Without baring flesh, exchanging fluids or even shedding blood, Will & Grace has become the craftiest, if not the most radical, show in the history of network television--though not merely for its unabashed depiction of gay existence, or the risqué, multi-entendre-filled dialogue its writers slyly sneak under the censors' radar.
Will & Grace is revolutionary for something so utterly conventional it would warm the hearts of bubbes and zeydes across America's urban landscapes: sliding a portrait of a twenty-first-century Jewish American's life into a sitcom about a gay man and his best gal pal. Who in America would want to watch a show explicitly about a Jewish woman living in New York? Sounds like Rhoda Redux. But pair a single woman with a gay man and suddenly, you've got a winning formula.
Actually, it's downright brilliant. There hasn't been a program this overtly Jewish since The Goldbergs, a popular show from 1949 to 1955 that depicted the travails of a hard-working Jewish family of Bronx tenement-dwellers. For starters, the show's name is taken from the "I-Thou" treatise by twentieth-century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, which described the ongoing dialogue between man and God. And Will & Grace is the first prime-time sitcom ever to feature a wedding between a Jewish woman and a Jewish man. When American viewers watched the nuptials between interior decorator Grace Adler (Debra Messing) and Southern Jewish doctor Marvin "Leo" Markus (Harry Connick Jr.) last year, they were bearing witness to more than just a sweeps ploy. Those "I do's" doubled as "I don'ts" to decades' worth of assimilationist portrayals of Jews. Two simple words in that context spoke volumes: More than upholding an age-old tradition that would make parents kvell, they communicated to Middle America that a Jewish main character does not need a gentile foil to validate his or her presence on television.
It could've been so easy for the redheaded Manhattan transplant from Schenectady to live out her boob-tube destiny in sexless wedded bliss with her goyishe gay best friend, Will Truman (Eric McCormack). They're symbiotic, they love and respect each other, they share man problems and they even considered having a baby together. But co-creators Max Mutchnick and David Kohan decided to thumb their collective nose at television's love affair with interfaith marriage--which, by the way, is so 1990s--and delivered Grace a Hebraic knight on a white horse in Central Park just as she was en route to the obstetrician's office to be inseminated with Will's sperm. A few short months later, there stood bride and groom under a chuppah amid a sea of white kippot for the entire nation to behold.
Until Leo galloped into Grace's life that fateful afternoon, couch potatoes had been barraged with neurotic Levites and their sane-to-a-fault, bemused Protestant spouses for more than ten years. There was nice Jewish boy Paul Buchman and his wispy WASP wife, Jamie Stemple, on Mad About You; nasal nanny Fran Fine, the Barbra Streisand-loving borough girl, and her haughty English boss, Maxwell Sheffield, on The Nanny; and hippie-dippy Dharma Finkelstein and her buttoned-up blue-blooded hubby, Greg Montgomery, in Dharma & Greg. On Friends, Ross and Monica Geller are the children of a couple who married outside the faith, and both brother and sister follow suit (Ross does so again and again). Jerry never married on Seinfeld, but neither did he date Jewish women in a city that boasts a surplus of eligible madelach. And to think, back in 1972 Jews and Catholics protested the Meredith Baxter and David Birney comic vehicle Bridget Loves Bernie for its depiction of a marriage between an Irish Catholic woman and a Jewish man (it was subsequently canceled). This is what you call progress?
Apparently, it was a step up. Before the 1990s, the Jew was relegated to a secondary character, at best--Juan Epstein (Welcome Back, Kotter), Natalie Green (The Facts of Life), Abner and Gladys Kravitz (Bewitched), Alex Rieger (Taxi)--if their Jewishness was even explicitly articulated. They were the nosy neighbors, the class clowns, the voice of reason and the best friends, and were frequently asexual or spectacular failures in the love department. Rhoda Morgenstern was a rare case, her popularity as a sidekick allowing her to spin off from The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1974 to have her very own sitcom.