Friday, May 26, 2006

So long, farewell: Will & Grace

Jamie Weinman, that Canadian cultural critic, has written about bad sitcoms with good writing. That is, a show that uses sharp, character-based humor for its writing but is pretty much a bad show. He cites Who's the Boss as an example. All of the characters were sharply defined, but the show was never more than a mediocrity for a number of reasons (not the least of which was Tony Danza).

Weinman goes on to talk (briefly) about the converse of this scenario: a good sitcom with bad writing. That is, a sitcom whose characters are pretty much interchangeable joke machines, even though the jokes are supremely well-written. And Weinman chooses as his example Will & Grace.

I think he's right.

W&G started so well. It had two seasons of sharp, satisfying one-liners. But somewhere in season three, it started to become obvious that the wheels were going to come off of the cart very soon. And they did in season four. And try as the show did, it could never put those wheels back on. The jokes were still there, still pretty well-constructed. But the characters had become empty shells and bitter, petty people who weren't terribly pleasant to spend time with. In the process of making all of the characters catty people who were constantly making innuendos, the writers killed all chances they had of making the dramatic storylines foisted on the actors (from season four on) resonate at all. The show was farce, and farce becomes deeper at its own peril (indeed, the only successful sitcom farce to have a long run was Frasier, and that got tired too).

Most retrospectives about Will & Grace have talked about how groundbreaking the show was. And I agree that the show made gay characters on primetime palatable to the general public by not turning their very presence into a chance to sermonize. But, to a degree, the show also just re-entrenched previously held stereotypes (Will, the stuffy, uptight control freak; Jack, the raging bordering-on-queen). That's not to say that using old stereotypes to examine them and see what truth there is to them isn't something that can't work well (indeed, a lot of groundbreaking TV follows this format). It's just that all of the characters were collections of cliches. In other words, interchangeable joke machines.

Will & Grace also always got a good ride out of pop culture references. Pop culture references, when well done, can be hilarious. But they also carry the risk of dating a show. If Will & Grace had been a better program, these references wouldn't have fatally flawed it, but as it is, they only add to the problems.

I don't mean to ride on a show that was a touchstone hit for a lot of people. And, like I said, it was pretty great for those first two years. But there's a common theme to all of the shows ending this year (except, maybe, West Wing) and that's a theme of promise squandered. Will & Grace, I think, fell the farthest, and that's why it leaves me the coldest.

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