My guess is that it was Rupert Everett, not Ellen DeGeneres, who made television executives feel safe in scheduling Will & Grace, the season's cleverest, most intricate sitcom. Whereas DeGeneres turned Ellen into a TV exec's nightmare (an entertainment show with sexual-political content that not enough viewers were offended by to bother tuning in for), Everett's adroit turn as Julia Roberts' gay, true best friend in My Best Friend's Wedding did a great deal to turn that otherwise standard romantic comedy into a hit.
Thus the arrival of a TV show about two chums: a homosexual man (played by Eric McCormack) and a heterosexual woman (played by Debra Messing) who, like Everett and Roberts, delight each other (and us) and threaten no one. Will's a lawyer, Grace is an interior designer, and the show has spent the first couple of episodes bringing them together as roommates. Best buds, they share the same sense of humor. It's fun, for example, to watch people in a sitcom ridiculing the exact things on television that you and your friends might Will and Grace goof on everything from Regis Philbin's squawky yells to Eriq La Salle's perpetually petulant demeanor on ER. When Grace gets melodramatically upset, Will says chidingly, ''You are so Markie Post on every single Lifetime movie.''
There's an ease between the actors that helps make the relationship ring true. McCormack is leading-man debonair with the breezy self-deprecation necessary for a sitcom protagonist. Messing, so constrained by the grimness of her previous series, the silly drama Prey, and upstaged by Thomas Haden Church in the decent sitcom Ned and Stacey, finally comes into her own as a TV star here. Her eyes gleam, her Medusa hair radiates, and, with the help of series director James Burrows, she attacks any bit of physical comedy (miming a ficus plant in the second episode, for example) with avid glee.
The series is so shrewd, cute, and funny it seems impossible that it comes from two guys (executive producer-writers Max Mutchnick and David Kohan) who brought us another NBC sitcom, the dumb, ugly, and un-funny Boston Common. For W&G, the pair's shrewdest move may have been to invent Will's flamboyantly gay friend Jack (Sean Hayes), who tosses wicked wisecracks over his shoulder while walking around the room with a wiggly waddle. (Hayes is Paul Lynde trapped in the body of Daffy Duck.)
Jack serves two purposes. First, he's outrageously funny. Second, he is so outrageously out, he makes Will look like Jimmy Stewart a straight arrow by comparison. It'll be interesting to see how much W&G shows us of Will's future dating (he recently broke up with a certain ''Michael'' after a seven-year relationship), given the entertainment industry's squeamishness about boy-boy romance. As progressive as its premise is, however, there is an air of potentially offensive, wistful wish fulfillment in this show: If only Will were straight, the series implies, both the protagonists' romantic problems (Grace, as you'll see in the premiere, has her own disappointments) would be instantly solved. An NBC press release goes so far as to say that Will and Grace ''love each other and they'd be married by now if it weren't for one little thing.'' Thus, homosexuality as one big gimmicky thing.
But, fuzzy mixed messages aside, Will & Grace delivers on laughs; its other primary character, Grace's assistant Karen (Megan Mullally), is a hotsy hoot and a heartily welcome change from the past few seasons' vogue for snippy, grousing assistants (see Suddenly Susan, Just Shoot Me, NewsRadio, Spin City). Karen is independently wealthy; she (barely) helps out at Grace's design firm merely as a lark. A ditsy dilettante, she keeps the paychecks Grace gives her in a box because she thinks they're ''cute.''
With her squeaky voice and rump-shaking wriggle, Karen is a proud hussy of a sort we haven't seen on TV before, and in the second episode, she and her opposite number, Jack, have a queens-only meeting that's the single funniest scene of the new TV season. Although a good chunk of its intended audience will probably be glued to Ally McBeal, Will & Grace finally gives NBC something to be proud of on Monday nights. B+