I love television. One of my earliest memories is of watching Ronald Reagan and being taught that in our household, we called him "the Boo-Hiss Man." My father, a television critic and historian for over twenty years, bought a television set specifically to watch Gulf War I coverage while he cooked dinner for my younger brother and me. I spent summers in Virginia not in the pool across the street, but watching the Golden Age of Nickelodeon and Nick at Nite-Doug, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Salute Your Shorts, and Hey, Dude!, among others. There was the wall of TV in our house on Presidential Election Night, the tapes (now DVDs) of television shows you could build a fort out of (I didn’t), and the days in early summer where my dad would pull out one of the many upcoming pilots to see what my brother or I thought.
These memories were of television, too: Tucker and Becca’s first kiss on Flash Forward, one of the first times I fell in love with tv. There was Pembleton at Crosetti’s funeral on Homicide: Life on the Street and Gee playing cards in the finale’s last scene. Weaver telling Doug Ross "You are not working at this hospital!" from ER John Locke’s final, defiant "Don’t tell me what I can’t do!" and the subsequent reveal on Lost. Warren Zevon’s final appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman, the "Waiting For My Real Life To Begin" number from Scrubs, Nate Fisher standing next to the bus on Six Feet Under and Prior Walter’s Bethesda Fountain monologue from Angels in America, several of the most eloquent statements on death-and life-I’ve seen. The why-didn’t-I-think-of-that joy to be found in an Al Swearangen monologue or a Veronica Mars comeback. Too many moments to name from Sports Night, The West Wing, and the collective works of Joss Whedon. Recently, it’s been LaRue going to AA on Hill Street Blues and Rawls’ speech to McNulty at the hospital on The Wire.
Later, my father and I would come to disagree on a lot of things (this is, after all, the man who thought Crash was better than Brokeback Mountain), but we could always talk about TV together. When we couldn’t talk about anything else, when my life was going in a completely different direction than either us predicted-we could discuss the subtlety of Steve Carell on The The Office or how unbelievably great John Spencer was on West Wing. He and I have always agreed when it comes to television as an art form, as a medium that can teach, entertain, and yeah, do some healing, too.
Now that you know where I am and will be coming from…Grey’s Anatomy!
By now, I’m sure everyone’s aware of the controversy surrounding Isaiah Washington, Patrick Dempsey, T.R. Knight, and a certain dust-up involving a certain slur that occurred last fall on the set of ABC’s medical drama cobbled together with bits and pieces of better medical dramas-from St. Elsewhere to Scrubs. For those of you who don’t, I’ll review:
While preparing for a scene, Washington (Dr. Preston Burke on the show) referred to Knight (Dr. George O’Malley) as a "faggot." When Dempsey (Dr. Derek Shepard) stepped in to defend Knight, the two wound up fighting-with Washington apparently choking Dempsey. As a result, Knight confirmed he was gay, but wouldn’t confirm Washington’s slur until Washington denied it at a recent Golden Globes press conference, during which he repeated the word. Knight then went on Ellen to say, that yes, Washington called him a "faggot", co-star Katherine Heigl walked out of the Golden Globes conference, later slamming Washington in the press-and the whole thing started back up again.
Prior reports that Washington’s job on Grey’s Anatomy might be in jeopardy under Disney and ABC’s nondiscrimination policy resurfaced, starting to gain traction. On the 24th, Yahoo and E! Online reported that-after making several public apologies and meeting with gay rights leaders-Washington has entered a treatment program to "understand why I did what I did and making sure it never happens again."
And yet, this is not enough.
As I’ve said before in my reporting for THUD, this kind of gossip is not the type of news I’d like to review for this site, but-even in the middle of pilot season, one of the most exciting and creative times in the industry-this continues to dominate news about television, and show creator Shonda Rhimes’s recent statement could not go unnoticed.
Rhimes, who kept quiet during the initial fracas and the first stages of this one, said Wednesday that Washington’s slur "was a shocking and dismaying event that insulted not only gays and lesbians everywhere but anyone who has ever struggled for respect in a world that is not always accepting of difference."
And yet, this is not enough.
