Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Will and Grace Series Finale

Will and Grace was a weak sitcom. Its ostensible selling point was its focus on homosexual characters. But really it was an NBC show that cravenly attempted to grab the often differing audiences of NBC's two biggest hits by attempting to combine the willful (and wonderful) cruelty of Seinfeld with easy Friends-style feel good togetherness. Most often this resulted in terribly awkward emotional shifts in the last few minutes of every episode -- characters who have been mean for 27 minutes suddenly, and very often for no reason, find heart in the last 3. Often the cast would split into pairs so that one pair (usually Karen and Jack) could be mean and silly, to balance the other pair (usually Will and Grace) being heartfelt. The only thing that was even remotely funny on the show was the occasional brilliance of Megan Mullally's Karen Walker, a woman so rich that, in my favorite joke on the show, she scoffs at Grace's suggestion that they take the subway during a taxi strike, because she thinks "magical trains that run underneath the city" are some crazy fantasy of Grace's, like an urban legend.

I never watched the show regularly, but I saw much of it in syndication, as I tend to do any chore that can be done in front of the television in front of the television. Recently I caught the series finale and was kind of blown away by how they ended the show. I am going from memory here, so some details may be off.

Jack and Karen are isolated by a dumb sub-plot in which Karen loses all her money but Jack inherits a fortune from a minor recurring character the show killed off. They make a few meta-jokes about how they are not enough without Will and Grace (a nod to the rejected Jack and Karen spin-off), and they sing Unforgettable at the piano as a farewell. End of subplot.

Will and Grace get in a huge fight over priorities: He wants to move in with his boyfriend Vince and adopt a child, but rejects the idea because he says Grace needs him. Grace is given the chance to rejoin her estranged husband in Italy, raise their daughter together, and repair her marriage. When she wants to go Will is furious because he was willing to give up his "normal" life for her, but, in the same circumstance, she is not. This, of course, has been the central conflict of the show since the first episode -- they are in every way husband and wife, except that because he is gay they end up with a strangely intense friendship that gets in the way of "normal" relationships. The surprise is that in the finale the show fast forwards, and we discover that Grace did move to Italy, that Will did movie in with Vince and adopt a kid, and that Will and Grace have not spoken in more than two years -- though they think of each other often and their significant others encourage them to get back in touch.

Separately, they recall meeting in college (living across the hall from one another, as they did for much of the show) and we cut to a college dorm where this scene takes place:

It seems like a flashback, until Will and Grace come down the hall with boxes for their children, who we just saw. Earlier in the finale Will and Grace wonder what life would be like if neither of them moved on. They are imagined by the camera twenty years later aged (with make up effects), balding, fat and bickering. (The good jokes are always about Karen -- she appears in this altered future looking exactly the same, since all of her is plastic surgery anyway). Now, at the tail end of the finale, Will and Grace meet again, again they are expertly aged by make up effects, but this effect is no longer for laughs -- they genuinely look twenty years older. They have not spoken now in nearly 20 years as they meet as they did the first time across a dorm hall. What we thought was a flashback turned out to be a flash forward. In the next scene we learn that the kids will marry each other, and that Will and Grace will be in-laws. They agree to meet each other at the bar they went to at the end of the pilot -- a bar where they were mistaken as a newly married couple, and where they kissed to satisfy the people who mistook them -- there the central conflict is established with the irony driving the emotion. Jack and Karen join the aged Will and Grace and as we zoom in on their drinks, we zoom out to show them all young again, without stage make-up, as they were before the flash-forward. The end.

Given that this is a sitcom, a land in which all problems are resolved in 30 minutes or less, and a pretty dumb sitcom at that, I was shocked at the uncompromising emotion the show went for. Their relationship really was holding them back from being adults, and being adults loses them 20 years of possibly the most important relationship of their lives. The deadlock of their relationship is not avoided or glossed over -- it has a tremendous cost and will only resolve itself in the next generation. This is an oddly intense novelistic answer to the central conflict, I thought, even worse because I can see a pretty easy (arguably) against-the-grain reading of the end -- given weight of the ten year show, my imagination is seized by the idea that Will's son, or Grace's daughter, is gay, and that the pattern will continue. Will and Grace, after all, were a couple in college before he came out. And the final scene of the gang together in present time is overshadowed by the knowledge that this moment exists only because the show needs a closing image -- these people, who have been such intense friends for more than ten years -- and ten years of the audience's life if you have been following the show since the pilot -- will not speak for two decades.

I do not know what to say about this except that I was really surprised and surprisingly moved. You really have to give a generic sitcom like Will and Grace extra points for being surprising.

I tried to find good youtube clips to go with this post, but I am going to have to make due with the little I did find. These are bad compilation videos, but you will see images of Will and Grace comically aged in the first, and Will and Grace seriously aged in the second. Both have that final shot of the gang together.


Patrick Sanders said...

In what hell-dimension does Will and Grace have a better final episode than Buffy?

Geoff Klock said...

The same hell-dimension in which the Gweneth Paltrow airline stewardess movie View from the Top does a better job at resolving the central conflict in its plot than Superman Returns does. (If you have no idea what I am talking about, click the "Superman Returns" link in the right tool-bar under Best of the Blog).

Christian O. said...

I'm always surprised at how much mediocre to bad series have really solid endings. The O.C. (a fairly good show in the beginning, that quickly descented into a regular, unrealistic, unironic soap) did the same little trick when that end, although with no fakeout, with Ryan, the bad boy with a heart of gold, now an architect, asks a kid sitting, or rather mopping, by a construction yard where he now (2012) works, if he needs any help. Much like Sandy, the father of the Cohen Clan, did with him 10 years earlier.

Christian O. said...

And when I say the same thing, I mean, structually, not thematically. Where the Will & Grace ending is about how their relationship was holding them back from becoming adults, the O.C. ending is about good deeds spawning good deeds.

Unknown said...

I loved Will and Grace.