“Will & Grace” returns to NBC on Thursday, nearly 20 years after it first premiered and broke ground as a broadcast network sitcom whose influence reached far beyond viewers’ living rooms.
In 2012, then-vice president Joe Biden cited the show as a factor in his decision to support marriage equality. That moment, six years after the show went off the air for the first time, ensured that the show’s legacy would be entrenched American political history.
By bringing two charismatic gay men to audiences, “Will & Grace” was a force for political change and a prime example of the power of television to shape people’s opinions and open their minds to new ideas.
“I think ‘Will & Grace’ probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody has ever done so far,” Biden said on “Meet the Press” in 2012. His statements would force Democratic party leaders Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to come out in support of issue as well, kicking off a new wave of evolution among top politicians and paving the way for the landmark 2015 Supreme Court ruling making same-sex marriage legal across the U.S.
“We knew when we were doing ‘Will & Grace’ that we were doing something important that was having social effect and political effect,” star Debra Messing said in an interview shortly after Biden’s comments in 2012.
It was no mistake, because entertainment and media can be powerful tools in shaping the public’s opinions by introducing unfamiliar ideas, wrapped in the comfortable distance of storytelling. Television can be especially effective in making viewers comfortable, just by nature of the format, which requires them to welcome shows and characters into their lives on a weekly basis.
“‘Will & Grace’ has done so much to help people feel like they know somebody LGBT,” said Wilson Cruz, an activist and actor who had his own groundbreaking role as a gay character on “My So-Called Life,” told TheWrap. “TV is a way for people to see the lives of LGBT people, even though it’s fiction. [“Will & Grace”] did a lot to help people feel comfortable.”
This was especially true in 1998, when there was much less television and viewers had fewer places to turn where they’d only be presented with ideas and people who made them feel comfortable. At the height of its popularity, 25 million people watched “Will & Grace” every week and saw two out, successful gay men living their lives.
“In the early days, when TV would bring you and issue you hadn’t heard before and show you the loving way to handle it, that was very formative whether you knew it or not,” Jim Colucci, journalist and author of “Will & Grace: Fabulously Uncensored,” went on to tell TheWrap. “There were people who didn’t know any gay people and probably believed all of the horrible, nightmare gore that was out there. And then ‘Will & Grace’ gave them friendly, funny faces and helped them realize that all of that stuff wasn’t true.”
Even that was a tough sell. “Will & Grace” worked overtime to do everything it could to appease viewers to the then-somewhat radical idea of gay characters on television.
Colucci recalls director James Burrows telling him that the show even intentionally teased the idea that Will and Grace might end up together — even though that was never going to happen. “Back then, things were so different that the show had to play it both ways,” he said.
But it worked. The country went from a time when the producers of a TV show worried about offending viewers with the very idea of a gay man to marriage equality in the span of 20 years.
“It went so fast, it didn’t take long,” Colucci said. “For me, for something that in the late-’90s was really still bubbling … we never would’ve dreamed that it would happen in a decade or a decade and a half.”
So progress has been made, in no small part thanks to “Will & Grace” and shows like it. But there’s still work to be done. Even television as a medium can sometimes be disappointingly conservative in its approach.
“Star Trek” has existed for more than 50 years, but it took until 2017 and the latest iteration, CBS All Access’ “Star Trek: Discovery,” for the franchise to introduce its first gay characters, played by Cruz and Anthony Rapp. And in terms of representation and diversity, it’s far from the final frontier.
“Not a lot has changed in terms of diversity,” Cruz said. “When we’re talking about LGBT stories on TV, a lot of the time we’re really talking about gay white men. We have a long ways to go in terms of trans people and people of color. Even in terms of women.”
“We have a president who stirs up racial tensions, and the people who support him feel emboldened, like they’ve been given permission to hold on to their way of looking at the world,” he said. “But we know for a fact that seeing people on screen can change people’s opinions. A lot of the ignorance comes from a lack of exposure.”
Even in this particularly fractured political era, Cruz hopes television can still have the same impact in did in 1998. Maybe the return of “Will & Grace” and the decision to have “Star Trek” finally open its doors to LGBT characters could help open people’s minds.
“These are concepts and characters that people are familiar with,” he said. “And familiarity can allow people to open themselves up. They’re welcoming these characters into their home.”