HOLLYWOOD -- That Grey's Anatomy has grown entangled in the Isaiah Washington gay-baiting scandal has to be among the strangest developments of the TV season. The many fans of ABC's cheeky, top-rated hospital soap might even dub it McIronic.
Washington's use of a crude, homophobic 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.
ABC is praying that Washington's counseling stint and meeting with leaders of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation might be the end of the story that peaked when Washington used the term (for the second time) at the Golden Globe awards last month. But it's obviously not played out. As Washington reportedly returned for work late last week, co-star T.R. Knight's publicist was batting down rumors that the gay actor was so upset he was ready to quit the show.
The scandal has heightened usually unseen tensions among various camps in the black and gay communities.
"The reality," BET host Keith Boykin, who is black and openly gay, said last week, "is that race is as much a factor at play here as sexuality."
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?
According to GLAAD 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 series creator Shonda Rhimes' handling of the Washington controversy. "We hear there's tension out there," McCarthy said. "We certainly sense it."
Meanwhile, among those with more critical distance, the controversy is now entering its cynical backlash phase; 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, who plays thoracic surgeon Dr. Preston Burke, complained to Nightline correspondent Vicki Mabrey that the network wouldn't give him the juicy part of Dr. Derek "McDreamy" 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. 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 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 likely would endure.
Scott Collins writes for the Los Angeles Times.