For all those moments and more that I listed in my opening to this piece, the longer I’ve watched TV, the more I’ve realized that this is a medium of missed opportunities. I’ve seen shows take the smart move in regards to characters rather than the right one. I’ve seen series die slow, painful deaths (ER, cough) rather than getting out when the getting out is good. I’ve seen the most popular shows on television confronted with an enormous opportunity to make a difference-and do nothing about it.
Grey’s Anatomy now has a chance to make a difference.
Let me digress: One of the most frustrating things to me about teen soap The O.C. was the handling of a storyline occurring throughout its first and second seasons. Early on in the show’s run, creator Josh Schwartz dropped hints that Marissa Cooper (Misha Barton) was an alcoholic-to the point where the character overdosed on booze and pills in Mexico. As the first season ended, Schwartz seemed to reintroduce this trait in Marissa. In the second season, however, he chose to make one of his other characters an alcoholic instead-Kirsten Cohen, one of the adults on the series.
The predictable, easy choice rather than the right one.
I believed then, and I still do now, that had Schwartz-ridiculous intervention scene aside-sent Marissa into treatment rather than Kirsten, not only would he have been praised for it, but he would have made a difference. Maybe not a noticeable one, but he would have been taking advantage of his show’s-of television’s-enormous influence, especially among teenagers to actually do some good. He would have shown that teen alcoholism does exist, it is dangerous, and for those who know people struggling with this disease or are struggling with this disease themselves, help is available. It was an enormous opportunity and he blew it.
Shonda Rhimes and the executive producers of Grey’s Anatomy now have a similar opportunity.
Ms. Rhimes, I know that you like to put on your best face for the media and tell the press how everything is sunshine and roses on the set of Seattle Grace, but this recent incident involving Washington shows that’s not true and in fact colors people’s perceptions of the show itself.
I know that you like to say that your show is a somewhat frothy serial with names like McDreamy and lots and lots of sex, but Grey’s Anatomy is one of the highest-rated shows on television, giving you an enormous audience at home and in the media.
I know you like to think that you’re using that audience to bust down stereotypes regarding race, gender, and sexuality-from the black Chief of Surgery to the interracial romances to the gay bartender (points for that one, btw)-yet when one of your stars calls another one of your stars a "faggot" not once, but twice and you remain silent-it makes people wonder if you have the courage of your convictions.
Ms. Rhimes, it is time, to use a cliché, to put up or shut up.
I know I’m just a guy picking an easy, over-covered target for his first editorial, and I know you don’t read CHUD.com anyway. But I believe you have the same opportunity Josh Schwartz did a few years back in front of you, except now the issue is homophobia.
As someone who’s been watching television his whole life, who believes in television as a medium capable of great things, capable of great change, who reads the same ratings you do and who knows the audience you command-I’d hate to see you let this go to waste. I’d hate for you to release a weak, predictable statement on how offensive Washington’s slur was and say nothing else. As a fellow writer, too, I’d hate to see this be your last word on the matter.
(For those of you who just rolled your eyes, I promise that will be my last and only use of the "fellow writer" card.)
I’m not going to list all the ways that homophobia is a problem in America, from Matthew Shepard to the Federal Marriage Amendment, but you and I both know that gay rights in this country are a major issue. As head writer and creator of one of the most popular shows on television, you now have a tremendous opportunity to address that issue.
I’m not asking for a very special episode or a very special guest star to lecture us all. I’m not asking for some grand, eloquent statement on the matter that makes Aaron Sorkin remember he used to be a writer. All I’d like to see, at some point in the future, is that you remind us-as I am one of the millions of people who watch Grey’s Anatomy, and at times has thought it to be very, very good-that homophobia exists and exists in more ways than we like to think. Maybe somebody tells a gay-bashing joke at the Emerald City Bar. Maybe a character we like-maybe even Preston Burke himself (that’s kind of pushing it)-calls someone a "faggot" in a moment of anger. Maybe you remind us that despite this, people are capable of change and healing.
I know that it’s cool to quote Edward R. Murrow these days, but one of my favorite quotes of his-long before George Clooney used it in Good Night, and Good Luck.-is this: "This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful."
Shonda Rhimes, I hope that you and Grey’s Anatomy don’t waste this opportunity you have in front of you. I hope that you take advantage of that audience.
I hope that your show doesn’t become just wires and lights in a box or something to do when you have nothing else to do on a Thursday night.