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Broad, bawdy and back: NBC's new/old Will & Grace


Back for another go-around: the featured foursome of Will & Grace. NBC photo

Premiering: Thursday, Sept. 28th at 8 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, Megan Mullally, Sean Hayes
Produced by: Max Mutchnick, David Kohan, Jim Burrows, Alex Herschlag,Tracy Poust, Jon Kinnally

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The energy is full force and oftentimes in your face. And the four principals have aged barely a wisp, if it at all, since a May 18, 2006 Will & Grace “finale” supposedly ended their groundbreaking, award-laden eight-season run on NBC.

So never mind all that and nothing’s changed character-wise either. A divorced Grace Adler (Debra Messing) is back with gay Will Truman (Eric McCormack) in his Manhattan apartment while Karen Walker and gay Jack McFarland (Megan Mullally, Sean Hayes) remain bawdy, loud and thoroughly flamboyant.

“What happened to the children you had?” Karen asks Will of his son and Grace of her daughter.

“That never happened,” says Will. The show is more than willing to leave it at that, although Episode 3 does include a guest appearance by Harry Connick Jr. as Grace’s ex-husband Leo.

Back on the original show, they had a daughter named Laila while Will and his partner raised a son, Ben. In the now inoperative finale, Will and Grace were reunited by chance 20 years into the future when they dropped their kids off at college. But as the series returns, erase both kids entirely from the picture. Hey, if you want connective story tissue, go watch Twin Peaks.

What Episode 1 of the Will & Grace reboot does have is a big dollop of Donald Trump. His election is still being applauded by arch Republican Karen, who’s regularly in touch with First Lady Melania.

“By the way, I signed your name to his (the President’s) birthday card,” Karen tells Grace by phone, using her alias of Anastasia Beaverhausen. This prompts the first of two spit takes.

The jokes come at the rate of automatic machine gun fire, and often with predictable outcomes. Melania wants the Oval Office re-decorated, and Karen tells interior designer Grace that she’s recommended her for the job.

“No, I can’t. It would be completely hypocritical,” says Grace.

“Train leaves at 10:30,” Karen tells her. “I’ll be there at 10:15,” Grace assures. And so on.

Will and Jack also preposterously end up in Washington -- in the interests of furthering Will’s giggly crush on a conservative, environment-despoiling congressman. They’re in the Rose Garden at a reception while Grace and Karen are using a bag of Cheetos as a way to match any new Oval Office decor with the President’s coloring. The audience howls.

Episode 1 ends with a rather labored sight gag at Trump’s expense. But some of the tired jokes leading up to this are in part redeemed by the cast’s exuberant delivery of them. It’s a bit like a little kid telling a knock-knock joke. The punch line is usually a groaner, but it’s done with such exuberance that one can’t help but buy into it at least a little.

Episode 2 originates in part from The Cockpit (get it?), where both Will and Jack are interested in younger men. Will hits a home run, in the early going at least, while Jack feels as though he’s getting pretty decrepit.

Karen initially recommends “scrotox” in the interests of an overall youth-ification regime. “One drop of this,” she tells Jack, ”and your old man balls will seem like two shiny pink marbles.”

While Will and Jack try to turn back the clock, Grace and Karen end up trapped, Lucy- and Ethel-like, in a locked shower where the water is steadily rising.

This also is the episode where Will delivers a little sermonette on what his generation of older gay men have endured so that a younger generation can be far more open about their sexuality. Among other things, ”we rightly took Halloween back from the children,” says Will.

(The original Will & Grace likewise blazed trails as the first broadcast network comedy series with two gay characters front and center. Showtime’s Brothers came first, though, even if it couldn’t hope to equal the impact of Will & Grace. Ironically, Brothers originally was offered to NBC as a fall 1983 series. But the Peacock passed and instead chose a comedy about a talking orangutan, Mr. Smith.)

Episode 3 of the new/old Will & Grace is the weakest of those made available for review. Besides the reemergence of Connick Jr.’s Leo, it features Jack teaching an acting class to grade schoolers while Karen grudgingly ends up trying a little tenderness with a kid experiencing her first period.

Whether Will & Grace remains “relevant” isn’t preoccupying either the stars or the show’s returning creators, Max Mutchnick and David Kohan. In league with old-line director James Burrows, they seem intent on merely bringing the funny -- even if it’s often in a vacuum.

Prime-time television has become well-populated with a wide range of gay characters in the 19 years since Will & Grace first joined NBC’s schedule in a Monday night slot between Caroline in the City and Dateline.

The broad histrionics of Will, Grace, Jack and Karen, who are still cavorting before a guffawing live studio audience, at times seem more dated than NBC’s early reluctance to let Will have a same-sex kiss or be seen in bed with another man. But there’s no hesitancy from the actors in terms of re-committing to these roles with a vigor that still drives the series like an old Wild Mouse amusement park ride from back in the day.

NBC already has green lit 16 episodes for this season and another 13 for Season Two. Based on the first three half-hours, “TV’s wittiest ensemble ever” -- as the Peacock immodestly puts it -- won’t be shy about turning up the volume and giving devoted fans of Will & Grace what most of them came for.

“Speaking of gay dinosaurs,” says Will, “let’s talk Madonna.” He’s soon cranking up the volume for her 1983 hit “Borderline” and then dancing into Episode 2’s closing credits with Jack as his partner.

In this case, yeah, they’ve all still got it.

GRADE: B-minus

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