Kiss & make up?
THAT “Grey’s Anatomy” has grown entangled in the Isaiah Washington gay-baiting scandal has to be among the strangest developments of the current TV season. The many fans of ABC’s cheeky, top-rated hospital soap might even dub it McIronic.
Washington’s use of a crude slur in reference to a fellow actor signifies the death of “Grey’s” as a symbol of “new Hollywood” as a utopian, forward-thinking place, where colorblind casting can thrive, where a black woman can create and run the successful TV drama while her large, racially diverse ensemble gets along as famously as the six principals of “Friends.”
The scandal has also heightened usually unseen tensions among various camps in the black and gay communities, with some black bloggers effectively parrying the moves of gay activists by accusing them of double standards.
“The reality,” BET host Keith Boykin, who is black and openly gay, told me last week, “is that race is as much a factor at play here as sexuality.”
In case you’ve missed the early accounts, all we know for certain about the “Grey’s” dust-up is this: Backstage at the Jan. 15 Golden Globes, when series creator Shonda Rhimes was asked about a widely reported on-set altercation last year involving Washington, who plays thoracic surgeon Dr. Preston Burke, the actor unexpectedly strode to the microphone and said, “No, I did not call T.R. a faggot. Never happened, never happened.”
The reference was to fellow cast member T.R. Knight, who came out as gay shortly after Washington was alleged to have used the offensive term in reference to Knight last year in the midst of an off-screen argument with Patrick Dempsey, who plays neurologist Dr. Derek “McDreamy” Shepherd and has emerged as one of the ensemble’s breakout stars. During the Globes news conference, a video of which is still available online, Rhimes giggled at Washington’s interruption, while Dempsey can be glimpsed over her shoulder, his chin tucked, unsmiling.
Washington’s tossing an offensive slur before a multitude of reporters and TV cameras -- coming on the heels of similar uproars involving Michael Richards and Mel Gibson -- was enough to reignite the fading embers of last year’s controversy.
Later that week, the actor issued an abject written apology for “using a word that is unacceptable in any context or circumstance.” He then met with leaders of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and announced he was entering counseling. Although ABC may pray that’s the end of the story, it’s obviously not. As Washington reportedly returned for work late last week, Knight’s publicist was batting down rumors that Knight was so upset he was ready to quit the show.
If Hollywood, as the cliche has it, holds up a mirror to society at large, the Gibson-Richards-Washington scandals prove that the reflection often ain’t pretty. In his case, Washington, who is black, was accused of directing hatred toward another minority group -- and that fact is kicking up painfully mixed emotions even among megaphone-wielding activists who typically view the world through an us-against-them lens.
The incident has stirred new tensions: Why, some black commentators have wondered, are gay activists more outraged by Washington’s slur than they are by Shirley Q. Liquor, a cartoonish ghetto character who speaks in an exaggerated ebonics style (“How you durin’?”) and is impersonated in blackface and drag by white performer Chuck Knipp?
GLAAD officials, who initially expressed indignation and demanded an apology from Washington, seem over the last few days to have grown more circumspect. According to spokesman Marc McCarthy, the organization is weighing whether to respond to the complaints about Shirley Q. Liquor and declines to offer any comment on ABC’s or Rhimes’ handling of the Washington controversy. “We hear there’s tension out there,” McCarthy explained. “We certainly sense it.”
Meanwhile, among those with more critical distance, the controversy is now entering its cynical backlash phase; a new episode of the online cartoon “Almost Infamous” pictures an ABC executive barging in on a therapy session to thank Washington profusely, exulting, “We couldn’t have asked for better publicity.” In truth, the network is probably more chastened than that (a spokeswoman declined to comment for this story), but a skeptic can be forgiven for wondering where Washington ranks on ABC newswoman Diane Sawyer’s current “get” list.
To TV viewers, though, the “Grey’s” scandal does represent a kind of death. Maybe not of Washington’s career, although unlike many actors he seems oddly hesitant to capitalize on what appear to be poor judgment and character flaws. And this certainly won’t mean anything more than a hiccup for “Grey’s,” the show-biz phenomenon; Thursday’s episode posted its highest ratings among young adults since September’s third-season premiere, with 24.2 million total viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research.
No, this is a more metaphoric death.
Both the actors and the network have long been aware that the show’s multicultural inclusiveness can be exploited for promotional gain. Last year, ABC’s “Nightline” did a segment praising the show’s handling of race and colorblind casting. “Shonda has single-handedly changed the face of television,” Washington told “Nightline.” “She stood up and said, ‘Look, you continue to just bring me blond and blue-eyed people. I want to see all actors. You can’t tell me all the actors in L.A. are blond and blue-eyed for the show. I won’t accept that.’ And, of course, the executives were looking at this little black woman going, ‘Who the hell are you talking to?’ ”
It’s a great anecdote. But perhaps a more revealing part of the “Nightline” story -- and a better clue to what eventually killed the illusion of a harmony-filled “Grey’s” set -- came later. Washington complained to correspondent Vicki Mabrey that the network wouldn’t give him the juicy part of Dr. Shepherd. “They went with Patrick Dempsey,” Washington said. He added, by way of implication, that casting a black actor as a prime-time sex object for women of all races was “off limits.”
When Mabrey began to ask, “So you’re saying that’s still ...,” Washington cut her off and said, “I’ll be disappearing on you like Dave Chappelle if I say anything else.”
There is, of course, a good deal of racial grievance in Washington’s remarks. More than likely his suspicions are true. ABC probably wasn’t about to go out on a limb for interracial romance. But there’s something else notable about his comments too, something that every actor as well as any fan of “All About Eve” will recognize: a sense of backstage envy, of hurt feelings, of injustice unrecognized. “I should have gotten that part.” What actor hasn’t mouthed those words, either aloud or silently?
Of course, if Washington had simply said that, rather than what he was accused of saying last year, no one would have batted an eye. And the McDreamy dreams of “Grey’s Anatomy” would likely endure.
Scott Collins’ Channel Island column runs every Monday in Calendar. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.