How Will & Grace Paved the Way for Gay Characters on TV

In honor of the iconic NBC sitcom's return, a look back at its legacy.

By Billy Nilles Oct 05, 2017 10:00 AMTags
Will & GraceNBC

In the years since Will & Grace premiered in 1998, much ink has been spilled over exactly what the presence of Will Truman and Jack McFarland on our TV screens has done for the LGBT community. And now that NBC's revival of the beloved sitcom has proven to be one of the fall's bona fide hits, there's no doubt that the conversation will continue.

Some voices have championed the inclusion of characters in our TV landscape as daring, especially at the time of their inception, positing that their mere existence (and America's relative comfort with them) did more to further the acceptance of the LGBT community than anything else had in all the years since or after. Even former Vice President Joe Biden falls in that camp, citing the show when he finally came out in public support of marriage equality. But for others, the characters fall short—Jack, in particular, whose hilarious high camp persona has been criticized as a sort of gay minstrelsy in some circles. While that debate will likely always rage on, there's one aspect of Will & Grace's legacy that can't be understated. And that's the road the show paved for future LGBT characters on television. Because once Will and Jack kicked open TV's closet, there was no looking back.

Will & Grace Cast: Then & Now

When NBC made the decision to add co-creators David Kohan and Max Mutchnick's bawdy little comedy, the ultimate unrequited love story between interior designer Grace Adler (Debra Messing) and her neurotic gay lawyer BFF Will (Eric McCormack), to its stable of programming in 1998, there were no real gay characters on TV to speak of. Sure, Ellen DeGeneres' eponymous character had just came out on her ABC series, but that was after four seasons spent with the character in the closet. The sudden decision to have art imitate life only confused the audience, and Ellen quickly disappeared from the airwaves. Prior to that, there had been a smattering of gay characters in a handful of series, though they were always in a supporting role—and often they befell some great tragedy while any realistic depiction of a love life was avoided at all costs. These characters were GINOs—Gay in Name Only—and usually only when it came time to die of AIDs.

But when Will & Grace hit the air, finally there were two gay men who did not pretend to be anything other. They were here and they were queer, honey—so you better get used to it. And audiences did. While the series wasn't an overnight success, by its third season, the series proved to be a hit with real lasting power, staying in the Nielsen Top 20 for four of its eight original seasons. And because show business is, above all else, just that—a business—network executives were quickly realizing that putting gay characters front and center wasn't ratings suicide.

A year after the show premiered, the first "romantic" kiss between two gay characters would take place on Dawson's Creek. Two years later, Showtime would kick down the closet walls completely with the arrival of the explicit and provocative Queer as Folk, a move they replicated four years later for lesbians hungry for representation with The L Word. And that's not to mention 2003's groundbreaking Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the arrival of Modern Family, Glee and RuPaul's Drag Race in 2009, Orange Is the New Black in 2013, Looking and Transparent in 2014—and the list goes on. If Will & Grace had never seen the light of day, a daring exec may have taken a chance on one or two, but all of them? Not a chance.

The Hilarious Way Will & Grace Explained Away the Series Finale

"I think we always kind of made a habit out of not dealing with this aspect of what you would say was the success of the show. This wasn't where we spent a lot of time. It was always a little uncomfortable to take credit for...what people are talking about and what the show represents," Mutchnick told E! News back in June when he and Kohan were at Logo's fourth annual Trailblazer Honors, an event that honors leaders at the forefront of LGBTQ equality. "It was always better for our ego and for our writing if we just stayed focused on telling good stories for Will, Grace, Jack and Karen."

And inside that humility belies the secret to Will & Grace's success. With the intention of creating great stories about underrepresented identities, rather than strictly championing underrepresented causes, the key to unlocking the audience's ability to embrace what was once considered unpalatable was revealed. Without Will Truman, there is no Mitchell Pritchett on Modern Family or Captain Ray Holt on Brooklyn Nine-Nine or Conor Walsh on How to Get Away With Murder. Without Jack McFarland, there is no Max Blum on Happy Endings or Titus Andromedon on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt or Daryl Whitefeather on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

While LGBT representation on TV has yet to be perfected—and for some, it may never be—we shudder to think about what it might look like had we never met Will and Jack. And now that they're finally back on our TV screens, may they only continue to push us forward, honey.

Will & Grace airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on NBC. And make sure to check out Will & Grace After Party, an after-show hosted by E! News's own Kristin Dos Santos, every Friday at 6 a.m. PT for the first six episodes of the season, on the NBC app, the Will & Grace social accounts, YouTube channel and E! News platforms.

(E! and NBC are both part of the NBCUniversal family.)