Sitcoms can be one of culture's stealthiest vehicles. Under the cover of a gross stereotype or a rude wisecrack, new attitudes can sneak into viewers' brains and erode preconceptions. Of course, sitcoms don't enlighten people overnight, like, say, dental strips. But over seasons, an ''All in the Family" can help us reconsider sexism and racism; a ''M*A*S*H" can offer us new survival skills for wartime; a ''Seinfeld" can dare us to own up to our pettiest social behaviors.
And a ''Will & Grace" can help us rethink sexual orientation. It can invite us to question all of today's freighted moral melodrama about who you flirt with, who you kiss, who you befriend. After the NBC sitcom ends its eight-year run Thursday night, it will be remembered as a pioneer for using humor to address one of America's most incendiary issues. ''Will & Grace" mainstreamed a way to laugh about gay, lesbian, bisexual, and straight sexual politics from a place of pure affection, not fear and hatred. The show never lazily mined models of gender and sexual identity already in existence; we had ''Everybody Loves Raymond" for that. ''Will & Grace" was a social leader and not a follower.
Over the years, the show made light of a gay man trying to be a straight man (Neil Patrick Harris), a straight man posing as a gay man (Matt Damon), a straight man who acted like a gay man (Richard Chamberlain), a closeted gay Republican (Leslie Jordan), an older lesbian couple (Michele Lee and Chita Rivera), a younger lesbian couple (Edie Falco and Chloe Sevigny), a lesbian mom (Rosie O'Donnell), and many other variations. These were guest characters who challenged assumptions while they kept the farce going.
It's wrongheaded to dismiss the fiercely anti-gay factions that have attacked ''Will & Grace" since its 1998 premiere by telling them, ''Come on, it's just a TV show." A top-rated NBC series consistently nominated for Emmys is a lot more influential than a suspected gay infiltrator such as Tinky-Winky of the ''Teletubbies." With an audience that grew nearly as big as that of ''Friends," ''Will & Grace" advanced a national conversation about a subject many conservatives would rather have stifled, a conversation Ellen DeGeneres provoked in 1997. The show worked to liberate homosexuality from centuries of silence by deploying nonstop gay-related jokes that could be self-ironic, silly, and sometimes touching. When Will greeted Karen as ''Cruella," and she greeted him back with ''Wilma," it was all of those qualities.
For straight viewers with no gay friends, ''Will & Grace" provided a chance to spend time with gay men (and one bisexual society lush) without awkwardness or oversensitivity -- and with lots of serious laughs. And for straight men, in particular, it was an opportunity to watch straight male characters (played by Woody Harrelson, Harry Connick Jr., Gregory Hines, Sydney Pollack, Alec Baldwin) relax around gay male characters, even be outnumbered by them, and not feel discomfort. The show let straight men see straight male actors play gay men (Eric McCormack, Patrick Dempsey, Michael Douglas) without much to-do. It even delivered Damon as a straight man willing to pretend to be gay to sing in a gay chorus.
Indeed, ''Will & Grace" may have helped a few straight men come out of the closet -- as metrosexuals.
For gay men, ''Will & Grace" was as polarizing as it was for straight America. While some felt it represented a step forward, and a welcome sign to young gays looking for acceptance, others complained in the gay press about the show's stereotyping of gay men as sexless, shallow, and white. ''Will & Grace" disappointed many who saw it as an opportunity to make counterpoints to commonly held generalizations about gay men. As one of the only gay comedies on TV, it met with more than its share of high expectations and scrutiny.
But ''Will & Grace" was aiming to subvert convention, to ''work within the system" rather than remake it. The show set out to be a traditional, popular American sitcom complete with a loud laugh track, stagy choreography, and the kind of exaggerated comic stylings that reached back to the sitcom's vaudeville roots. At times, the cast seemed to be dancing across the set of Will's apartment. The socioeconomics -- white, yuppie, affluent, pop literate -- were created to fit neatly beside ''Seinfeld," ''Friends," and all the other NBC sitcoms. The gay milieu was meant to be the big surprise, the switch.
