The Jewish Soul of 'Will & Grace'
Without baring flesh, exchanging fluids or even shedding blood, "Will & Grace" has become the craftiest, if not the most radical, show in the history of network television -- though not merely for its unabashed depiction of gay existence, or the risqué, multi-entendre-filled dialogue its writers slyly sneak under the censors' radar.
"Will & Grace" is revolutionary for something so utterly conventional it would warm the hearts of bubbes and zeydes across America's urban landscapes: sliding a portrait of a twenty-first-century Jewish American's life into a sitcom about a gay man and his best gal pal. Who in America would want to watch a show explicitly about a Jewish woman living in New York? Sounds like Rhoda Redux. But pair a single woman with a gay man and suddenly, you've got a winning formula.
Actually, it's downright brilliant. There hasn't been a program this overtly Jewish since The Goldbergs, a popular show from 1949 to 1955 that depicted the travails of a hard-working Jewish family of Bronx tenement-dwellers. For starters, the show's name is taken from the "I-Thou" treatise by 20th-century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, which described the ongoing dialogue between man and God. And "Will & Grace" is the first prime-time sitcom ever to feature a wedding between a Jewish woman and a Jewish man. When American viewers watched the nuptials between interior decorator Grace Adler (Debra Messing) and Southern Jewish doctor Marvin "Leo" Markus (Harry Connick Jr.) last year, they were bearing witness to more than just a sweeps ploy. Those "I do's" doubled as "I don'ts" to decades' worth of assimilationist portrayals of Jews. Two simple words in that context spoke volumes: More than upholding an age-old tradition that would make parents kvell, they communicated to Middle America that a Jewish main character does not need a gentile foil to validate his or her presence on television.
It would have been so easy for the redheaded Manhattan transplant from Schenectady to live out her boob-tube destiny in sexless wedded bliss with her goyishe gay best friend, Will Truman (Eric McCormack). They're symbiotic, they love and respect each other, they share man problems and they even considered having a baby together. But co-creators Max Mutchnick and David Kohan decided to thumb their collective nose at television's love affair with interfaith marriage -- which, by the way, is so 1990s -- and delivered Grace a Hebraic knight on a white horse in Central Park just as she was en route to the obstetrician's office to be inseminated with Will's sperm. A few short months later, there stood bride and groom under a chuppah amid a sea of white kippot for the entire nation to behold.
Until Leo galloped into Grace's life that fateful afternoon, couch potatoes had been barraged with neurotic Levites and their sane-to-a-fault, bemused Protestant spouses for more than ten years. There was nice Jewish boy Paul Buchman and his wispy WASP wife, Jamie Stemple, on Mad About You; nasal nanny Fran Fine, the Barbra Streisand-loving borough girl, and her haughty English boss, Maxwell Sheffield, on The Nanny; and hippie-dippy Dharma Finkelstein and her buttoned-up blue-blooded hubby, Greg Montgomery, in Dharma & Greg. On Friends, Ross and Monica Geller are the children of a couple who married outside the faith, and both brother and sister follow suit (Ross does so again and again). Jerry never married on Seinfeld, but neither did he date Jewish women in a city that boasts a surplus of eligible madelach. And to think, back in 1972 Jews and Catholics protested the Meredith Baxter and David Birney comic vehicle Bridget Loves Bernie for its depiction of a marriage between an Irish Catholic woman and a Jewish man (it was subsequently canceled). This is what you call progress?
Apparently, it was a step up. Before the 1990s, the Jew was relegated to a secondary character, at best -- Juan Epstein (Welcome Back, Kotter), Natalie Green (The Facts of Life), Abner and Gladys Kravitz (Bewitched), Alex Rieger (Taxi) -- if their Jewishness was even explicitly articulated. They were the nosy neighbors, the class clowns, the voice of reason and the best friends, and were frequently asexual or spectacular failures in the love department. Rhoda Morgenstern was a rare case, her popularity as a sidekick allowing her to spin off from The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1974 to have her very own sitcom.
