When we last left ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, Dr. Preston Burke had left his fiance at the altar and had moved out of their shared apartment. As the source of a great deal of controversy over the past year thanks to the use of a hateful slur against gay castmate T.R. Knight, actor Isaiah Washington‘s job was often in jeopardy in the eyes of television media, but Shonda Rhimes always stuck by her star. With the season over, however, that has changed: as of this moment, Isaiah Washington has been fired from Grey’s Anatomy.
There is something fascinating about this whole saga, and I think that it goes beyond the question of homosexual actors in hollywood. Over the past year it seems like “Coming Out” is becoming standard practice: Lance Bass, Neil Patrick Harris, T.R. Knight and most recently David Hyde Pierce have all done so. T.R. Knight, however, was the only one to really be forced out of the closet thanks to a tabloid story, which makes him the most distinctive case. Despite a much more open society, it seems being gay is still seen as an oddity, as something that (when revealed) changes everything. Washington’s use of the ‘f-word’ was certainly an instigative act that resulted in him going into counseling and taping a PSA on the subject of equality.
The media has beaten this angle of the story to death, although not unjustly so. Washington’s statement was hurtful, juvenile, and unacceptable, and if this is punishment for that act then there is reason to be pleased with this retribution. However, I think that Washington’s problems did not stop there, and that as an individual his actions AFTER the event have gone somewhat unanalyzed. If you are Shonda Rhimes, how do you handle an actor whose actions off-screen affect his on-screen character to the point of overshadowing the show itself? And, if you’re that actor, how could you possibly return to work in that scenario? It’s an important question, and one that has been raised in the past. And one that Cultural Learnings will now analyze.
Last season on ABC’s Lost, Cynthia Watros and Michelle Rodriquez portrayed two of the surviving members from the tail section of Oceanic Flight 815. However, as the show was taping in Hawaii, both of them were (independent of the other) arrested for impaired driving. And then, their characters were shot dead.
YouTube – “Two for the Road”
Producers claimed that it wasn’t actually because of their offenses, that they felt there needed to be a key death at that point in the season. However, this never added up: Lost proved this season that with proper time and buildup they can plot out a meaningful and powerful death for a character, and yet both Libby (Watros) and Ana Lucia (Rodriquez) didn’t really achieve this. They attempted to give Ana Lucia a storyline in the episode about her mother and about all sorts of things, but it felt forced and awkward. In Libby’s case, she was actually part of the flashbacks of other characters, and yet now remains a loose end that might never be picked up.
These two actresses became a liability for their show, and in the process lost their jobs through a creative purpose. However, there was no public firing: there was no statements from agents, no need for press releases, and I’m guessing that the ABC public relations people received a small number of inquiries on the issue. Why? Because they shut their mouths.
Watros pleaded guilty and admitted her mistake. Rodriquez returned to Los Angeles to serve a short jail sentence before being released due to overcrowding. They did everything in their power to go back to work at peace with their demons, and although the show decided to kill them off it didn’t seem like retribution for their past actions. Rather, it seemed like a peaceful parting of ways between the two sides, if perhaps sooner than they had anticipated.
And, if Isiah Washington had done the same, he could have perhaps had the same effect. While my brother is the PR guru, I think I’m qualified enough to know that the initial PR-style apology was actually quite effective. Washington made the first step, and could have quietly gone further. If he had been able to quietly go into counseling, and to quietly tape a PSA, I believe that he could have been able to remove himself from this situation without all of this hoopla. Even with the sensitivity of the issue at hand, I think that Washington could have come out of this as a man who made a mistake, as opposed to a senseless jerk.
The turning point came at the Golden Globes, where Washington literally took over a press conference to outwardly deny any wrongdoing in the situation when a reporter asked about it. He stepped in front of Shonda Rhimes, who had been fielding questions, and very adamantly denied ever using the word. This did two things: it reopened the issue that had been closed for a month or so, and it immediately put him back on the defensive.
YouTube – “T.R. vs. Isaiah: Golden Globes”
Now, this is the Golden Globes: chances are he was slightly intoxicated at the time. However, that’s another problem for Washington, as opposed to some sort of fix for his problem. It is as if Michelle Rodriquez downed a beer in front of reporters after her incident, but then assured them that she was down to one a sitting. She’s sorry about her actions, sure, but yet she still shows the tendencies involved.
Now, Shonda Rhimes had a problem that couldn’t easily be fixed. Unlike Lost, where people are carrying around guns and in a life or death situation, Preston Burke was fully recovered from his recent injury and in no immediate danger. Plus, any attempt to kill him off would be seen as punishment, which would ignite the issue all over again, which would just be a nightmare for all involved, including T.R. Knight. Washington had created a situation that could not easily be solved, and the result was Rhimes sitting on her hands for four months before writing Washington out of the show, discreetly, with the 3rd season finale.
I think that, even considering these examples, actors do have the ability to rehabilitate following a mistake they make while starring in a TV show. Whether it’s drugs, or alcohol, or a slur of this nature, I believe that mistakes can be made and that they are capable of resolving their problems. However, in this day and age, I can’t say I blame Rhimes and Lost’s Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse for making the decisions they did. When stars make themselves a liability beyond that initial incident by making a fool of themselves, the controversy spreads to the point where it overshadows the show itself.
Did anyone look at Dr. Burke the same after this incident? I certainly never felt the same about him, some of that mystique had gone. On Lost, no one took Ana Lucia seriously BEFORE the drunk driving, and afterwards it was worse (Libby was Collateral damage, they couldn’t enforce it on one and not the other). These situations changed the way fans viewed these worlds, these characters, and the result was the need for them to leave.
So, let this be a lesson to actors or actresses who makes mistakes: don’t. In a time when serial television and complex character dramas have become more prevalent, and in the age of the internet where news travels at the speed of light, stars of television show cannot afford to make the tragic error of showing the viewing public a side of themselves that no one wants to see. Lindsay Lohan might be able to get away with it, but she plays a different character in every film; in television, actors don’t have that luxury, and consistency is key.
Next year, Christina will be without a fiance, and will have to move on without him. And, similarly, Seattle Grace will be without its heart surgeon. However, perhaps a sign of the times, the story you will see most often is that the show’s cast will be without a bigot and a man incapable of controlling his public image. As Isaiah Washington moves on from Grey’s Anatomy, he can only look back and marvel about how his mistake spiraled into one of the most high-profile TV exits of the decade.