Not-so-new 'Will & Grace' wastes no time getting to Trump

TV Will & Grace
From left: Eric McCormack as Will Truman, Debra Messing as Grace Adler, Sean Hayes as Jack McFarland, and Megan Mullally as Karen Walker in NBC’s “Will & Grace.”

If you’ve ever loved NBC’s Will & Grace, consider treating its return on Thursday after 11 years like pancakes: Throw the first one away.

Because unless the thing missing from your TV life is a half-hour of so-so jokes about a quartet of New Yorkers responding to a presidency already getting a solid roasting in late night, you might be as disappointed as I was in Thursday’s premiere, the first of 16 episodes ordered for this first (or ninth) season. (NBC has already renewed the show for 13 more episodes next season.)

Thursday’s episode, “11 Years Later,” takes Will Truman (Eric McCormack), Grace Adler (Debra Messing), Jack McFarland (Sean Hayes), and Karen Walker (Megan Mullally) to President Trump’s White House. And they’re brought there by circumstances more far-fetched than the rebooted show’s abandonment of the future outlined for its characters in the 2006 finale. (Don’t worry — you’ll learn what happened in the first few minutes, and it won’t feel nearly as callous as the treatment of the conveniently dead mother on CBS’s Kevin Can Wait.)

Maybe the episode’s meant to signal that the show hasn’t lost its political edge, but most of it plays like a labored extension of the pro-Hillary Clinton video whose debut a year ago this week inspired the show’s comeback.  Karen’s still on a first-name basis with the first couple, Jack’s more interested in Jack than anything else, and Will and Grace’s politics are as liberal — and as easily tested — as ever. The result just isn’t funny enough to justify the Oval Office set.

Or maybe it’s just harder for me to laugh about politics right now.

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“If Will & Grace has an agenda, it’s so well-hidden that it can’t possibly get in the way of the comedy,” I wrote, a tad naively, before its premiere 19 years ago. Spanning the final years of Bill Clinton’s presidency and much of George W. Bush’s, Will & Grace didn’t ignore current events. But its most successful political act was to present Will Truman as a funny, successful gay man who didn’t need fixing — or at least no more than the woman who was his roommate and best friend.

If you missed those two, and their more broadly drawn sidekicks, they’re definitely back, and pretty much the way you remember them. Next week’s episode, in which we meet Will’s 23-year-old boyfriend (played by Ben Platt, of Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen), acknowledges the things that have changed for many gay men without really explaining why Will — who’s been part of those changes — still seems a little stuck.

That same episode gives Messing and Mullally a Lucy-and-Ethel scene that’s ultimately quite funny, but it’s the third, scheduled for Oct. 12, that made me wish creators David Kohan and Max Mutchnick had begun their reboot there, and not only because Harry Connick Jr. guest-stars as Leo. (Though that certainly didn’t hurt.)

Focused on a health scare for Grace, it’s sharp, funny, and heartfelt, and it sets up a series, not just the limited-run stunt that this new, not-so-new Will & Grace was originally assumed to be. It may be unfair to expect that series to be groundbreaking.

But after all these years, it’s hard not to want a little more than the same old story.

Will & Grace. 9 p.m. Thursday, NBC.