Thursday, May 18, 2006

Will Clark & Mark Grace To Conclude Long-Running Sitcom

Two years after Friends and Frasier left its schedule, NBC must say goodbye to another longtime sitcom. Just like Jennifer Aniston and Kelsey Grammer in 2004, Will Clark and Mark Grace must now face the next chapter in their lives. Thursday evening, the former baseball stars wave goodbye to their viewers in the finale of Will & Grace.

Many observers were skeptical when the show went on the air in September 1998. Smashing a ball out of Wrigley Field is one thing, but hitting a home run in the Nielsen ratings is an entirely different matter. However, NBC executives, remembering Keith Hernandez’s guest appearances on Seinfeld, realized that first basemen were a great source of comedy. Indeed, CBS had hit the jackpot a decade earlier by basing a series on Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Murphy Brown.

The first sign that Will and Grace would excel in the spotlight together came in the 1989 National League Championship Series. Grace hit .647 and drove in eight runs for the Chicago Cubs. However, Will earned the series MVP award, batting .650 with two home runs as the San Francisco Giants triumphed, four games to one. Will set the tone with a Game 1 grand slam off of Chicago pitcher Greg Maddux, who was never heard from again.

Grace won four Gold Gloves and Will earned one, so both players displayed range on the diamond. However, their range on the soundstage was far greater. In real life, Will was a cocky native of the Deep South, but he was always convincing on the screen as a gay New York attorney. Even more impressive was Grace in portraying a neurotic Jewish woman. No one would have guessed how attractive he would look in a red wig.

As strong as Will and Grace were, they benefited greatly from the contributions of the other main performers – Jack and Karen. Jack was a flamboyant actor who often obsessed over his one-man show. Although his persona was more typical of figure skaters, Jack was partially modeled after Will’s former teammate Barry Bonds. Barry’s teammates have often commented that he thought he was in a one-man show. Karen was Grace’s sharp-tongued secretary, notable for her excessive drinking. She picked up this habit over the years while watching Grace’s Cubs.

Will & Grace was considered groundbreaking by many viewers in portraying homosexual characters on mainstream television. Many skeptics felt that such topics would be off-limits in relation to the high-testosterone world of professional athletes. Star catcher Mike Piazza even called a press conference to deny that he had seen any episodes of Will & Grace. Ultimately, the show achieved what many thought was not possible. A sport featuring locker room bonding and crotch grabbing managed to co-exist with the gay culture.

Most impressively, the show began when Will and Grace were both active players. Certainly Bo Jackson’s NFL career was a notable pursuit outside of major league baseball. However, Bo did not have to display impeccable comic timing in front of a live studio audience amid producers’ re-writes. Grace had particular demands on his time in 2001, when the Arizona Diamondbacks’ World Series title extended his season into November. Ultimately, however, Randy Johnson’s heroics paid huge dividends. Grace won a ring, and viewers got to enjoy countless Big Unit jokes.

One criticism of Will & Grace is that it was overly reliant on big-name guest stars. The executive producers countered that the show was set in New York, so this activity was standard practice. Still, sitcom purists felt that the constant grab for superstars had an adverse effect on the chemistry of the cast. They cited the casting of Alex Rodriguez on one episode as overkill, when Scott Brosius would have been perfect for the role.

Nevertheless, the series enjoyed a very successful eight-season run. Ratings were strong, and Emmy wins were frequent. Unlike Will and Grace, no current major leaguers appear ready to headline their own sitcoms. Unless, perhaps, a network decides to make Papi Knows Best.