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Will & Grace: a New Definition of Conventional

By morgdoug Jul 11, 2005 2810 Words
Will & Grace: A New definition of Conventional
Where are you on Thursday night? The likely answer is sitting in front of your television screen watching your favorite sitcom. If that is correct, then you are like the millions of other Americans that devote much of their time tuning into the craze of the situation comedy. The situation comedy has been apart of American culture for decades. Having its roots in radio, the situation comedy is "a narrative series comedy, generally between 24 and 30 minutes long, with regular characters and settings (McQueen 53)." Many radio sitcoms went directly to the small screen in the late 1940's and 1950's; this is how the genre got its start (McQueen 53). The classics that put sitcoms in the spot light were The Phil Silvers Show and I Love Lucy; these shows are still regarded as "televisions best-ever creations (Creeber 65)." The situation comedy is one of the main ingredients of broadcast television.

The situation comedy has many fundamental aspects that can vary from show to show. The principle situation is that things stay constant; they do not change (McQueen 56). The aspects of the show needs to be highly recognizable and returned to week after week, because of the repetition of the series and the demands of the time-slot. The narrative of the show must not be destroyed or complicated by the pervious week (McQueen 56). The return to the original situation is always constant. The key to a sitcom involves a disturbance of the stable situation and a conclusion within the episode. These various disruptions and wrongdoings are what the sitcom revolves around. The half hour program always consists of a beginning, middle and end (McQueen 57). The situation that occurs is usually a humorous problem or incident that is resolved by the end of the episode. The narrative of the sitcom is basically circular but that is not binding, some modifications to the characters or plot do take place. Such as "families may gain or lose children as they grow up, long-lost relatives are found, additional characters join series, old ones leave and background details change to keep the stories from becoming stale and repetitive (McQueen 57)." These shifts can sometimes cause the show not to survive, for instance if a main character leaves the show. If that main character was a big dynamic part of the show, it will fail without them. That is the risk that a sitcom makes when they change things, it can work but not always.

The sitcom has certain themes and experiences that are regularly used when developing a show. The themes of "family and home, work and authority" are the most common used in a sitcom (McQueen 57). The reason for these types of themes is because of how common they are, and many audiences can recognize the different situations. The "collision of values, identities, and lifestyles" is the major component in a comedy, the more collision the more laughter (McQueen 58). Sitcoms usually consist of a family or quasi-family structures, these are necessary to satisfy the needs of the viewer. The family structure can consist of whole families, single parents with children, step-families, even gay men and straight single women (Creeber 69). The combination does not matter, viewers just want to see some sort of nuclear family, conventional or not.

The situation comedy Will & Grace has all the consistent elements of a sitcom but with a slight difference from the rest. Will & Grace is the first sitcom to have a gay male as the lead on broadcast television. It was not the first sitcom to have gay characters but the first sitcom with gay characters to be a success (Battles 87). The show has won numerous awards in its six seasons on air, the sitcom's premise follows the lives of a man and his close relationship to a woman. The relationship they have resembles interactions between soul mates but that is a big misunderstanding because one is gay and the other is straight (Battles 88). The show does vary from week to week and is typically consistent with standard sitcom formula – "quirky behaviors, silly misunderstandings, embarrassing peccadilloes" and so forth (Shugart 71).

The two main characters are the homosexual Will Truman and the heterosexual Grace Adler who have been best friends since college. Will is a "handsome, well dressed, but uptight corporate lawyer living in a tastefully appointed, spacious Manhattan apartment, and Grace is a stylish and attractive interior decorator with a well-defined neurotic streak (Cooper 516-517)." Their other close friends are the unconditionally self-involved, flighty, continually unemployed and flamboyantly gay Jack McFarland, and Karen Walker, Grace's assistant a "rich, shallow socialite who devotes most of her time to drinking, shopping, and other self-indulgences (Cooper 517)." Will and Grace's relationship is the foundation of the show, though Jack and Karen do provide most of the comic relief. This show isn't about a couple of gay men living in a heterosexual world, it would be better put to day that Grace and Karen the female leads are "residents in Will and Jack's "gay world" (Cooper 517)."

