, but these efforts have almost uniformly fallen flat. In 2012, CBS’ “Partners” tried to replace Grace with Joe, while NBC’s “The New Normal” imagined the humor in gay men confronted by a racist, homophobic woman in their lives.
“Sean Saves the World” was basically “Jack’s a single dad!” (NBC, 2013) and NBC’s “One Big Happy” (2015) made Grace into the gay character and Will the straight one. All of these shows were cancelled after one season, and some were given the axe even before the end of the season. Nevertheless, like the Holy Grail or the Fountain of Youth, the idea of a “Will & Grace” copycat success still draws writers and producers.
Last November, it was announced that comedian Mindy Kaling, her “The Mindy Project” costar Ed Weeks, and Weeks’ writing partner, out writer Hannah Mackay, were developing a comedy for ABC about “liberal lesbian couple Laurel and Marisa who move with their teenage son to Laurel’s conservative hometown in Kansas to find that their assumptions about Middle America might just be wrong.” Amazingly, this is the second consecutive sale of a lesbian comedy pilot for Weeks and Mackay.
A year before, ABC bought the rights to their comedy—then titled “Wing Person,” now untitled— about “lesbian Hilda and her best friend Randall, a neurotic straight guy, as they navigate their dysfunctional, co-dependent friendship and the world of dating…Hilda is an intelligent and seemingly confident lesbian lothario with a dry sense of humor – that she uses to hide her underlying fear of growing up, settling down and becoming conventional.” Another effort to recreate “Will & Grace” with the roles reversed.
Even though neither has even begun to film yet, it seems highly likely that both projects will meet the same fate as “One Big Happy,” and here’s why: outside of the odds being statistically against them based on the aforementioned recent failures of gay-themed shows, “Will & Grace” was a unique phenomenon that spoke to a certain zeitgeist of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Its success is unlikely to be replicable twenty years later.
Why did “Will & Grace” succeed a year after “Ellen” was cancelled? Undeniably, the show was well written and well acted, as its Emmy wins attest, but it seems likely that a measure of its success can be attributed to the show’s success in fostering the fetishized ideal of the “gay best friend.” Will, a “straight acting,” upper middle class white male who provided witty banter and emotional support to Grace, was an attractive ideal to female viewers. Female viewers could picture themselves having such a fabulous, nonthreatening best friend. However, no such fetish exists for the “lesbian best friend,” either among male or female viewers. An idealized gay best friend will talk love lives with the female protagonist over coffee, offer her a makeover, and redecorate her house, but lesbian stereotypes don’t lend themselves to such fetishization. Would the lesbian best friend re-caulk your shower and then beat you at basketball?
The fetishization of gay culture but not lesbian culture – at least in American society – runs deep: Jack’s flamboyance is endearing and his love of Cher precious. The lesbian equivalent, on the other hand, is…the future “Wing Person” character “JoJo, a fun-loving Southern biker who runs Austin’s friendliest gastropub” (she will be played by “The Big Gay Sketch Show” alumna Julie Goldman). Jojo will not be the next Jack, however, because butch lesbians are not granted the same indulgence by straight women for breaking gender norms as “effeminate” gay men.
Goldman in “The Big Gay Sketch Show,” but pretty much probably what Jojo’s going to be.
Under certain conditions, the commercial success of “Will & Grace” could be replicated; having gay leads is not unavoidably toxic to sitcoms, even if it often feels that way. If “Will & Grace” hadn’t been rebooted, eventually a successful copycat would have been produced anyway. However, any attempt to create a lesbian “Will & Grace” probably is destined to fail unless the show finds a way to use lesbian stereotypes in a way that is endearing to female viewers, who probably will form the bulk of the audience.
This would look something like the relationship between the gay and straight main characters at the beginning of the movie “Life Partners.” Ultimately, “Will & Grace” was successful not because it was about a gay man and a straight woman, but because it was about two people emotionally supporting each other. Therefore, the lesbian version should have that as its core as well. And, of course, the audience must be taught why it should want a lesbian best friend. Because really, everyone should want a lesbian best friend.