Will and Grace

Best of Friends and Foes  3.5 out of 5 stars
Best of Love and Marriage  2.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson

Boy meets girl... Boy meets boy? Doesn't sound like the basis for a hit show. But "Will and Grace," a sitcom about the misadventures of two best friends living together as roommates in New York City, ran for eight laugh-filled years.

What separated "Will and Grace" from other shows was not only its witty one liners, but its controversial, nontraditional story line. Roommates Will Truman (Eric McCormick) and Grace Adler (Deborah Messing) were a sexual yin and yang; he was a gay lawyer, and she was a straight interior designer. The show also showcased Will's unfettered gay lay about buddy Jack McFarland (Sean Hayes), and Grace's caustic, pill popping privileged assistant, Karen Walker (Megan Mullally). Throw in Karen's bulldog maid, Rosario Salazar (Shelley Morrison) to keep Karen in check, and stir in generous portions of over-the-top guest stars, and you have the makings of a self-sustaining hit series.

Lionsgate has released two 2CD compilations, "Best of Friends and Foes" and "Best of Love and Marriage." There aren't any extras and the episodes don't run in chronological order (so a lot of ex-boyfriends get to be ex-boyfriends again), but the cutting dialogue between the deliciously neurotic Messing and the amply endowed Mullally shows they were as potent a comedy team as Lucy and Ethel.  
Deborah Messing not only has the same henna hair color as Lucy, she also matches her considerable talent for physical and self-deprecating humor, whether she's responding to Karen's criticisms about her wardrobe or in a hair-pulling match with wacky neighbor Val (Molly Shannon). Messing honed her skills as the Stacey half of Fox's short-lived "comedy" "Ned and Stacey," which featured Thomas Haden Church (who had played Lowell Mather, the eternally dumb mechanic on "Wings"). The then comic newbie Messing played a character who married Church's prickly Ned out of convenience - he needed a wife in order to get a promotion, and she needed a place to live. Church's Ned was far too toxic and unforgiving for prime time and Messing's Stacey was too much of a whimpering victim, so the show limped through its two seasons. But substitute Eric McCormick for Thomas Haden Church, turn the men from hetero to gay, and you've essentially got the same show, only with "Will and Grace," Messing had writers like David Kohan and Max Mutchnick to back her up.

Hetero in real life, McCormick does a credible job of playing a gay man without turning into a screaming queen along the lines of Harvey Fierstein or Boy George (pre-hard time). Sean Hayes? Now he's a raging queen. As jumpin' Jack McFarlane, Hayes is usually on screen just long enough to not be annoying. Hayes is a gay Jerry Lewis, full of boundless energy and quirky bon motes. The writers wisely let him take Jack's self-absorbed narcissism (or is it nar-sissyism?) to the extreme (remember the autobiographical musical "Just Jack?").  

Despite Messing, Hayes, and McCormick, "Will and Grace" would be a run of the mill without helium-voiced, bountifully bosomed Megan Mullally as Karen Walker. She keeps Grace on constant fashion alert, making fun of her hair, wardrobe, and ironing board figure, while willingly accepting and promoting comments about her pill-popping, partying and pulchritude: ("I don't think that I've ever been stressed out. Why would I be? I've got practically no responsibilities, my job's a breeze and I've got a killer rack.") On the surface, Karen's a self-centered, pampered lush who can pump out insults faster than Don Rickles on bennies, and she's siphoning cash from her humongous husband, the unseen Stan. But a heart does beat beneath that generous chest - she's got a soft spot for "Poodle" (Jack) and considers him her closest friend, despite her ignorance and abhorrence of his lifestyle; and when Grace is so distraught over her failed marriage or an unexpected pregnancy that even Will can't cheer her up, Karen drops her acidic modern May West guise to give Grace the righteous wisdom of her experience. Jack may be Karen's confidant, but her laconic maid, Rosario, (Shelley Morrison, who starred as Linda Little Trees in "Laredo" in the 60s with my favorite actor, William Smith) is Karen's acerbic zoo keeper who can match her insult for insult and pile on the put downs.    

"The Best of Friends and Foes" has a roster of rowdy stars who dive into the zany plots with the zeal of pre-schoolers pulling apart Play Dough. "Saturday Night Live" alum Molly Shannon shines as Val, a divorcee with a warped wit who takes over as Will's new best friend in the episode "Grace Replaced." Grace and Val's tug-of-war for Will's attention ends up in a comedic cat fight that hilariously overshadows Shannon's return in "Fagel Attraction":

Val: You're looking at a totally new me.
Grace: Why? Are you working as a team with the people in your head?
Val: No, I'm on a new psychotropic drug. Sure, I have no sex drive and I'm always dizzy, but I think I can be a really good friend.

Cher shares the episode "Gypsies, Tramps and Weed" with Constance Manheim, who plays Psychic Sue, a seemingly phony baloney huckster whose predictions, much to Will's dismay, keep coming true:

Will: Psychic Sue said I was going to spend my life with a guy named Jack.
Jack: Jack who?
Will:  Jack you.
Jack: Jack me?
Will: No thanks!

