Photo: Chris Haston/NBC

NBC is banking a ton on nostalgic audience affection for Will & Grace, the series that wound to a close after overstaying its welcome 11 years ago. The network has already renewed it for a second season after these first 16 episodes. With the current flood of revivals like Dynasty and still-to-come projects like Roseanne, you could say that the networks were out of ideas. Or, tired of one-season wonders, they were anxious to devote their budget numbers to a tried-and-true property. Watching this first outing, you also get the feeling that W&G creators David Kohan and Max Mutchnick were chomping at the bit a bit to get some licks in at the current administration. Many of the jokes churned out tonight had the feeling of leftovers that had stayed in the fridge too long.

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As our new old series debuts, Will and Grace are living together again (surprise) after their respective divorces. Karen is still rich, Jack is still serial dating. And in the most awkward move of all, that series-ender of Will and Grace’s kids getting married? Apparently a drugged dream sequence of Karen’s. It’s quite a leap, and not even Jack’s fourth-wall break to try to get us on board helps much.

So, everything is pretty much as we left it. So much so that a show that’s been off the air for many years seems comforting, but already painfully familiar. Revamp kicking off with Will and Grace playing Celebrity to show us how in tune they still are: good. Telegraphed jokes and spit-takes as the highest form of humor (twice!): bad. When Jack tells Will not to giggle while talking to the cute senator, you can count down the giggle in 3… 2… 1. Grace caving on her convictions almost instantaneously to take the Oval Office job? Same. The cast obviously still has the lightning-in-a-bottle chemistry that made it such a hit the first time around, but in this premiere, at least, the connections are a little rusty.

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It’s those Trump jokes that land the clunkiest, though. In an effort to remind its audience that they are watching a 2017 version of the show and not a rerun, despite the fact that everything looks almost exactly the same (the four leads are all practically ageless), the new W&G attempts to yoke in some relevancy by making Karen a Trump supporter, and friends with Melania. Will tries to take on a conservative senator, but is felled by cuteness. One-line asides about Trump’s one-year presidency and a box with a Russian dictionary and fidget spinner fit in nicely, but that Cheeto prop joke seemed straight out of a Catskills standup act. I’m all for putting the current administration through the wringer, but a network sitcom needs to be less ham-fisted about it than an 11:50 SNL sketch. Grace’s “Madame President” sign on her office door and the “Make America Gay Again” hat are heavy-handed enough to be jarring, almost as if they belong on a different show.

The blessed Will & Grace MVP will always and forever be Megan Mullally’s Karen, who still gets all the best lines and has the most effortless delivery. Demanding the Pat Nixon-size martini, reminiscing about the Bushes quarreling after the “read my lips” speech—if she has been a Republican all this time, it’s made for some decent anecdotes. And if Karen is our stand-in in for the 1-percent Trump supporters, at least she is hilarious about it. Lines like (only slightly) exaggerated personifications of conservative policies—“Take that, trees and water!” and “Rich people won’t be affected”—are funny because they ring so true to life. You can absolutely imagine someone rattling off similar lines at a Republican $50,000 a plate dinner without irony.

Other new W&G pathways are a much tougher fit: Like Grace’s new office assistant Tony, who seemed to stammer over his opinion of Karen for what seemed like several minutes? Too much time wasted in a 22-minute episode. And the several years later consistency is at once comforting and frustrating: It’s nice to see Will and Grace just as codependent as they’ve always been, but a little growth over the past decade-plus couldn’t have hurt? Debra Messing made a big deal about insisting that Grace be more of a feminist this time out (and also trying to distance herself and the rest of the cast as soon as possible from that Megyn Kelly interview), but wouldn’t Grace realize that a Trump commission would probably hurt her business eventually more than help it?

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Ironically, the road that W&G paved may now be its own detriment. It debuted in 1998, only a year after Ellen’s “Puppy” episode gave us the first gay lead on TV. For the W&G of 2002, that reveal of the Secret Service guy being gay would have killed. In 2017, the over-the-top reaction seems, frankly, outdated. And we have the original Will & Grace to thank for that.

Stray observation

  • Welcome to A.V. Club coverage of the new Will & Grace! I was a big fan of (certain seasons of) the original; they really lost me with all those gratuitous guest stars in later years, although of course I watched the finale. Obviously lukewarm about this first episode, but hopefully things will improve. Looking forward to your thoughts in the comments.

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