‘Will & Grace’ will get back to basics

Revived sitcom to focus on original four characters

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LOS ANGELES — What started as a small way to voice opinions about the recent presidential election turned into the catalyst for bringing back one of NBC’s most successful comedy series, “Will & Grace.” Series stars Debra Messing, Eric McCormack, Megan Mullally and Sean Hayes reunited a year ago after a decade to create a short video where their “Will & Grace” characters took sides on the subject of Donald Trump being the Republican candidate for the White House.

The more than 7.7 million views the short film got on YouTube caught the attention of the Hollywood community and NBC has made the unprecedented move of bringing back the show. The new season of “Will & Grace” — technically the ninth season — launched Thursday.

The four actors knew that the comedy connection they had during the original run of the show was as strong as ever when they sat down to read the script for that short. Debra Messing said it felt like she was coming home.

“And we laughed so hard. And I for the last year, at least I’ll speak for myself, it’s been a confusing time, and I haven’t laughed very much,” Messing says. “To come back together and to laugh out loud and to be surprised by one another and to have new stories to tell and to have the opportunity to do it, it’s a no-brainer. It’s just a beautiful, crazy thing that’s happened.”

It wasn’t just the actors who felt the chemistry was still strong. Eric McCormack noticed the responses from the Hollywood brass, usually cynical critics and fans were very positive to the idea of getting the gang back together. It was that response that made McCormack think they would be foolish not to reunite.

Mullally heard the first talk of bringing the series back soon after their election video was posted. She and the rest of the cast got an email from former executive producer Max Mutchnick, who suggested that since they had already rebuilt the set they should find more uses for it. Within 45 minutes of that email, all four actors had agreed to come back to do the show.

The only minor problem was that when the final episode aired in 2006 (with more than 18 million viewers), the storylines had taken the four to some definitive places. The friendship between Will (McCormack) and Grace (Messing) — who each had a child — had been dead for years. And Jack (Sean Hayes) had inherited a fortune. Those aren’t the kind of elements that would allow for the four friends to get together constantly to trade barbs. But this is television, a place where an entire season of “Dallas” was written off as one really long dream sequence.

Executive producers David Kohan and Mutchnick are dismissing what was supposed to be the finale of the series as more of a fantasy than fact. Mutchnick stresses that the writers only took the approach they did because the series was ending.

Kohan says, “It was a projection, that last episode, into the future, and I also think that one of the things when we thought about bringing this back was, what was it that we missed. And I think what we missed was the dynamic between the four of them more than we missed the possibility of seeing what their lives would be like as parents.”

The actors and producers have gone back to what earned the show 16 Emmy wins from 83 nominations. That’s why it will return to the basics and all of the focus will be on the interaction between the four friends.

The question is whether or not the public really wants the show back or the election video was just a fun bit of nostalgia. Those involved with the project have no way of knowing until the episodes begin to air. They do know that what made “Will & Grace” so popular originally is still there.

Kohan quotes veteran director, James Burrows, who was behind the camera for all of the “Will & Grace” episodes. Burrows told Kohan that “when you have this kind of thing, you have to appreciate how fortunate it is, when it’s just a confluence of these particular actors who are playing these particular parts with these particular words to say.”

That’s why Kohan doesn’t try to analyze too much why “Will & Grace” has worked so well. The best he will do is admit that putting the four actors together was from the very start the equivalent of “lightning in a bottle.”

“When we write something, we always have an idea and we think we have a pretty accurate idea of how it’s going to sound and how it’s going to look and how it’s going to feel when they play it. And invariably they exceed our expectations. It’s incredibly gratifying,” Kohan adds.

NBC executives are convinced the lightning still exists. The new season of “Will & Grace” will feature 16 episodes and has already been picked up for a second season with 13 additional episodes.