Eight seasons and millions of laughs later, the television show that brought the lives of two gay men into America's living rooms is set for its curtain call. NBC announced Jan. 22 that this season will be the last for "Will & Grace."
It was a wildly successful run -- by any standard. Few sitcoms make it eight years, and "Will & Grace" snatched up 14 Emmys in the process.
Peaking at 17.3 million viewers, the show has been gay America's broadest, most sustained public appearance. Americans invited our TV stand-ins over for dinner week after week. But now that the party's over, the question must be asked: What kinds of hosts were they?
It's said that sitcoms connect with viewers who want to either be like the characters or hang out with them. Jack may not have been a lot like many gay men, but he sure reminded us of friends we loved.
Early on, he was over-the-top, to be sure. But here, for once, was a gay man on TV who had sex -- and bragged about it. He dismissed the straight-world approval that his buttoned-up buddy, Will, pursued. And he told jokes with smart references to things gay men actually talk about.
That was then. By the time the show reached its ratings zenith in the 2001-2002 season, Jack had become something far less familiar.
He'd morphed from a fearlessly honest gay man into a troublesome toddler. His worldview was the same, but it had been defanged. The once witty exchanges with his acerbic sidekick Karen often devolved into baby talk. He'd become a dimwit of "Amos 'N Andy" proportions, with inane self-obsession and a childlike pursuit of pleasure.
Jack's journey is a familiar one on network TV. Jimmie J.J. Walker of Norman Lear's "Good Times" is another iconic example of the road he traveled, from honest countercultural representation to non-threatening buffoon. Characters that start by challenging America's definitions of normal -- be they racial or sexual -- must ultimately reinforce them. The outsider must become smaller, less human before being let in.
In the same year "Will & Grace" ratings peaked, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll found three-quarters of gay Americans surveyed felt they were more accepted than they had been just a few years before. Equally large shares of straight people supported almost every major plank of the gay civil rights movement -- from anti-bias to hate crime laws.
But the question for gay folks, as we are welcomed into the mainstream, is, "On what terms are we seeking entry?" Must I be an empty caricature of myself, or can I come as I am?
Kai Wright is a writer in New York City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.