Mise en scene has an important function in any TV programme but is essential in situation comedy where the audience has to grasp implications about characters swiftly in order to understand the nuances of the plot. In the sit-com, Will and Grace, the most usual sets are the various apartments of the main characters and the offices of Will and Grace.
It is immediately apparent from Will’s apartment with its classic and stylish simplicity of furnishings: bold coloured walls – purple; simple uncluttered furniture arrangements; large elegant mirror and state of the art raised kitchen area with its stainless-steel refrigerator, that someone of taste and class lives here. Most of us would make the assumption that this is a single-woman’s flat however we soon realise that a rather unusual gay man lives here. The large TV, comfy chair and slightly messy bookshelf are the only clues to his other nature.
This is a slightly unusual episode in that a fair amount of the action takes place outside and Grace gives us the clue that this will hold the key to the element of disruption in the storyline when she says, ‘but we don’t do outside…’ However to prove to herself and her new man she decides this cycle-ride is a challenge to be tackled.
However before this part of the story unfolds we are treated to a scene of Jack and Karen in the corridor outside Will’s apartment. Here there is what appears to be a café table and two chairs and we see Jack and Karen exchanging confidences. It might seem strange to have this take place in a corridor! But it is clear that whereas most sit-coms have a central but neutral meeting place, (in Friends it is the café Central Perk, in M*A*S*H it’s the mess tent) Will and Grace is unusual in not having one, so to set one up in the hall way of the apartment block is just another of this particular programmes quirks. Here, as in other sit-coms, it serves the function of being a neutral environment where characters can discuss things without being on territory where someone is in control – it is therefore safe.
One particular feature of farce, from which historic theatrical form so much American sit-com humour is derived, is that of doors! The more doors on a set the more possibilities for humour, misunderstandings, near misses and conflict. The corridor has doors but it has one other thing which is again unusual – a lift. Strangely the fact that people can suddenly arrive via the lift has huge potential for humour. In this episode the doors open to reveal Grace’s boyfriend and Will’s blind date. The camera here frames the scene in mid shot from slightly behind Will and Grace so that as the lift doors open Leo is seen straight away then after a beat pans down so that the other occupant is seen, a very much shorter than the average gay male. As Will puts it he is ‘a half-pint date,’ and Will tries to renege on the intended cycle-ride. Later this scene is played out more or less in reverse as Will and Grace come out of the lift and as Grace disappears Will goes over to the emergency stairs, opens the door, the camera pans down again to show Will’s half-pint date being sneaked into his apartment.
Once into the great outdoors we mostly see Will and Grace cycling along next to each other, dates gone on ahead we assume, bickering about the whole day, Will sporting a lurid yellow cycle helmet which he detests mightily. All around them we see trees indicating the natural environment and again we see these two in a mid-two shot setting up the audience for the inevitable tumble. It is clear that this is an environment in which neither of them feels either comfortable or in control. Will takes the physical fall from the bike but Grace takes the psychological battering that a broken chain and her determination to prove that she ‘can do it’ set her up for, as car after car pass her, splash her with mud and throw soda out of windows further humiliating her as her boyfriend chauvinistically remarks, ‘never mind I’m admiring your ass!’ Thus perpetuating the twin images of the sexist male and the female who’s incapable of a little DIY! ‘How essential is this?’ asks Grace of the broken pedal. Leo offers a handkerchief and Grace dissolves into tears – thus capping the stereotypes.
Back at the lodge where Will is ‘resting’ with his injured pride and the attentions of his hitherto unwanted date, the scene is of wood-panelling, masculine brown colours, native American patterns and a roaring log fire, all of which give the audience the impression of a bastion of masculinity, male security and we realise later a setting seductive enough for these two to ‘make-out.’
Meanwhile back in New York, Jack has been persuading Karen to salve her conscience and tell her husband, newly returned from jail, that she had been planning to have an affair. So they visit Stan’s office, another bastion of male dominance with its dark and muted colours, large wooden carvings and rich dark wood desk. Both Jack and Karen feel ill at ease in this setting until Jack’s attention is caught and held by a toy kaleidoscope on the desk. Subsequently Karen discovers that her husband is having an affair and drowns her sorrows at ‘Jack’s café’ in her traditional bottle of bourbon, stashed conveniently in her handbag for just such an occasion. Jack adopts the typical character of the bar-tender sweeping up around her and listening to her, thus fitting with our perception of the gay man who’s a good listener because he is in tune with his feminine side and that’s what women are good at.
So we can see that the mise en scene of the different scenes has furthered the story by the exploration of Will and Grace’s characters in an unfamiliar setting in which: they have been found to be less than competent; Karen has been rejected by her masculine husband thus allowing her character to continue her man-chasing predilections and Jack has taken on the traditional role of the mother in a family situation dispensing advice and being a shoulder for people to cry on. We have learned that Will’s gay nature will always come out! Grace is as equally unable to cope with life in the great outdoors as anywhere else; Jack loves playing the mother figure and Karen’s inability to cope with life except through the bottom of a glass is a permanent feature.