Nice to see you, Vanessa Bayer!
Photo: Chris Haston (NBC)

I hate to even think about it, but let’s look back on Will & Grace’s almost completely painful first episode this season, 11 years after the series’ original finale. The Cheeto as a design color guide, for example. The show was trying hard to make a political statement, but failed almost every time it tried.

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This episode is leagues ahead from where that one started. I don’t know if it just took the Will & Grace writers’ room a while to settle in (which would totally make sense), but this episode tackles political issues in a thoughtful manner, trying to show both sides of an issue, while aptly demonstrating how difficult that actually is to do.

When Karen gets turned away at a bakery for wanting a MAGA cake, many of us would have Grace’s knee-jerk reaction of “yep, absolutely.” But Tony, Grace’s long-lost intern or office assistant or whatever (Broadway’s Anthony Ramos) points out that “If Mrs. Walker can get turned away, anyone can get turned away.” It’s why, as Grace points out, the ACLU has to defend Illinois Nazis as well as the Southern Poverty Law Center. Karen and Grace are two sides of the same free-speech/civil rights coin.

Karen’s position as a Trump supporter has had a hard time landing this season, but in this episode, as she dismisses a Latina, a handicapped person (“thanks for the wide bathrooms, but that’s enough out of you”), and a transgender person in short order, her over-the-topness is gasp-inducing, as it should be. Karen is somehow able to depict a Trump supporter in a humorous manner (serving the Trumps “white Russians” at dinner) because we already know her character, and so are familiar with her high-brow out-of-touch behavior. Meanwhile Grace straddles the middle-of-the-road many of of use would fall into: Trying to support rights for everyone, even if we don’t happen to agree with them. Vanessa Bayer (late of SNL) is spot-on perfect as the cheery bakery employee, even as she finds herself unable to fulfill every request, pointing out how different circumstances are for these who are marginalized versus those who are not. Customer service has its limits, and the cake changing MAGA to IMAGAY is straight-up inspired. You also have appreciate Karen’s nod to her dealer moving out to Washington after the election, or Grace despairing why all the cute ones are “gay or Nazis”: It’s an edginess you don’t really expect from your typical multi-cam sitcom.

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Many of these Will & Grace episodes have been either-or with the A and B plots, but even the B-plot here is stellar. I’ve pointed before to successful W&G episodes this season that mine the characters’ rich history, especially with each other, and the Jack and Will interactions are really lovely here. At one point I was a little worried that the show was headed toward getting Will and Jack together, but this episode expertly pointed out all the reasons why they are better as friends. Jack’s “I worry you and Michael are rushing into things and I think you should look into that. Not in the face!” was an ideal (and funny) way to broach a painful subject with Will. And it was nice to see the more insightful, less clownish side of Jack pointing out the longtime friendship dynamic between himself and Will that positions him as the mess, and Will as the more stable in their relationship. Even with all of that, Eric McCormack and Sean Hayes later pull off an absolutely sweet scene in which they nostalgically discuss and subsequently discard the possibility of ever dating each other, knowing their life is so much richer with themselves as friends.

It’s why most of us started watching the show in the first place: the friendship, the sometimes pointed social commentary, Karen’s outrageousness. To have it all in one episode made me glad that this show came back in the first place, even after a few rusty starts.

Stray observations

  • Would I hate Grace’s outfit as much as Karen would?: “The mu-mu with the GPS on the top”? Absolutely.
  • Antidote episode: Not really needed, but if you’re curious about Michael, you can check out a previous version of him (played by Chris Potter) in season two’s “Hey La, Hey La, My Ex-Boyfriend’s Back.”
  • I love all Will & Grace Riverdale references.
  • I really could just rattle off a bunch of spit-take one-liners this episode, but here are a few: “If the cake says ‘Make America Great Again,’ ‘I Hate Puerto Ricans’ is implied.”
  • Jack to Drew: “Bananas, Q-tips, Gogurt, the list hasn’t changed!”
  • Karen: “People like me don’t care about the problems of the white working class. That was just to win the election.”
  • “If Katy Perry was a kangaroo I’m sure that’s what it would look like inside her pouch.”
  • “Your hand is still there.” “How could it be, I cut it off for making this cake.” Hope to see you on the small screen again soon, Vanessa Bayer.
  • “First they came for the filthy rich, and I said nothing…”
  • Not surprised that this episode was written by Suzanne Martin, who also wrote my favorite episode of the season so far, “Friends And Lover.”
  • Next episode: See you back here in this space in two weeks: Remember when a visit from Alec Baldwin might have meant a good thing for a sitcom? Also, Grace visits her sisters.

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