Will Washington Controversy, ABC's Late Reaction Hurt Grey's Anatomy?
It's been almost two weeks since the Isaiah Washington controversy exploded a second time, and while the actor has not been fired by ABC, reflections on his behavior continue to circulate.
Why was it not addressed by the network sooner? What does it suggest about the working culture of entertainment these days? Most importantly, can Grey's Anatomy weather the storm?
Below is an article appearing this week in USA Today that chronicles the incident's aftermath, and explains why it was initially downplayed, and that Grey's Anatomy can still survive the situation. For another take on the issue, which some say falls into the typical - and insufficient - pattern of entertainment industry remorse, check out Entertainment Weekly.
There's no question that ABC's biggest show has been hurt by its shamefully tardy public response to Isaiah Washington's now-infamous October outburst, which the show initially buried under a veil of vague apologies.
But TV has a long history of nurturing, exposing and then forgiving shameful backstage behavior in a burst of PR-inspired public repentance â" and never mind the possible damage done to the viewing experience.
Much of this tawdry process could have been avoided had the network and the producers responded more forcefully when Washington, who plays Dr. Preston Burke in the hit drama, first used a homophobic slur to refer to co-star T.R. Knight. But that isn't what occurred.
Instead, they waited until the angry reaction to his repetition of the insult at the Golden Globes forced their hand â" sending the troubled actor to a meeting with gay leaders and now, apparently, to a stint of counseling.
Had they dealt with the problem the first time, the show would have been spared weeks of bad publicity that has left fans wondering if the stars will ever play nice together again.
And make no mistake, playing nice is all that's required. Despite all the nonsense casts feed the press about being one big, happy family, actors don't have to be best friends and often aren't.
They do, however, have to be able to keep their animosity off camera and under control. More than one actor has been smoked out of a series because his or her co-stars had to be forced to share scenes at gunpoint.
Apparently, Grey's Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes is convinced her actors can get along, because if she thought Washington's continued employment would hurt her show, he would be fired by now. Despite the rush in some quarters to show Washington the door, Rhimes' wait-and-see approach may prove to be wisest.
Yes, Rhimes should have rebuked her star more swiftly than she did. But on a social level, we're better served by a publicly repentant Washington preaching tolerance than by an unemployed Washington claiming mistreatment.
What's more, on an artistic level, his loss would damage one of TV's best shows. To think otherwise is to buy into the mistaken notion that talent is near universal and instantly replaceable.
Last week's Grey's Anatomy shows how valuable Washington is to the series.
The episode (which was shot before the Golden Globe Awards debacle, as was this week's "Great Expectations") included a lovely scene between Burke and Knight's George O'Malley that played off the unexpected and still-vital friendship the show has built around these two very different characters.
It was possible to look at the great scene through a current-headline lens and find it unconvincing. But it wasn't possible to read discomfort or discord into the actors' performances. And as long as that continues, the audience will eventually fall in line.
Think of the stories of brutal backstage squabbles at Roseanne, Grace Under Fire, Martin, Sex and the City and other shows. If viewers could push reality aside in those cases, they surely can do it here.
In a way, Grey's Anatomy may have an easier time with viewer perceptions because Dr. Burke has always had a snappish streak. Although he's admirable in many ways, Burke has a habit of saying hurtful things to his colleagues, most recently Derek and Cristina.
It's not beyond the realm of possibility that somewhere down the line, the character may have to face his own anger management issues.
Until then, let's look at the one bright side. Had word come out 20 years ago that a TV star had been called a homosexual, it's the gay actor whose career would have been over. Now, it's the bigot who's in danger.
That, at least, is a healthy sign.