Just good friends

Television - Andrew Billen on America's first prime-time gay sitcom

Frasier is a comedy about two brothers with gay sensibilities who happen to be straight. With their effete love of fine wines and opera, Frasier and Niles Crane's heterosexuality emerges in the exaggerated masculinity of their philistine, ex-copper father, Martin. The disruption to Frasier's dinky, born-again bachelor lifestyle is symbolised by the ugly presence in his flat of Martin's battered recliner.

Replacing Frasier from now until Christmas on Channel 4's Friday-night comedy zone is Will & Grace (9.30pm), an American sitcom about a gay man whose sensibilities are so straight that he is actually in love with a woman - although his intentions towards Grace are not carnal. In the pilot, which is by no means the best of the episodes I have seen, Will is living alone, but soon enough Will and Grace will be Odd Couple room-mates, torturing each other's imaginations with their dates. This is the sort of unhealthy living arrangement that comedies of inappropriate intimacy such as Seinfeld and Friends have recently explored to great effect in the US, now that the traditional family has become too fissile to be a laughing matter - except in the The Simpsons, that is.

Will, played by heterosexual Eric McCormack, is a good-looking, thirtysomething Manhattan lawyer who has recently broken up from a seven-year relationship. With his long hair, big white grin and athlete's physique, he looks too blandly handsome to be a natural comedian. In sitcom terms, his defining characteristics are hardly defining at all: he talks in one-liners and he does not get enough sex. In the nicest way, he is mouth not trousers, which makes his name ironic - in the sexual arena, he lacks will-power.

Following in the unhappy steps of Ellen DeGeneres's character Ellen, Will is the first male gay lead in a prime-time US sitcom. But is the network really being very brave? Will is a hot gay man who has slept with only five people in eight years, a serial monogamist to make most big city hetero- sexuals look like monks. He may be homosexual, but he hardly exemplifies homosexual "lifestyle" in the big city. Rather, his gayness is channelled into Jack, his perky, short, extremely camp friend played by a scene-stealer called Sean Hayes, but essentially a risible character. The rest of Will's homosexuality shows itself in aspects of Grace: her camp Jewish assistant Karen, her showbizzy mother (Debbie Reynolds in a remarkable cameo in episode 13) and Grace's job as an interior designer.

Grace, played by Debra Messing, is a more interesting character, because she is allowed to be neurotic even to the point of gracelessness. She looks less normal, too - her mental dislocation hinted at by her curly, out-of-control hair. In the pilot, her tempestuous relationship with her fiance, Danny, is nose-diving, and she finally leaves him at the altar. We see Danny fleetingly, on the way to bed, and only from the neck down. The suggestion is that the sex between them is great, but that little else is.

We are invited to compare and contrast their relationship with the platonic love affair at the centre of the programme. The opening scene conveniently has Grace, in her negligee, talking on the phone to Will; however, they are not having phone sex, but are talking themselves through ER. Yet this is not an unclouded relationship. A later episode will reveal that one of the most traumatic days of Grace's life was when, at college, Will told her that he was gay. Despite their mutual love, therefore, their relationship is not one of equals: she would like to go to bed with him, but he is sexually indifferent to her. A much darker Huis Clos lurks beyond the snugness of Will & Grace, but something tells me that we are not going to see it, or not for a long time (and the series has already done three seasons in the US).

Instead, we get observational comedy, and mostly about TV, as Will and Grace compensate in the traditional way for their lack of sex: by viewing too much. The opening scene not only carried dialogue about ER (Will: "Eriq La Salle just smiled!" Grace: "Really?" Will: "No, not really."), but actually ended with Will telling Grace to "Say goodnight, Gracie", which was how George Burns and Gracie Allen signed off their Fifties TV shows long before either Will or Grace were born.

At the centre of Will and Grace's sitting-room, where Martin's chair would be on the set of Frasier, there is a $2,800 leather chair that no one ever sits on. This exquisite objet somehow illustrates my difficulty with the programme: that (like Frasier, in fact) it is a little too tasteful to be really funny. On the plus side, the comic timing is very good, the actors radiate warmth, and the show is directed by James Burrows, who oversaw so many wonderful episodes of Cheers and Taxi.

In America, NBC's Will & Grace has supplanted Frasier in the coveted slot before the aforementioned ER. The network reckons that, in the long run, the real gays will have longer legs than the fake ones. We shall see. Neither show sprints at the pace of the smart, confident, testosterone- driven, but now in its final lap, Friend.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the London Evening Standard

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2001 issue of the New Statesman, In the line of fire