It its long life on TV, Will & Grace has broken new ground for network sitcoms.
But to start its eighth and final season tonight, the show pays homage to the earliest days of broadcasting: The season premiere will be presented live.
"I've never done live TV before," says co-star Debra Messing, who plays Grace. "It starts out our final season in a real special way."
"I'm nervous and scared, but it should also be fun," says Sean Hayes, whose character, Jack, is pretty much guaranteed to break everybody up in the middle of the broadcast.
But there's a sense of history about the stunt that appeals to the cast. After all, says Hayes, "The Honeymooners did it every week."
With the end of Everybody Loves Raymond last season, Will & Grace emerges as the longest-running comedy in primetime. Through its years, a lot has changed in TV, some of it because of Will & Grace.
For one thing, Eric McCormack (Will) says, "you can't cast a show on TV anymore without a gay character."
Among the guests expected back in the final season are Alec Baldwin, Eric Stoltz, Blythe Danner and John Slattery.
Stoltz is part of last season's cliffhanger, which will be picked up in the first episode. Grace was on the verge of beginning an affair with Stoltz's character, Tom, a married man. Another thread to be picked up is Will's discovering that Stan, Karen's ex-husband, thought dead, is actually alive. The new season will also develop the new job for Jack as a talk-show host.
All the planning for the live show has postponed the inevitable sadness on the set that comes with closing a long-running comedy.
"Actually, it feels like we're starting off our last year with a bang in a very celebratory, playful, public way," McCormack says. Besides, after the first episode, "we still have 23 to go. The closer we get to the end, the closer it will dawn on us that we made this decision."
Will & Grace begins its final season tonight at 8:30 on NBC (WBAL, Channel 11).
Here is another show that premieres tonight:
Night Stalker - One of the most memorable newspaper reporters in TV history was Carl Kolchak, played with campy bravado by actor Darren McGavin in the early '70s. In the original TV movie (that later launched a series), McGavin was a perfect match for the potboiler script by Richard Matheson (The Twilight Zone), steeped in Runyon-esque twang and Serling-esque horror.
When not chasing leads in bizarre Las Vegas murders, Kolchak was given to sardonic asides, most often directed at his blustery editor (the equally memorable Simon Oakland). A reporter "socially fits somewhere between a hooker and a bartender," he mused, "but stands with Galileo because he knows the world is round - not that that does much good because his editor knows the world is flat ..."
The X-Files was directly inspired by Night Stalker, but not until tonight has a network been brazen or foolish enough to attempt an actual exhumation.
Based on the first two episodes, this is a ghost best left moldering in the grave. Not that ABC hasn't really, really tried. Playing the role of Kolchak is big-star-aborning Stuart Townsend (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), while ABC has even retained the services of Dan Curtis, legendary producer of the original Night Stalker (as well as the classic spook-soap Dark Shadows), just to make sure his Stalker isn't transmogrified into slop. Meanwhile, tonight's pilot is based on a script by Frank Spotnitz, an executive producer of The X-Files.
But what is missing here is heart, drama, and - most inexcusably - horror. Horror? What a concept for horror sci-fi, and, when you have a pilot that revolves around the mysterious and brutal murders of two pregnant women (including Kolchak's wife), whose fetuses were removed from them by a monster, that would appear to be horror enough. In fact, no: These two unfortunates are part of the growing morgue of murdered women on prime-time TV this fall (CBS' Criminal Minds, Fox's Killer Instinct), a particularly disturbing trend in itself. In other words, we've seen far too much of this already.
But this tepid soup is made nearly palatable in a rare moment or two by the presence of another crime reporter at the Los Angeles Beacon, Perri Reed (Gabrielle Union). She's attractive and stylish; maybe a little more Perri and a little less Carl might help this Stalker last a few more episodes.
Night Stalker premieres tonight at 9 on ABC (WMAR, Channel 2).
Roger Catlin writes for the Hartford Courant. Newsday contributed to this article.