As a conventional sitcom, it traded in stereotypes for sure. The magnificent cast -- McCormack, Megan Mullally, Debra Messing, and Sean Hayes -- brought great distinction to their characters, but their characters were built to be familiar. Just as ''Friends" gave us a typical dumb womanizer with Joey, Hayes's Jack was the quintessential flamboyant gay flake. When Grace finds out Jack's mother doesn't know he's gay, she rightly exclaims, ''What is she, headless?" He was a type, but then name any sitcom character that isn't based on a type (except, of course, Kramer). The show depended on its many guest stars and semi-regulars to bring in images of diversity (Hines, Taye Diggs, Wanda Sykes).
McCormack's Will was the more ''straight-acting" type of gay man who was impatient with Jack's frivolousness. He was meant to challenge the gay-equals-feminine equation, and he was meant to counter the oft-held belief that gay men are sex-obsessed, as he dated sparsely over the show's tenure. Will's journey took him from living vicariously through Grace's romances to a sense that he deserves his own life, including a significant relationship with Vince the cop (Bobby Cannavale).
Did ''Will & Grace" change the country politically? Not obviously, of course, but it did help create a climate where the ''gay debate" has changed from ''Should gays be visible?" to ''Should gays have equal rights?" A TV show's social impact can take time, particularly a show that, like ''Will & Grace," has second and third lives in syndication. Still, during the years since the show premiered, gay rights have expanded in Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and California, and the Supreme Court has overturned an earlier decision against sodomy.
And ''Will & Grace" and other gay characters on TV may have helped mobilize social conservatives against gay rights, thereby calling attention to issues formerly headed toward oblivion. A negative response proves the show's power as much as a positive one.
Anyway, when all the political talk about ''Will & Grace" is done, the show will remain a landmark in TV funniness. It met its primary obligation, which was to amuse.
Like every show that stays on the air beyond its creative life, ''Will & Grace" did have serious ups and downs. The downs didn't seem to stop after Grace married Connick's exceedingly dull Leo in season five; by this season, the silliness found Grace marrying Will's quickie boyfriend to keep him from having to return to Canada. Huh?
But the ups far outnumbered the downs, with script after script of laugh-out-loud material. Messing turned Grace into a character who wasn't just self-absorbed; she was comically absurd because she was so self-absorbed. She counteracted Will's uptight WASP-iness, which was also played for fun. Through the character of Grace, ''Will & Grace" became one of TV's most openly Jewish comedies.
The relationship between Will and Grace also milked humor -- and, occasionally, drama --from one of TV comedy's rare male-female friendships. Their bond wasn't based on the typical romantic tensions that drove ''Cheers," or ''Friends," or the more recent ''How I Met Your Mother." It looked at the over-the-top comic codependency between a man and a woman who were relying on each other as partners -- not sexual partners, but partners nonetheless. Will and Grace seemed to have their own secret language, based largely on pop references ranging from Lifetime movies and 1980s television to Tobey Maguire and Britney Spears. It will be interesting to see if these references survive over the decades.
And then there was Mullally. She took the fusty cliche of a rich bitch and made it into one of TV's funniest characters ever. She merged a Betty Boop voice with the snobbery of an Alexis Carrington and the self-delusion of a proud substance abuser, and came up with a hysterically amoral monster. Her love/hate treatment of her maid, Rosario, played gamely by Shelley Morrison, upended political correctness, and her sexual voraciousness was quietly scandalous. She made even the small throwaway gags sail, such as ''You say potato, I say vodka."
I will miss my weekly fix of Will, Grace, Jack, and Karen. They were frequently dislikable, and they relished the art of the insult. But like Jerry, Elaine, Kramer, and George before them, they were always good for a warm half-hour of hilarity and wit. They were always ready to have a gay old time.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com.