EW Staff
September 10, 1999 AT 04:00 AM EDT

WILL & GRACE
NBC, 9-9:30 PM Starts Sept. 21

”As a token of appreciation for a solid frosh year, NBC brass Friday gave [Will & Grace‘s] main thesps — Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, Sean Hayes, and Megan Mullally — identical convertible Porsche Boxters.” — Daily Variety, 8/2/99

”You can’t imagine how mind-f—ed we were. It was awesome. It made me rethink my blasé sensibilities.” — Megan Mullally

For the stars of a show that averaged only 40th in the Nielsens, a quartet of $40,000 cars might seem like an extravagance, but W&G has something money can’t buy: momentum. Its well-turned one-liners, whip-crack pacing, and endearing ensemble keep winning over more viewers, making it NBC’s biggest potential breakout hit since Friends. Its well-turned one-liners, whip-crack pacing, and endearing ensemble keep winning over more viewers, making it NBC’s biggest potential breakout hit since Friends.

But let’s shift into reverse for a second: Before Will & Grace premiered last fall, some people were concerned that a sitcom about a homosexual male and his heterosexual female roommate would be ”too gay” for an Ellen-weary America. Other people were concerned the show wouldn’t be gay enough — with Will remaining eternally celibate. But, ironically, the only legitimate question swirling around W&G during its first season turned out to be, Should the show actually have been called Jack & Karen?

Eric McCormack’s Will and Debra Messing’s Grace may have been the title characters, but Will’s flamboyantly effeminate pal, Jack (Sean Hayes), and Grace’s filthy-rich assistant, Karen (Megan Mullally), provided most of the comic high points early on. Still, the show’s cast and creators agree that the sidekicks’ outrageous antics work only as counterpoint to the more grounded titular twosome. ”When we first started, Sean and Megan were afraid that they were going to be the two-dimensional cardboard cutouts, and we were afraid they were going to get all the laughs,” admits McCormack. ”But somewhere over the course of the year, it became a show about four people.”

This fall, these four will have all-new living arrangements. Will and Grace, who moved in together after she called off her wedding, will separate — but not by much. She finds a pad across the hall, which allows both to pursue fresh relationships. Last season, Will was recovering from a breakup with a longtime beau, but this fall ”we’ll see him on lots of dates,” says cocreator Max Mutchnick. ”We’re depicting a very honest gay man, and it’s hard to find ‘the one.”’ After his law practice goes belly-up, Will takes a job at a corporate firm where his boss may become a love interest for Grace.

When we last saw Jack, he had entered into a marriage of convenience with Rosario (Shelley Morrison), Karen’s illegal-alien maid. To fool the INS, Jack takes up residence at Karen’s mansion and lives with Rosario as man and wife in the help’s quarters. And though we may meet Karen’s as-yet-unseen husband, Stan, her oft-maligned stepchildren will remain invisible. ”I call one of them ‘the fatty,’ so you can’t ever show them because there’d be too much sympathy,” says Mullally. ”They’re children, for Christ’s sake.”

”I thought [NBC West Coast prez] Scott Sassa was making one of his goofy jokes, then I realized there were four of them and they all had dealer plates.” — Eric McCormack

Soon after the Porsches were delivered, NBC gave W&G another gift: the prized Tuesday-at-9 slot. “We’ve moved so many times, but every time it’s helped the show,” says Messing, whose series was shifted three times last season. McCormack isn’t feeling so secure: “I never used to worry about it, but then people constantly say, ‘I love your show — when is it on?'”

In its new spot, W&G will face ABC’s similarly skewing Dharma & Greg. “Despite the fact they both have a man and a woman’s name in the title, they’re completely different,” contends Hayes. “There’s room for both of us.” Cocreator David Kohan, however, expresses concern: “It’s going to be a battle. My hope is both shows don’t suffer as a result.” Mutchnick is more succinct: “I want to win.”

”I literally lay down on the pavement and started shaking. It didn’t register. They said, ‘These are for you.’ And I was like, ‘What do you mean–those trees?”’ — Sean Hayes

Only one question remains: As the show’s profile rises, will its homocentric humor finally rankle right-wingers? “We’re not agitators, but we want to do things that push a little bit,” says Kohan. For now, adds McCormack, “we’re under the conservative radar just enough that we don’t bug them. Ellen was an easier target because she was one person, and she was very vocal.” Mullally offers her own theory why W&G hasn’t stirred up a fuss: “It helps that within the show, there’s gay bashing. Will and Jack constantly insult each other, so it’s built-in.”

”The most meaningful thing about this gift is it makes me feel like the show has the chance for a life. We won’t be canceled in the next six months. So that allows me for the first time to exhale and enjoy it and go for the ride.” — Debra Messing

In a Porsche, what a nice ride it’ll be.

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