Still, a Jew cast as a sitcom lead was usually stuck playing the quirky partner of a straitlaced gentile, the fact of a character's Judaism almost always serving as shorthand for "neurotic," "funny" or "eccentric." (Perhaps the sole, and remarkable, exception is the case of Seinfeld, where the show's namesake was both the Jew and the straight man, while his "non-Jewish" friends were the oddballs.) Yet even as Jews vacated the minor-character role, another group was waiting to be typecast. Gays and lesbians (and the occasional transgendered person) turned up all over the tube: Roseanne's gay boss Leon in Roseanne; bed-and-breakfast owners Ron and Erick in Northern Exposure; Paul's lesbian sister Debbie in Mad About You; Ross's lesbian ex-wife Carol on Friends, to name just a few.
"Will & Grace" is the antidote to this long legacy of marginalizing and stereotyping of Jews and gays. Grace Adler and Will Truman are both nutty -- the two are as competitive as they are insecure and self-deprecating -- and enjoy their vanity as much as they do their geeky qualities (Will has a penchant for puns, Grace loves to sing badly). Yet neither Will nor Grace has anything on secondary characters like Jack McFarland (Sean Hayes), a manic Himbo with huge theatrical aspirations, pop-celebrity obsessions and delusions of grandeur, who recognizes little outside his microcosmic world of bad cabaret and gym bunnies; and Grace's gin-soaked assistant, Karen Walker (Megan Mullally), a rich bitch who knows the boldfaced names in all the New York society pages, but most days can barely remember her own. These two, along with Karen's devoted, acid-tongued maid, Rosario Salazar (Shelley Morrison), set the comedy in motion with their outrageous dysfunctions and interactions as Karen and Jack affectionately grope each other, "charge themselves some happy" at Barney's and Hermes, prank-call Marlo Thomas and torture Karen's fleet of servants.
All four friends, plus the deadpan Rosario, are fluent in queer-speak, trading bawdy quips, wicked in-jokes and pop-cultural references. But only the Upper West Side-dwelling Will understands Grace's self-referential humor, which is largely shaped by her Jewish experience. She dubs Will "Uncle Hachel" when he's being a jerk, drops casual mentions of her summers at Camp Ramah and has been known to intone a self-pitying prayer "Borchu et adonai, I'm gonna die alone." Jack and Karen would seem to have encountered only one Jew in their life -- Grace -- so they are often puzzled by her comical asides. But Grace does not become the butt of the joke; rather, we laugh at Karen and Jack for their ignorance about things Jewish. These two über-gentiles are the eccentrics for a change.
It would be so simple for Mutchnick and Kohan to posit the "straight" pair against the wacky duo. But there is one crucial difference between Will and Grace -- one steeped in cultural mores -- that threatens to propel one forward in life and leave the other behind. Will cleaves to his WASP reserve out of fear, preferring denial and decorum to confrontation, which can prove paralytic for him. He is out to his parents, for example, but can't bring himself to acknowledge his father's infidelities, even as he meets the mistress. Grace is the product of a theatrical Jewish mother who knows no bounds (or boundaries), and if it isn't confidence that allows it, she at least has the chutzpah to take leaps of faith.
Last year's season finale of "Will & Grace" intimated that the honeymoon between the newlywed Markuses might have been drawing to a close, though the new season shows the couple negotiating their new life together. But the survival of Grace's marriage hardly even matters. The fact that she did it at all demonstrated to her gang that she was ready to reconfigure her friendship with Will so that she could pursue sexual and emotional fulfillment through a marriage built on romance. More so, it conveyed to millions of viewers that, as "Will & Grace" blazes trails by offering fully realized, non-stereotypical gay characters, it is simultaneously an extremely entertaining sitcom about a Jewish gal from Schenectady who is as American as (the Big) Apple Pie.
Kera Bolonik's writing has appeared in the New York Times, Salon.com, Slate, the Forward and Bookforum, among others. She lives in Brooklyn.