Why Was HIV/AIDS Never Discussed on ‘Will & Grace’?

MatthewsPlace.com
Jan 14 · 4 min read

by Ryan Shea

Will & Grace is one of the most groundbreaking LGBTQ shows in history. It began during a time when Ellen DeGeneres was being equally praised and destroyed for coming out as gay, workplace protection for us barely existed, and the support our community had paled in comparison to the younger generations of today who appear to be much more accepting compared to their older counterparts.

There was, however, something glaringly missing from W&G’s first series run which took place between 1998 and 2006. The show only ever mentioned HIV/AIDS once during the near 200 episodes it produced. What’s even more surprising was that the topic didn’t center on its leading men Will (Eric McCormack) and Jack (Sean Hayes).

Instead it revolved around Grace (Debra Messing) and her boyfriend Nathan (Woody Harrelson) getting tested while Will & Jack implied that they did this sort of thing quite frequently. That’s it though. From my recollection, the show never touched on HIV/AIDS outside of that which, looking back on with 2021 eyes, is very surprising.

It’s the same thing with the original Queer as Folk which aired across the pond in The UK in 1999. Russell T. Davies, one of its screenwriters, recently did an essay for The Observer where he explained why HIV/AIDS didn’t exist during the show’s 10 episodes.

“In 1994, I created a 15-year-old HIV+ teenager for Children’s Ward at Granada Television,” he wrote. “Then, after I’d invented a raft of gay characters for various soaps — a lesbian vicar, schoolboy lovers, a gay barman in 1920 — I came to invent Queer as Folk in 1999. Britain’s first gay drama. And the words HIV and Aids were said… not once.”

“That was quite a press launch. The rage, the shouting! Two hundred journalists in full pomp,” he continued. “The straight press were as hostile as you’d expect, but the gay press were especially furious because we had no condoms, no warnings, no messages on screen. Well, yes, tough. Because by that stage, in 1999, I refused to let our lives be defined by disease. So I excluded it on purpose. The omission of Aids was a statement in itself, and it was the right thing to do.”

It should be interesting to see if W&G creators Max Mutchnick and David Kohan follow suit with their own reasons related to this topic given how both shows had a big impact on our community.

There’s a major difference though as Queer As Folk only ran for one year while W&G was on for practically a decade. It had multiple opportunities to address HIV/AIDS more than once, especially during a time where we were in the early stages of getting past the pandemic that killed millions (many of our own).

Will & Grace never really got that serious nor did they ever have those “very special episodes”. There was that one time where the two main characters flipped out on each other over Grace delaying them possibly having a baby together but for the most part things stayed light much to the fan base’s happiness.

It’s just surprising that they never discussed this issue in depth which could’ve been done either in one episode or over the course of two or three to keep their fans interested to see what’s next.

Take for example Will dating a guy who’s HIV positive and his fears of getting the virus himself. Their writers, who were brilliant on the comedy side of things, could’ve come up with a script that’s equally dramatic, funny and educational, especially for those who were uninformed about the virus at that point.

And it could’ve been the definition of “Must See TV” for them as W&G conquered the ratings for most of their run. They averaged at least 10 million people per episode for its first six seasons meaning that them doing an HIV/AIDS storyline would’ve been massive not to mention headline-making and, if done in the right way, applauded by our community and its supporters.

Other shows have gotten it right compared to W&G regarding HIV/AIDS. Looking, which ran for two seasons plus a movie on HBO, had an HIV-positive character Eddie played by Mean Girls alum Daniel Franzese.

Reality television has also touched on this. The Real World was ahead of its time by telling the story of Pedro Zamora, an HIV-positive cast member on its San Francisco season in 1994. He died that year, however his impact set a high standard for others just like him during the days where the AIDS pandemic was in full swing.

So the question remains: why did W&G, which was on between The Real World and Looking, avoid this at (mostly) all costs?

Ryan Shea is an established writer who has contributed thought-provoking pieces for many different industries. He has worked for major publications including Newsday, Hollywood Life, Instinct Magazine and The Ladders.

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MatthewsPlace.com is a program of the Matthew Shepard Foundation| Words by & for LGBTQ+ youth | #EraseHate | Want to submit? Email sara@matthewshepard.org

Matthew’s Place

MatthewsPlace.com is a program of the Matthew Shepard Foundation| Words by & for LGBTQ+ youth | #EraseHate | Want to submit for our publication? Email allison@matthewshepard.org