From 1998 to 2006, Will & Grace was one of the most popular sitcoms on television and its four stars — Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, Megan Mullally, and Sean Hayes — were inescapable. They were an infectious cast of actors who worked best when together; Will & Grace was not always the strongest sitcom but it was made infinitely better by the chemistry between the leads and the comedic talent they all shared. These four actors catapulted to stardom early in the series’ eight season run and each won Emmy Awards for their roles (Mullally received two), so greatness wasn’t just expected — it was practically guaranteed. But now? Hayes recently started a run on the lifeless CBS sitcom The Millers, Messing is slumming it on a weekly basis with the aggressively terrible The Mysteries of Laura, and McCormack and Mullally have been all over the place during the last few years — was Will & Grace the peak for them?
Eric McCormack, who played the compulsive Will, has mostly stayed away from sitcoms since the end of Will & Grace, opting instead to act in forgettable dramas. First up, in 2009, was Trust Me. Trust Me was so clearly TNT’s attempt to cash in on the popularity of AMC’s Med Men: McCormack and Tom Cavanagh played two bros at an advertising agency. It was bland — so bland that I’ve watched every episode and cannot recall any specific event that happened — and was canceled after just 13 episodes. After that, McCormack did the two requirements for a former sitcom actor: an appearance on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (Season 11’s “Sugar” as the CEO of a Sugar Daddy dating site) and the titular character in a Lifetime TV Movie (Who Is Clark Rockefeller?).
McCormack did return to comedy with a six-episode arc on The New Adventures of Old Christine, but the show was soon canceled after he showed up. He did a fine enough job on the show, but never reached the comic heights of Will & Grace. McCormack is talented, but his talents are best used when up against the histrionics and the hyper-neurotics that populated Will & Grace. Against the other three leads, McCormack was able to simultaneously convey Will’s relatively calm nature while also letting the character’s own specific dramas and neuroses peek through in funny bursts. In Trust Me and his current show Perception, a crime drama also on TNT, McCormack hasn’t been able to bank memorable performances.
As for Will’s titular counterpart Grace, Debra Messing hasn’t fared much better, although her career has at least been more interesting. In 2007, she starred in the USA miniseries-turned-actual-series (based on a book) entitled The Starter Wife. I’m sure it wasn’t a coincidence that Messing chose this for her first big post-Will & Grace role: she played a woman who is tasked with starting over and redefining herself after years of being in one set role. To her credit, Messing was good in the role even when the episodes themselves weren’t. The series ran for one season of only 10 episodes. Then there was the curious case of Smash, a series that went from “promising” to “hilarious train wreck” so quickly that it was almost impressive.
Messing’s current god-awful drama, The Mysteries of Laura, is the worst of the bunch. The premise — Detective Mom! — borders on parody and the episodes mimic 45-minute long comedy sketches that aren’t very funny. All of Messing’s work after Will & Grace boils down to one thing: television just doesn’t know what to do with her. Messing is funny, she’s endearing, she’s utterly charming. She plays a great neurotic, she can pratfall with the best of them, and she can slow down her energy to play up the romance as she so often did in Will & Grace (and even Ned & Stacey). Networks are desperate to keep her around, not unwisely, but they aren’t willing to wait for the right project. She needs a half-hour sitcom — it’s what she’s best at — and not an underwritten cop drama or a half-hearted dark comedy.
The same could be said of Sean Hayes, who was easily the most at home in front of the audience — and knows it. He filled his plate with appearances on various sitcoms — 30 Rock, Hot in Cleveland, Parks and Recreation, and Up AllNight —before finally landing his own comedy. Last year, NBC had some ill-advised nostalgia tour where the network decided to give sitcom orders to Michael J. Fox and Sean Hayes (and also announced a Heroes reboot). Neither Fox nor Hayes’ sitcom did very well — Fox’s The Michael J. Fox Show at least grew into something vaguely watchable as the series went on; Hayes’ Sean Saves The World remained obnoxiously devoid of laughs throughout — and both were canceled after one season.
Sean Saves The World was less of a well-developed sitcom and more of an underwritten Sean Hayes vehicle. The premise (Sean balances his career, his teen daughter, and his annoying mother) and the specific episodes’ plots were unimportant — all that mattered was that Will & Grace‘s Sean Hayes was finally back on television! The series often read as if the writers didn’t write scripts, but just yelled out situations in which Hayes could pull a silly face, zing with a sassy one-liner, or do a bit of slapstick. It wasn’t a sitcom; it was a painfully unfunny game of Charades that no one wanted to play in the first place.
Now Hayes has found a new home on CBS’ The Millers, another run-of-the-mill family sitcom with a cast that far outshines the quality. Hayes joined for Season 2, which premiered on Monday, and is playing the same character once again. There’s not much going on with the show to begin with and Hayes doesn’t add anything, good or bad, and I can’t possibly imagine The Millers getting a third season — meaning Hayes will likely find himself searching for a new sitcom next year.
Finally, that leaves Megan Mullally, who has had, inarguably, the best career of the four leads. What’s smart about Mullally is that she didn’t just try to keep recreating her Karen character — McCormack, Messing, and especially Hayes have all played variations of theirs — because she knows that Karen began and ended on Will & Grace. Instead, Mullally has been all over the place: the short-lived and admittedly poor ABC sitcom In The Motherhood as a non-traditional mother with a teenage son; the still-amazing Party Down as a naive divorcee, replacing Jane Lynch without a hitch; the truly bizarre Breaking In (in the season after it got canceled) playing a typical tough boss; the crippled and ultra-desired chief in Childrens Hospital, a spot-on and hilarious parody of medical dramas; and, most notably, as Tammy on Parks and Recreation, perhaps the best recurring character on the series.
While not all of the shows were great, even In The Motherhood and Breaking In were slightly improved just due to her presence. Maybe it’s her hard work ethic that puts her at the top (she’s done the most since Will & Grace ended, including arcs in Happy Endings, Trophy Wife, and 30 Rock) or the refreshing balance within her filmography (she’s done voice work on Out There and Bob’s Burgers, dark comedic films like Smashed, and keeps herself busy with funny web videos) but Mullally’s easily the most in control of her career.
You can watch just about any episode of Will & Grace and appreciate the talent from all four leads — it’s no surprise why their careers were expected to take off from Season 1 — which is why it’s disappointing that most seemed to have peaked back then. Sure, part of the blame can be placed on the lackluster scripts (The Mysteries of Laura, Trust Me) or the inability to really move forward past the character they played for so long (Sean Hayes is beginning to seem like a one-trick pony) but whatever the problem is, Mullally seems to have found a solution so now it’s up to the other three to get off their respective drab series and land somewhere much better next fall.