At the end of Will & Grace, the four friends gathered around a bar, some 20 years into the future. Will (Eric McCormack) and Grace (Debra Messing) had had a two-year falling out, and then only saw each other sporadically for the next decade or so. But they reunited with Jack (Sean Hayes) and Karen (Megan Mulally), so the series could close with Will observing, “You know, it’s funny, we haven’t changed a bit.”
That was precisely the problem of Will & Grace for the past eight years. By May 2006, Grace was as needy and Will as whiney as they were in September of 1998. It was as if they were repeatedly disappointed, yet refused to learn anything. Jack and Karen added much needed levity and camp, but there are only so many dry martinis, pills, and cutting quips that even I can take. As Hank Steuver noted in the Washington Post, even “the gayest among us… stopped watching a couple of seasons ago” (14 May 2006).
Throughout the series’ run, there were grumblings in the gay press over whether Will represented a kind of yuppified, straight-acting neo-con, or Jack perpetuated swishy gay-boy stereotypes. There’s room for both those possibilities, and the further possibility that they’re not only toxic stereotypes. Most viewers can appreciate the exaggerations of sitcom characters, their correlates in the “real world,” and the differences between these two poles, in order to see that a show like Will & Grace isn’t necessarily promoting intolerance.
But gay viewers left Will & Grace because it became repetitive and boring, like some endless circuit party. I’d return for an especially urgent special guest star (Cher! Madonna! Demi!), only to be disappointed again. The Madonna episode this past season was exceptionally gruesome to watch. We all know Madge can’t act, but we keep coming back for more. At least Janet Jackson had the decency in her guest spots to dance, and J. Lo to sing.
The seemingly interminable list of Hollywood A-listers scrambling to do guest spots over the years demonstrated exactly the conservative and assimilationist nature of liberal/Hollywood politics today. What’s “progressive” about a show that entirely depoliticized queerness, even as homosexuality became so politicized in the U.S. that citizens are now considering a Constitutional Amendment to deny basic civil rights to lesbians and gays? Sex was never Will & Grace‘s failing, even if it didn’t show much gay intimacy. Politics was.
This became clear early on. In the second season episode “Acting Out” (22 February 2000), Will and Jack were outraged by a network TV station’s welching on a promise to show the “first gay male kiss on primetime.” They decided to take it to Al Roker during one of his “off-the-cuff” interviews outside Today‘s studio. When he saw the camera turning their way, Will kissed Jack full on, and thus fulfilled the network’s promised “first.” Will claimed it was the “right” thing to do, framing the antic as some sort of civil disobedience. But the context detracted from its political charge: showing a passionate kiss between two men rather than an antiseptic, staged smooch, would have been much more socially and politically disruptive. Instead, Will & Grace went the “safe” route, as it always did. The episode welched on its professed politics as much as the fictional TV show that got Will and Jack so upset in the first place.
Recently, a (fabulous and gay) friend of mine noted that HBO’s Deadwood would be introducing a gay character, then asked, “But who really cares, at this point?” He’s right that queer characters have become commonplace throughout the TV landscape; it’s also true that this evidences some sort of progress for LGBT social and political enfranchisement. (A useful list of queer characters on Western TV through 2002, shows they are more common than we might presume.)
It’s worth asking what Will & Grace contributed to this development. At most, it illustrated a trend of the past 15 years, that is, the equation of consumerism with political action (see: Alexandra Chasin’s Selling Out: The Gay and Lesbian Movement Goes to Market [NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2000]). The idea that consumerism is the key to happiness was everywhere in Will & Grace, from Karen’s marathon shopping excursions and Will’s catalogue purchases to Jack’s collecting of celebrity memorabilia. Whether you read the ongoing jokes as critique or confirmation, it reached a kind of pinnacle in the Season Six episode, “A Gay/December Romance” (22 January 2004), which saw Will briefly involved with sugar daddy Alan (Hal Linden). Alan bought Will artwork and a racehorse, and planned expensive trips. When Will realized he didn’t want to be a kept boy, he broke up with Alan, then regretted that he couldn’t keep Alan’s last gift, “Gucci apres ski boots,” even though Will didn’t ski.
As Doug Wright observes in The Advocate (9 May 2006), the “job” of Will Truman in particular, and the rest of the cast in general, was not to politick for LGBT rights, but to “provide the tenuous fabric that binds the new Mercedes S-Class to Diet Coke,” and to bind such consumerism even more tightly to gayness. Just as the privatization of welfare imagines philanthropic corporations will provide for the common good, neo-liberal logic imagines niche marketing as proof of enfranchisement. If we have access to “Gucci aprs ski boots,” apparently we’ve “made it.”
In this regard, Will & Grace did indeed break new ground, paving the way for Bravo’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, whose wretched excess makes Will and Grace look positively miserly. But I’m not sure this is something to be proud of. In recent years, queer activists have organized grass-roots, direct action groups dedicated to resisting the commodification of mainstream lesbian and gay politics under the banner of “Gay Shame.” Originating in San Francisco, Gay Shame chapters have sprung up in urban centers around the U.S. “We will not be satisfied,” read the group’s mission statement, “with a commercialized gay identity that denies the intrinsic links between queer struggle and challenging power.”
Will & Grace was an eight-year advertisement for just such a “commercialized gay identity” that did nothing to challenge current constitutions of power. Instead, it aped dominant political values and logic. Will & Grace “progressive”? We should be ashamed.