Cher wears a smug smirk throughout her only scene, but it's most likely because she was on the verge of breaking up. She had to keep a straight face, but you don't have to - and you won't be able to. Despite a face lift that makes her look like her own wax figure in Madame Toussaint's, Cher is all aggression and attitude - no stretch since she plays herself, and Hayes does a great impression of her. Do you believe in love...ho! Jack's encounter with Cher winds up sounding like the battle of the network Cher's, and it's a real hoot because he mistakes her for a drag queen rather than the flesh and botoxed real deal.

Ellen DeGeneres is on board as Sister Louise, a holy entrepreneur who runs "What a Friend We Have in Cheesecake" in the episode "My Uncle the Car." (For those of us old enough to remember a TV series once referred to as the worst of all time, the title tweaks Jerry Van Dyke's short-lived 1965 series "My Mother the Car," about a talking car. Hmm...That'll never work.) DeGeneres is her usual coy, clean self. Compare her appearance to that of Minnie Driver, who appears as Stan's new lover, Lorraine, in the episode "Homojo." A bigger concern for Karen than losing her corpulent husband is Lorraine's determination to steal Jack away from her. I've always thought Driver was a plain-looking, middling talent. Slap her in a negligee and let her carry on in cockney and I stand corrected.

You gotta love an actor who can poke fun at himself. Kevin Bacon's guest slot as a pompous and greedy version of himself brings out the laughs in "Bacon and Eggs," which finds Jack stalking the star, then finagling a job as his assistant. On the other hand, Madonna displays the numbing sense of timing, flat delivery, and overstated facial expressions that made her a box office smash in "Shanghai Express." She takes up too much camera time in "Dolls and Dolls" as Karen's new roommate, although watching Karen trying to figure out how to open up a can of soda is a priceless sight gag.

Demi Moore must be Dorian Grey's sister because she's ageless. Her role as Jack's babysitter in "Women and Children First" is a bit disconcerting and way out even for a show that flaunted ridiculous situations. But watch for Rosanna Arquette in a cameo and Leigh-Anne Baker in the reoccurring role of Ellen, who frequently pops up to extol the evils of marriage.

A quartet of guests brighten "I Do, Oh, No You Di-Int," which features Monty Python's John Cleese as Karen's squeeze, a surprisingly funny Harry Connick as Grace's husband, and Jennifer Lopez making her entrance coming out of a toilet. Lopez is unexpectedly sharp as she trades quips with Karen. Tim Curry (Dr. Frank N. Furter in "The Rocky Horror Show") bursts on the scene in a flurry of lip locks and energy, proving once again he can be funnier in 30 seconds than most actors can be in half an hour.

Someone needs to cut Brittany Spears some slack, the girl can act. She plays "Amber Louise from the great state of Alabama," a rival for Jack's position of host of Jack's cable show in "Buy Buy Baby." However, in the same episode, George Takei is stiff as Romulan ale playing his recently proud and outed self. And you'd think bold and brash Wanda Sykes would dominate a guest shot that called for her to be Karen's surrogate mom, but Wanda's psyched out - a timid and hesitant actress.

Whoever cast he-man paisan Bobby Carnivale as Will's self-conscious boyfriend should turn in his Dell; Carnivale just can't play a weakling convincingly, although in the same episode, "Will and Grace and Vince and Nadine," charming Kristin Davis (wasted in "Sex in the City") shows she can play an edgy, okay, crazy character and generate laughs.

The biggest "What the?" bit of casting goes to Michael Douglas, who guest stars in "Fagel Attraction." Douglas' character has a crush on Will and will go to any lengths, including posing as a detective investigating the theft of Will's laptop, to get a date with him. Douglas is a great actor and is given some snappy (and snippy) lines, but you can practically see him squirm when he's slow dancing with Eric McCormick, and he's often wide-eyed, a telling sign of discomfort. He's as believable as a flim flam man with a bridge to sell.

The second 2CD set, "Love and Marriage," isn't as laugh packed as "Friends and Foes," but it still has its moments. As my redneck would friend would say, "Love can be funny, and even 'funny love' can be amusin'." But how many boyfriends can pop up in the storylines like squeaky jack-in-the-boxes before their routines seem well, routine? Depends on your quotient for whiny men -- and that goes for Grace's boyfriends too.

The roster of guest stars includes the late hoofer Gregory Hines, 60s cinema virgin Debbie Reynolds, Tin Pan Alley pianist Harry Connick and man-i-quin Taye Diggs. Hines plays Will's self-made, mordant first-class only boss Ben Doucette in "Ben? Her? (Pts. 1 & 2)." Ben goes from being Grace's harshest critic to her Daddy Warbucks lover over dinner. Connick has more on-camera savvy than his creaky swing albums would lead you to believe, displaying comedic charm as Grace's husband, Leo Markus, despite being written in when the show had jumped the shark and was gasping harder than marathon runner with a three pack a day habit. The real hoot is Debbie Reynolds, who plays Grace's brassy, Broadway show tune belting mom, Bobbi Adler. She steals every scene she's in: "Grace dear, I hear you're marrying a gay black man. Wouldn't it have been easier just to run me over?"

Ahem. Will and Grace... You'll have a gay old time.


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