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 queerspeak, 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, nonstereotypical gay characters, it is simultaneously an extremely entertaining sitcom about a Jewish gal from Schenectady who is as American as (the Big) Apple Pie.