“When you take the sex out of it,” says Messing, “there is a freedom.”
(By Stacey D'Erasmo | This article originally appeared in the December 1998 issue of OUT.) - Sitting in the frigid dark of the soundstage watching a blocking rehearsal of Will & Grace, NBC’s new sitcom about the enduring friendship between a gay man and a straight woman, I know I should be watching the action onstage. But instead my attention is drawn to an unremarkable spot on the back wall of Will’s New York apartment, where I spy a tasteful, black-and-white frame image of two tapering columns—are they buildings? Asparagus?— that seems awfully... Is it possible? I squint. Probably not.
On closer inspection during a break in the rehearsal, I see that these long, poky things are not penises per se, but black-and-white photographs of some sort of flora, twin vegetable forms spiraling gently but firmly upward. Still, the tender columns rise to an unmistakable point. The blur is clearly intentional, an optical riddle: animal or vegetable?
The premise of Will & Grace is likewise a riddle: What makes gay men and straight women so close? The answer, like the photograph on Will’s wall, is in one way obvious, yet in another a bit blurred. Recently, with the success of My Best Friend’s Wedding and The Object of My Affection, it’s become apparent that America finds the pairing fascinating, perhaps even a bit titillating. What are they laughing about, those two, always off in the corner together?
Will and Grace fall more or less into this mold: Will (Eric McCormack) is quietly handsome, with a Banana Republic fashion sense; Grace (Debra Messing) is telegenic with a knockabout light comic style. “When you take the sex out of it,” says Messing, “there is a freedom that’s very specific to that kind of relationship. You can go much deeper.” But while there isn’t sex as such, there is a subtle romance, a debonair, Rock Hudson-Doris Day sort of vibe. Is it any accident that in both Wedding and Affection the gay man and the straight woman twirled in perfect sync over a ballroom floor?
With the greatly esteemed James Burrows (Cheers) signed up to direct the first 13 episodes, hopes are high. “This show is like a shiny penny,” says Megan Mullally, who plays Grace’s minx-like assistant, Karen. The show is casually, even elegantly, post-Stonewall: Will is understated but by no means closeted, and neither is his eminently campy friend Jack. (As played by Sean Hayes, Jacks seems to have issued from the joint loins of Pee-wee Herman and Paul Lynde). And the network insists there are no limits. “We haven’t set out a series of ground rules,” says NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield in a smooth and level voice, adding that the show is one of his “favorites” of the new season.