'Will & Grace' is back: A decade later, what's changed?

BURBANK, Calif. – “Minnows!”

The reunited cast of Will & Grace — Debra Messing, Eric McCormack, Sean Hayes and Megan Mullally — sit around a rectangular table covered in stacks of pink paper representing the day’s script, laughing over jokes about peaches and overpriced almond butter.

Then Minnie Driver walks up. It’s Hayes who spots her first, calling out the nickname. “It’s so surreal!” says Driver. Messing, clad in a 'Dance Like Russia Isn't Watching' T-shirt, hugs her and takes a selfie.

They're back! Eric McCormack and Debra Messing reunite for a new season of 'Will and Grace.'

Driver is reprising her role as Karen's nemesis, Lorraine Finster, on an upcoming episode of NBC's comedy (Thursday, 9 ET/PT).  Surreal, indeed: More than a decade later, the cast looks (amazingly) the same in person, and so do the sets.

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So what’s changed here? First of all, forget the teary finale (and the kids who came with it).

Instead, say all involved, it's simply 11 years later. Grace is wildly successful but newly divorced from Leo and temporarily living with Will, who is burned out in his corporate law job but enjoying the single life.

Jack “is kind of stuck,” says Hayes, though he’s freshly trademarked a new acting method called “jackting.” Karen still works for Grace, but now she's "besties with Donnie and Melania, and she spends a lot of time with them at Mar-a-Lago," says Mullally.

Gang's all here: Karen (Megan Mullally), Jack (Sean Hayes), Will (Eric McCormack) and Grace (Debra Messing) crowd a familiar apartment in Episode 1 of Season 9, 'Eleven Years Later.'

But the TV landscape has morphed dramatically  since 1998, when the network sitcom was considered groundbreaking for featuring unapologetically gay characters.

It begs the question: What can Will & Grace do for us now?

“What’s topical about it is these characters are living fully. Despite what happened a few years ago with marriage equality in 50 states, (gay rights are) more under fire than ever," says McCormack.

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In 2017, Hayes no longer shies away from addressing his sexuality in interviews. "I think just by living my life as Sean Hayes and making silly Facebook videos with my husband and just being myself is hopefully more powerful than anything," he says.

"We’re at a time in our society and culture where we’re seeing acceptance of LGBTQ people slip backwards," says Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, citing higher rates of bullying, rising trans murders and higher rates of hate crimes. "So we’re living in a culture that needs this kind of storyline, that needs this kind of entertaining that’s enlightening and makes you laugh but connects us as well."

After last fall's impromptu election spot, NBC swiftly offered a 10-episode season,  extended it to 16 and, after early rehearsals, ordered a second 13-episode season.

“It really sort of paralyzed me for a couple of hours, because I didn’t see it coming and we hadn’t shot anything yet,” says Messing, who lives in New York with her 13-year-old son. "I’ve never been away from him."

Still, the word "reboot' is shudder-worthy for creators Max Mutchnick and David Kohan. “I don’t think that we are a part of that reboot thing that’s going on,” says Mutchnick, noting it was NBC who approached them with the idea.

Kohan fretted over damaging the legacy of the show, which lasted eight seasons and took home 16 Emmys. But “what an 11-year absence will do is make you realize what you had,” he says. And so they began writing with the mantra to make this Will & Grace "the same or better."

On set, it seems to be working. Watching the foursome is like taking in a tango by professional dancers. The cast takes the pages to the sets, building physical comedy into the lines. Hayes earns laughs from long-time director James Burrows, shimmying through the doorway to Grace’s office and admiring himself in the shine of a stethoscope. 

In a sense, they're home again. "It’s almost all the exact same crew and everything," says Mullally. "It’s down to the same camera guys, the same hair and makeup people. It gives it this feeling that we never left."