The success of Will & Grace is due to the fact that the appeal for the show went beyond the "small, niche gay market" to the "larger, mainstream audiences (Battles 88)." People, who might not ordinarily be inclined to watch a "queer" show, in fact enjoy it and tune in. The increased showing of gay culture on television has led some people to believe that it is a sign of society's growing acceptance of the gay community (Battles 89). By placing the topic of homosexuality through the comfort of the situation comedy genre, it has made the concept more pleasant for audiences. In other words the situation comedy has made the subject of homosexuality "safe" for the mainstream viewers (Shugart 71). In turn their sexual orientation has become invisible to many viewers (Battles 89). The show is applauded for representing two "different, yet likable, representations of gay men" and "presenting their sexuality simply as a part of who [they] are as individuals (Battles 88)." The two men on the show have been considered progressive, thus overriding many of the negative stereotypes of gay men in the past. There are many preconceived ideas about gay men, especially the notion that gay men are not masculine. In the past, "comedic conventions of film and television" have "reinforced and poked fun at this stereotype of the gay man (Battles 89)." Will & Grace challenges that notion but at the same time reinforces it. The character Will offers a different model for homosexuality, he fits well into the "mainstream model of masculinity" because he is handsome, physically fit, has a professional job, and a high income. This character is very different from what the media has portrayed as a gay male. Though the character of Jack fulfills the stereotypical gay male, he is very flashy, tends to have a higher voice, has very feminine mannerisms, and is obsessed with his looks. Many times Jack is made fun of for his overt "queeniness" but his character is a main reason why the show is so unique and successful. The portrayal of these two different types of gay men help the audience have a better understanding of gay culture. Gay culture is very prevalent through the premise of the show. The show is bursting with gay humor. The gay style of humor is presented in the show's scenes "in gay bars and stores known for their gay clientele" and it's use of "gay vernacular" and other "markers of gay male culture (Cooper 517)." The main characters are constantly caring about fashion and appearance, this concern for aesthetics reflects "gay sensibility (Cooper 518)." The obsession with clothing and style is more overt than other shows because of the connotation that gay males are very high fashion. Also, the gay humor is demonstrated in its numerous references to celebrity and celebrity culture. Worship of celebrity is a common stereotype of gay males. One other signifier that the show is filled with gay culture is the characters' use of terms such a "queer," "fruit," and "fag." Also Will and Jack are frequently called women or given women's names (Cooper 518). A perfect illustration to sum up the atmosphere of the show is in one episode when "Grace refers to a marriage announcement in the New York Times" and "Jack responds, "I don't really follow straight society (Cooper 518)." That response from Jack is a classic example of how the show is represented to the audience. The concept of the gay man with the straight woman was very original and until Will & Grace, it had never been explored before. The relationship that Will and Grace have seems romantic, but will never go further than friendship. The gay man/straight women concept is characterized as "wannabe partners whose sexual orientations are at odds" in turn puts a new take on the "star-crossed lovers" or should they be called "would-be lovers (Shugart 73)." The history behind the "odd couple," is they met in college prior to Will's coming out, they dated, Will came out, and then they became best friends. Even though they are not lovers, the "romantic subtext of their relationship persists (Shugart 73)." This is clearly established through the series. For instance "Will is referred to by other characters as Grace's husband, they cohabitate, they are very close," they even spend more time together than with their romantic partners (Shugart 73). It is safe to say that the whole basis of the show is Will and Grace's relationship, it has "emotional intimacy" that is "far greater than any of their other relationships and is the most important in their lives (Shugart 74)." The relationship between Will and Grace is very important to the dynamic of the show and is focused on, in many of the episodes. One episode in particular deals with the provocative issue of gay marriage. The marriage is for the characters friend's Joe and Larry, but through out the episode Will and Grace are clearly depicted as a "shadow couple of Joe and Larry (Battles 93)." Soon their relationship becomes center stage. The shift starts when Joe and Larry decide to ask Will and Grace to do a reading together at the marriage ceremony. This gesture among other instances in the episode, clearly show that Grace is being positioned as Will's wife, which upsets Will tremendously. On the ride to the wedding the two bicker over money, and they continue to bicker through out the ceremony until it is time for them to stand and perform their reading. During their reading of a poem about love, they start to address each other, finally admitting their love for each other and making up. When they are finished the audience applauds and Will and Grace walk down the aisle as if they were getting married. Though soon they remember whose wedding it is and go back to their seats. The ceremony continues and Will and Grace are happy again. This episode truly demonstrates the tension that persists between these characters. This tension resembles "sexual tension and bickering between heterosexuals in other sitcoms prior to consummation of their relationships (Battles93)." The poem that they read discussed the "possession of infinite amounts love" this statement indicates the two can love each other and still have enough love for potential romantic partners (Battles 94). This is very important to Will and Grace because even though they have great love for one another they still long for a significant other. The performance that Will and Grace give the attendees at the wedding deflects the attention from the real couple and their same-sex union. This union becomes insignificant compared to the vows exchanged between Will and Grace. This strategy was done by the program to distract attention from the possible "threat posed by portraying a gay marriage to a mainstream audience by focusing on the relationship between Will and Grace (Battles 94)." This emphasis on the interpersonal relationship of Will and Grace prevents the show from considering "any politics and does not help acknowledge the social consequences of gay persons" living in a straight world (Battles 99). By overshadowing the matter of same-sex pairing the program avoids having to deal with potential uproar from the media. Many homosexual relationships on the show are not successful, in contrast to the many heterosexual relationships that seem to prevail. This is another attempt by the show to be politically correct.

