RT25 First Reviews Flashback: Will & Grace

"A big winner," "hilarious," and "one of the sharpest, well-acted sitcoms," critics said in 1998 about the show starring Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, Megan Mullally, and Sean Hayes.

by | July 25, 2023 | Comments

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Rotten Tomatoes launched 25 years ago in August 1998, bringing the iconic Tomatometer into households nationwide. Certified Fresh was born six years later and, in 2013, we began aggregating reviews and dishing out scores for TV series. In celebration of our 25th birthday, we’re taking a look back at some of the most impactful TV shows that premiered the same year we did. We previously shined a light on Dawson’s Creek, Felicity, Sex and the City, and now we look back at Will & Grace.

Will & Grace stars Megan Mullally, Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, and Sean Hayes

Will & Grace stars Megan Mullally, Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, and Sean Hayes (Photo by Bill Reitzel/NBCU Photo Bank)

Will & Grace is a sitcom about the long-standing friendship between meticulous gay lawyer Will Truman (Will McCormack) and neurotic straight interior designer Grace Adler (Debra Messing). Similar to the format of ’90s sitcoms like Seinfeld and Friends, the series’ story is set in New York City and follows the hilarious exploits of the duo and their outlandish besties: rich socialite Karen Walker (Megan Mullally) and struggling actor Jack McFarland (Sean Hayes).

Max Mutchnick and David Kohan created the series, basing the story concept on Mutchnick’s real-life childhood friendship with New York casting agent Janet Eisenberg. With the help of legendary television director James Burrows, snappy dialogue, comedic timing, and the talented cast, Will & Grace rose in the small-screen ranks to inevitably find its home on NBC’s coveted Thursday night “Must See TV” lineup.

“The concept is more credible than it might sound thanks to clever scripting, an appealing cast, and the masterful hand of James Burrows,” Tom Jicha from South Florida Sun-Central wrote about the first episode. “Getting Burrows to direct your pilot is the equivalent of having your house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.”

Will & Grace season 5

Will & Grace stars Hayes, Messing, McCormack, and Mullally in a scene from season 5 (Photo by ©NBC/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Will & Grace’s success was made on this core group of friends, and the way in which the sitcom normalized having gay characters in lead roles on TV is a big part of its legacy, with gay representation on TV in the 1990s being sparse and seen as risky.

Take Ellen (the 1994-98 ABC sitcom, not the later talk show), for example. The popular series starred Ellen DeGeneres as bookstore owner Ellen Morgan. In the season 4 episode, titled “The Puppy Episode,” DeGeneres’ character came out as a lesbian. An array of advertisers boycotted the episode, and the backlash grew from there. A year later, just months before Will & Grace would first premiere, Ellen was canceled.

Will & Grace season 3

McCormack and Messing in a promotional image for Will & Grace season 3 (Photo by ©NBC/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Will & Grace wasn’t a smash hit out the gate, but employed the tried-and-true sitcom formula that bolstered NBC’s comedy slate. The fact that two openly gay characters were front and center in every episode and were welcomed into homes across the country, was a very big deal.

Even President Biden celebrated the series for opening the door to the public’s acceptance of gay rights.

But it wasn’t all rave reviews. Considering the fact that LGBTQIA representation in the media was so meager, the ways in which Will & Grace brought the general public into this community were deemed by some as one-dimensional and watered down.

Terry Jackson at the Miami Herald contended that the character of Will was written to make his character more palatable for viewers: “He doesn’t date and seems to have been crafted as a good-looking masculine gay guy whom homophobes can accept. That cop-out takes a lot of potential bite out of the show.”

Will & Grace revival 2017

The Will & Grace revival in 2017 (Photo by NBCUniversal)

Throughout its initial eight-season run, Will & Grace grew on audiences and the subject matter progressed with time. The Television Academy awarded the show 18 Emmys during that run.

