When Will & Grace arrived in 1998, it took a revolutionary-for-TV subject the friendship between a single gay man and a single straight woman and welded it to the classic, cozy structure of a traditional sitcom. For many gay viewers, the resulting show has occupied a special and troubled place in pop culture, breaking some barriers and dawdling at others; it's been better than we feared and less than we hoped it would be. With gay characters still underrepresented on network TV (if you don't believe it, count 'em), no single series should have to please an entire demographic. But, as W&G's absolutely hag-ulous sidekick Karen is prone to remark, tough titty. Extra scrutiny is inevitable when you're the only game in town.
So, halfway through its seventh season the comedy equivalent of retirement age how's Will & Grace doing? On the bright side, after what may be history's longest recorded drought for an attractive gay New York City lawyer, Will (Eric McCormack) finally has a boyfriend, an Italian-American ex-cop played with appealing matter-of-factness by Third Watch's Bobby Cannavale. (They even kissed without causing much of an uproar perhaps all of those focus-on-the-family groups were busy attacking Saving Private Ryan that day.) As for Grace (Debra Messing), she's shed about 190 pounds of deadweight named Leo (a futile role played valiantly enough by Harry Connick Jr.). That leaves just two big problems: him and her. Will & Grace has gone from being the story of two best friends to the story of two people so appallingly self-involved that nobody else would want to know them.
This undesirable evolution, I suspect, stems from the early seasons, when it became clear that Will & Grace's supporting characters, the pinheaded man-slut Jack (Sean Hayes) and the rich, acid-souled lush Karen (Megan Mullally), were getting all the laughs. Jack and Karen were crafty creations that allowed the show's writers to indulge in both genuine boldness (Karen's bisexuality is the most subversive subplot on any network sitcom) and ultra-campy stereotypes while keeping Will and Grace untainted. I have no idea if McCormack or Messing ever walked into a script meeting and said, ''I want my character to be funnier'' (moments like that are why God gave writers the Taser gun), but the show started going south when their personalities gave way to an array of nasty sitcomish quirks.
This retrenching violated both the characters and the very nature of the show. Almost every current nonfamily sitcom can trace its DNA to one of two shows: Friends, a comic near- soap in which our sympathy with the characters deepened and enriched over time; and Seinfeld, in which ''character'' was so subordinate to brilliantly crafted comedy that it didn't even matter if, ultimately, the leads all ended up in prison. Will & Grace is a Friends show that thinks it's a Seinfeld show, the result of which is that, time and again, it trashes its characters for the sake of a laugh. Two glaring recent examples were an otherwise sharp episode in which Will, bent on saving a venerable gay bookstore, sabotaged the effort when he found out a gym was going to replace it; and an hour-long Thanksgiving show (mistake! mistake!) in which he outed someone while having a tantrum over how dinner was going. Huh? What? Will, the man with the overgrown sense of responsibility and conscience, is suddenly acting like Jack? Where did the slightly neurotic but essentially appealing protagonists of the show go? In a given week, Will is now shallow, narcissistic, a mama's boy, uptight, needy, or a fussbudget, depending on the whims of the script. Meanwhile, Grace is greedy (by the way, the Jewish penny-pincher jokes weren't funny the first time), vapid, near-bulimic, lazy, or illiterate or none of the above. Why should we care about characters who can't even seem to remember who they are from week to week? Nor is the show helped by the Here's Lucy-like parade of guest stars Janet Jackson was an all-time low that you can feel each script sweating to accommodate.
The good news is, the series is fixable. Mullally and Hayes remain TV's most adept sitcom support team, and McCormack and Messing are sharp, appealing pros who need more consistent material. If Frasier was able to shake off years of torpor and go out on an eleventh-season high, Will & Grace, which probably has another year or so before calling it quits, can marshal its two greatest assets its gifted principal cast and its audience's patient if overstrained affection and do the same.