The unsuccessful homosexual relationships in the show are epitomized through Will and Jack's relationship. These two "who are the only recurring gay characters on the program," "can rarely spend meaningful time together (Battles 94)." The time that they do spend seems very devoid of any hint of sexual intimacy or attraction. There are two different interpretations of the interaction between Will and Jack. First, this interaction can be seen as a "positive representation because it demonstrates that gay men can form bonds" with out any sexual intimacy (Battles 94). Though on the other hand, it could mean that any possible attraction between the characters that has even a hint of same-sex attraction is considered a perversion. Will and Jack have mentioned in several episodes that the thought of being together is repulsive to both of them. That repulsion could be interpreted as "homophobic" resembling "scenes from films and television", but of course the homosexuals Will and Jack are not homophobic (Battles 95). The actions of the characters function to "distance Will from Jack in the program," they could not be more different form one another. Jack's stereotypical gay identity embodies his whole character; in comparison, Will seems not as gay. The elements that Will and Jack bring to the show are invaluable, the two types of gay identities that are present within the characters balance out the gay atmosphere of the show.

The two supporting characters Karen and Jack bring a lot of humor and likeability to the program. Generally the most "funniest and most outrageous moments" do not come from Will and Grace the two lead characters but from Jack and Karen (Battles 96). They constantly "call into question the assumptions and beliefs of a heterosexist culture through their dialogue and actions (Battles 96)." Karen and Jack share similar values, they have an "implicit understanding that money, taste, and looks are the only thinks that matter" and the rest of life is "just laughable sentiment (Cooper 519)." They are purposely positioned as the "buffoons" in the show and not intended "to be taken seriously (Battles 99)." Karen thinks of herself as a fount of wisdom and feels she has impeccable taste. She continually critiques Grace's clothes and is always eager to point out when she feels Grace is committing a fashion faux pas. Karen does not follow the usually roles of a women, she is not a supportive mother, friend or wife. She is never concerned with the welfare others and is incapable of offering any real emotion except when it comes to herself. Even in her role as a wife, she regards "marriage as nothing more than an exchange of sex for money (Battles 98)." The loving relationship between a man and wife is nothing more than a contractual obligation that must be fulfilled (Battles 97). Also she has a weakness for indulgences that consists of drinking liquor and popping pills at work or home, it really does not matter. Her description sounds more like a witch than a lovable character, even through all of her despicable actions she still remains a favorite character. The other favorite supportive character is Jack. Like was stated earlier Jack is very comparable to Karen, except the fact that is male and gay. Jack is the equivalent to a gay trickster character. Jack is described as a "one-man floor show; perpetually animated, always ready with a quip or about to burst in song or dance (Cooper 519)." In addition to his sudden outbursts and show tunes Jack is constantly rotating boyfriends, ogling and flirting, and his objects of desire are gay and straight, it hardly matters. This continual boyfriend swapping labels Jack the poster child for promiscuity. Another typical Jack characteristic is his very dependent nature; he relies on the kindness of others (Cooper 519). Although is has an obvious lake of talent, it is hardly noticeable to him because he is oozing with self-confidence. That is one quality that Jack

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