The series ended in 2006, and its core cast went on to enjoy successful careers: McCormack starred in TNT’s Perception for three seasons, led Netflix’s sci-fi drama Travelers, and exercised his villain chops in Shudder original series Slasher; Messing took on memorable roles in Smash and The Mysteries of Laura and played herself in the Billy Eichner rom-com Bros; Mullally appeared in Parks and Recreation, Children’s Hospital, and Party Down; and Hayes is currently starring in the Broadway production of Good Night, Oscar for which he won the Tony, and co-host of popular podcast Smartless with fellow actors Will Arnett and Jason Bateman.

Riding the TV remake and revival trend, Will & Grace returned to NBC in 2017 with new episodes, bringing the cast back together for a three-season run, the first of which is Certified Fresh at 89%. Now, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the groundbreaking sitcom, McCormack and Hayes have come together with a new podcast at Wondery titled Just Jack & Will, which will find the duo watching classic episodes (Hayes has allegedly never watched the show) and reminiscing with stories from the set.

Here’s what critics said about season 1 of Will & Grace when it first premiered:

Will & Grace season 2 key art

Will & Grace season 2 key art (Photo by Chris Haston/NBC)

With a little will and a touch of grace, this show could be a big winner.
John Levesque, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

The most likely success of the season, as well as the most Frasier-like in its ability to transcend a contrived premise.
Robert David Sullivan, Boston Phoenix

Though Will & Grace is not without flaws, it is, in a word, hilarious, with a superb cast and snap-diva dialogue.
Victoria Brownworth, Bay Area Reporter

The show’s writing makes it stand out from much of NBC’s factory-room dreck. – John Youngren, Salt Lake Tribune

This sophisticated show has pop-culture references, loving friendships, well-cast stars and the sure hand of director James Burrows. The bawdy asides sound witty rather than smutty, and the show has been shrewdly assembled. – Hal Boedeker, Orlando Sentinel

Related: RT25 First Reviews Flashback: Felicity

The surprise here is that one of the new season’s most derivative ideas is one of the sharpest, well-acted sitcoms coming to the small screen.
Eric Deggans, Tampa Bay Times

The two have great chemistry and a dandy set of writers. Watch and you’ll find this the best way to learn — and laugh.
Bruce R. Miller, Sioux City Journal

The only thing most viewers will care about initially is whether the series is funny. The pilot has its share of good lines, and Messing and McCormack have a winning charm and chemistry.
Alan Pergament, Buffalo News

I’m just happy the show’s smart and funny and has something to say — to nearly everyone — about the nature of friendship.
Ellen Gray, Philadelphia Daily News

Good acting, intriguing relationships and some of the best supporting actors in any series make the show easy to endorse. –Barry Garron, Hollywood Reporter

Related: RT25 First Reviews Flashback: Dawson’s Creek

Easily the slickest, most sophisticated new comedy.
John Carman, San Francisco Examiner

What sets this show apart from its not-so-funny sitcom counterparts is its cutting humor. Pop-culture references fly fast and furiously, and the characters exchange witty repartee effortlessly.
Joyce Slayton, Common Sense Media

These actors are enormously congenial, but are stranded by scripts that assume it’s clever to have Will and Grace play ”The $25,000 Pyramid” really well together. And they are surrounded by annoying sidekicks.
Caryn James, New York Times

Apart from snappy dialogue and pacey performances, this show’s greatest asset is probably the skill and experience of its director, James Burrows.
Brian Courtis, The Age (Australia)

American television can make foot ulcers and brain-death into moving and funny drama; sex, it can only turn into a vehicle for cheap laughs.
Robert Hanks, The Independent (UK)

Cleverly-scripted with well-observed characters, this new sitcom is predicted to be the next Friends.
Rob Lowing, Sydney Morning Herald

- - Will & Grace

Where to Watch: by subscription on Hulu, Prime Video | buy seasons 1-8 on Vudu, Prime Video, and Apple TV

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