Will & Grace's return sparked a wave of copycats. How did they succeed when others failed? Dominic Corry investigates.

When Will & Grace returned with new episodes last year, more than a decade since its finale, it was welcomed back with such force that it spurred a wave of nostalgia-driven sitcom revivals.

The revived shows that came in its wake have not fared quite so well: Roseanne garnered big ratings, but a Twitter meltdown by its star Roseanne Barr forced the network to kill off her character; and the recent Murphy Brown revival has been criticised for being self-satisfied and preachy.

How is it that Will & Grace deftly navigates the modern cultural conversation without falling prey to its many perils?

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That was the main question on my mind when I visited the set of the show, on Universal Studios' Los Angeles backlot, and spoke separately to its four principal cast members.

Eric McCormack, who plays Will, believes Will & Grace gets away with being so political because it's not trying to portray all sides of the argument, despite having a resident conservative in the form of Karen (Megan Mullally).

"We clearly are a very liberal show," McCormack tells Weekend. "We star two gay guys, and Karen is clearly not supposed to be a character whose morals we applaud. So we can get away with having a Republican character and not have to give her equal time. She gets her time but it's always comic. We're laughing at her."

Will & Grace is on a roll.
Will & Grace is on a roll.

Debra Messing, who plays Will's platonic soul mate Grace, credits the show's sharp-as-a-tack writing. "From the very beginning, they knew they wanted to be subversive and provocative, and the only way that you can get away with it is by couching the politics with comedy that is engaging while simultaneously building characters that you care about."

The cast and creators are conscious of staying within their lane, says Messing.

"I think it becomes clear in rehearsal, with whatever the topic of the week is, if it's stepping away from being in the world of Will & Grace," she continues. "It becomes pretty obvious and it's adjusted."

Sean Hayes, who won an Emmy for playing the indefatigable Jack, believes it's the show's willingness to directly address the cultural zeitgeist that holds critics at bay.

"These characters are living in the exact same world as the public are," Hayes says.

"They're going through the same things as everybody else, therefore they can comment on it and it's relatable. Those opinions are shared by millions of people so I don't think anybody's going to point fingers. Especially at a comedy, because you're going to lose."

Mullally agrees with Hayes, telling Weekend that being funny justifies a lot.

"[The other sitcom revivals], they're not necessarily that funny," says Mullally. "This show, the writing is so pristine and I think they can get away with a lot more because you're genuinely laughing as it's happening. And the characters are so absurd. It's so absurd that Karen would try to own a piece of the border wall between Scott Baio and Mark Wahlberg. The absurdity helps temper any kind of what I will loosely call 'a message' that the writers might be wanting to explore."

Will & Grace's stars say their secret is great writing.
Will & Grace's stars say their secret is great writing.

In the current season, the second in Will & Grace's contemporary incarnation, Karen is going through a divorce from her never-seen husband Stan. Mullally says she enjoys it when viewers get to experience the softer side of the usually despicable Karen.

"I don't wanna go too far with it because you want that to be sort of a surprise little dose of humanity that she doesn't normally have. Or human decency."

The cast all agree the second season is more fun now they're aware of how much the audience is enjoying it. NBC has already commissioned a third season.

"It feels totally different," says Messing. "The first [revived season], speaking for myself, I was in shock. And I think I was nervous and hesitant and didn't really feel sure that I had found my way back into Grace, so it was a little slow for me. And then it became really fun and it felt good again."

McCormack says it meant the world to him how warmly the revival was received because he felt Will & Grace had been forgotten about.

"It was a huge relief to know that [the audience had] missed us, because we'd missed us," says McCormack.

In the 10 years that Will & Grace was off the air, gay characters have become more commonplace on mainstream television. Hayes says that hasn't diminished the show's responsibility to be progressive in its portrait of homosexuality.

"I don't think that responsibility, as you call it, is ever gone," says Hayes. "I think we also have a responsibility to the characters in general, and then you pepper that with comedy. I think it's important to [co-creators] Max [Mutchnick] and David [Cohan] and to me and to everybody else that the gay characters are presented in a real light."

• Will & Grace screens on Wednesdays, 8.30pm on TVNZ 2, and streams on TVNZ OnDemand.