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When a Kiss Is Just a Kiss

Television * Unlike the backlash that hit 'Ellen's' coming-out episode in 1997, there appears to be little uproar over a gay couple kissing on 'Will & Grace' tonight.

February 22, 2000|PAUL BROWNFIELD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tonight on "Will & Grace," gay friends Jack (Sean Hayes) and Will (Eric McCormack) kiss. And the laughs just keep on coming. But will the protests?

Not if recent history holds.

The NBC sitcom has largely flown under the radar of outrage in its year and a half on the air, even though it once seemed destined for the same fishbowl in which the ABC sitcom "Ellen" was placed in 1997, when star Ellen DeGeneres' character came out as a lesbian.

"We all waited, after the ["Will & Grace"] pilot aired, for the backlash, and it didn't come," said Scott Seomin, entertainment media director of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

The theory--and this is according to everybody from the show's creators to the Parents Television Council, the family-viewing watchdog group that has been most vocal in opposing the show's content--is that while "Will & Grace" involves gay characters and lampoons them, it doesn't stare too directly at gay issues, as critics of "Ellen" used to maintain. Or as "Will & Grace" co-creator Max Mutchnick puts it, talking about the singularly comedic tone of the show and its two gay characters: "Nothing's in bold about their being gay."

This may make "Will & Grace," which is ostensibly about the bond between Will, a yuppie gay man, and Grace (Debra Messing), a straight woman, less socially relevant or even a cop-out to some. But by keeping things silly and full of sexual innuendo, the show has not only found an audience (it's averaging 12.1 million viewers this season, a 13% increase over last year, according to Nielsen Media Research), it's also been able to venture into terrain that has proven problematic for others.

Take tonight's episode, which indirectly comments on all the hand-wringing that gay-themed TV has caused in the past.

In the episode, Jack tunes into his favorite NBC sitcom because the show's two gay characters are going to have a historic kiss ("One giant step for man-on-mankind," deadpans Will). But at the moment of truth, the camera pulls away. Jack is incensed and persuades Will to join him in protesting at NBC, where the two are turned away by a closeted assistant to the network president. But the two exact a measure of revenge in the end, cutting to the front of the sidewalk audience on NBC's "Today" show and kissing each other for the cameras.

The idea for the episode, say Mutchnick and fellow creator and executive producer David Kohan, was inspired by just such an incident on "Today" last year. Here, the kiss is played as broad farce, which has been the point of their show all along, they say. This is also why the media have tried to latch onto a controversy with their series and found no traction, adds Mutchnick.

"Everybody's disappointed that there's not a more delicious story here. There isn't a fight going on. The story is that there's no story," he said.

In fact, as of Friday, the Parents Television Council's Web site didn't even have Tuesday's "Will & Grace" episode updated in its weekly logs, though Steve Schwalm, the council's director of operations, said the site had been experiencing technical problems of late.

Told of the episode's content, Schwalm wasn't alarmed. "It doesn't merit special attention," he said. The Parents Television Council has "Will & Grace" under a general red alert anyway, due to the show's general sexual content, he added.

An NBC spokesperson said the network has felt no advertiser or viewer backlash over the episode, though such ramifications typically take place after an offending episode airs.

Kohan says the only pressure the writers feel to delve more deeply into gay themes is coming from the characters. Though "Will & Grace" began with Will in recovery from a breakup, he's now beginning to date. "You want to give them real lives, you want to give them emotional lives, and at some point that's going to be a romantic life," Kohan said. "I would think a guy like Will would have to get involved with someone eventually."

Added Mutchnick, who's become particularly artful at breezing past the question: "We're going to tell every kind of story. Just be patient. It's all coming at you."

* "Will & Grace" airs on NBC on Tuesday nights at 9. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

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