You might think that putting together the best new comedy of the fall season would mean that the producers of "Will & Grace" would be cut a little bit of slack. But given the fact that the show revolves around the relationship between a gay man and his best friend, a straight woman, that isn't going to happen.
As a matter of fact, the show finds itself in a bit of a no-win situation. The fact that it features gay characters is going to make it too gay for some. And, at the same time, "Will & Grace" has already come under criticism for not being gay enough.(The show premieres Monday at 8:30 p.m. on NBC/Ch. 5.)
When the show's producers and stars appeared before TV critics recently, they were immediately assailed with questions about when and if they would ever portray physical affection - specifically a kiss - between gay male characters.
"Well, most of the affection that you will see will be between Will and Grace initially," producer David Kohan said. "The character of Will has just come off a long-term relationship and Grace has just left her fiance. And so the two of the are really very much in sort of a healing mode."
"Will we see any sexual healing?" asked one critic, vocalizing her agenda.
Not in the first eight or nine episodes at least, Kohan replied.
"But it's possible," he said. "I mean, look, the goal is to be as honest with these characters as we possibly can be. If the situation arises or calls for it, then . . . "
"Well, that seems like a very dishonest answer," interrupted another critic.
Which didn't exactly sit well with "Will & Grace" creator, writer and executive producer Max Mutchnick, himself an openly gay man.
"Then you would be saying that I was dishonest about the way that I live my life," he said. "And I'm very honest in the way that I live my life. So we can only base it on what we know in our experience. And I can base it on what I know in my gay experience. I don't think we'll be hiding a single thing."
Emmy-winning director James Burrows - generally considered the best comedy director in television - tried to put the conversation on a different track.
"Isn't it about entertainment and not controversy?" Burrows asked. "We will try to make the most entertaining show possible and deal with the issues that way. And we're not here to proselytize at all. I come from `Cheers,' where we never proselytized and I wasn't hired to proselytize. So we will do a show that makes us laugh and is entertaining.
"If we find an entertaining way to do a kiss - which is what you're suggesting - we will do that. But we're not politicizing here at all."
Which, of course, set off yet another round of backlash.
"Why would a kiss be an issue and not be entertainment?" was the next naive, if not disingenuous question.
"Because a kiss between two men on television would be an issue," Burrows replied. "Would it not?"
"I would think it would depend on how you would approach it," was the naive if not disingenuous answer.
But Burrows was, of course, correct in pointing out that if it wasn't an issue, "you guys wouldn't be asking us these questions."
The press conference took on a slightly more measured tone when it was pointed out that the original pilot contained a double standard.
"In the first two minutes, you've got the female heterosexual character in bed with her boyfriend and they've just made love," said another critic. "What is inherently political about having two gay male characters with a sex life?"
On the one hand, believing that the portrayal of physical affection between gay men in prime-time network television would not be an issue is, of course, foolish. Even if you believe it shouldn't be an issue, it's ridiculous to argue that it wouldn't be.
On the other hand, the question of a double standard was a point well taken - and the producers dealt with it. In the revised pilot, Grace is not in bed with her boyfriend. (And it doesn't hurt the scene a bit.)
Mutchnick summed up the situation with "Will & Grace" quite well.
"It seems to me it's a no-win situation," Mutchnick said. "We don't have a kiss in the pilot, or maybe for a while. So we're going to get some (flak) for that. But if we put a kiss in the first scene of the pilot, it would be considered controversial. And for everyone that went, `Good for you,' somebody else would go, `Oh, it's a stunt.'
"Well, this is not a stunt show. It's not called `Will.' It's called `Will & Grace.' "
And the point of the show is not the sex lives of Will and Grace, it's their relationship with each other.
"It's like that `(When) Harry Met Sally' line, when Billy Crystal says, `A man and a woman can never be friends because the sex always gets in the way,' " Kohan said. "What we want to explore is what happens between a man and a woman when sex doesn't get in the way."
"I think it's about a relationship between a gay guy and a straight woman," Burrows said. "I think it's incumbent upon us to do a comedy and that's what we're setting out to do. And I hope the pilot set the tone for what the show will be like."
Which is not to say that Will and Grace will live celibate lives. Eventually - assuming the show lasts long enough - they both will have romantic entanglements.
"When Will is ready to date - when he is fully recovered from the seven-year relationship that he's just walked out of - he is going to date," Mutchnick said.
And the producer/writer, while somewhat taken aback, said he expected the sort of questions he was receiving about the show.
"Oh, of course I did," Mutchnick said. "Go nuts if you want to. But you've got gorgeous actors here, and you're talking to the Jews in the back row."
And he replied in the affirmative when asked if he expected "any kind of negative feedback from the gay community."
"I think we're seeing a little bit of it already," Mutchnick said.