Will Washington Controversy, ABC's Late Reaction Hurt Grey's Anatomy?

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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.

Will Washington Controversy, ABC's Late Reaction Hurt Grey's Anatomy?
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.

Vivian Vance and William Frawley bickered throughout I Love Lucy, setting a lack-of-love pattern that remains to this day. They're actors; their job is to convey emotion, not live it.

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.

Steve Marsi is the Managing Editor of TV Fanatic. Follow him on Google+ or email him here.


I am glad that Shonda Rhimes spends more time thinking about what is going to come out of IW's mouth than he apparenty does. What he said wasn't an accident it was diliberate and probably taught as we know hate is learned behavior. People don't get to choose where they come from or how they grow up people don't get to choose the color of their skin or their sexual preferences but we do get to choose to be tolerant and more than that we get to choose to accept people for who they are. IW chooses to think the way he does and we all have the right not to so let'sl rejoice in our ability to choose not to. On the other hand, (and I have thought alot about this not just due to the controversy but due to learning to be tolerant of my father's points of view while completely disagreeing with him) we cannot expect people like IW to be tolerant of other people if we are not also tolerant of people like IW. Moreover we cannot teach tolerence and acceptance if we do not tolerate and accept. I am not saying that we all have to agree with eachother just be tolerant so that we can move toward acceptance.


I am glad that IW will be back. I think people too often mistake the actors' characters with their own iddenties.


I have kept up with this situation with IW since the beginning. This is by far the best website and article I have read and I have read a lot of them. I have looked at the video a thousand times of IW interviews. I do think the night of the Globes on his part was not a good decision when he grabbed the microphone and made his statement. They were not talking to him but Shonda. He reacted before thinking which we all do sometimes. I work hard on a daily basis not to do that with my husband and my kids. Its not easy. But sometimes I do overreact and say things I regret and shouldn't have said. I tell them I am sorry and they have forgiven me many times. I don't think IW INTENTIONS were to hurt anyone that night. He made a bad judgement call. I don't agree that TR was forced out of the closet. I think he used this as an opportunity or excuse to come out. I read everyday people calling Clay Aiken gay and has yet to say anything and a lot of people are convinced he is and call him accordingly. I am told all the by others that are gay, being gay isn't a choice thats just who you are. So if thats the case why is it such a big deal who knows, when they know and how they find out. I was under the understanding you don't chose to be thats just who you are. So, I didn't choose to be a girl at birth thats just what I was. Therefore it didn't matter when others found out and how. With all the struggle you hear that gay men have gone through to be respected I think TR's coming out was really kind of "whimpy". He is a gay man. Why didn't he raise his head up on Ellen and straighten his shoulders back and tell us I am telling you who I am because I am not shame and very proud of who I am. I don't respect how he used this situation is that way. I would hope he doesn't want all this pity and I would hope he is telling Katherine Hiegel he can fight his own battles and you are making me look even weaker while you promote your career. I would be upset with her that she is using this situation to stay in front of the camera. I would love to see TR stand up for himself with some pride and confidence. I love his character but being gay doesn't make you weak, fragile, and spineless. When all the attention is off of IW, TR will definitely come the public's focus thats just the way human nature is. They are going to give you a minute to lick your wounds and thats it. He better get up straight his shoulders, raise your head up because I want him to be respected to. Good Luck to TR and IW.


I think all of the hoopla surrounding the comments allegedly made by Isaiah Washington needs to stop. He apologized for what was said. I think the entire situation was probably overblown from the beginning. I don't think we need to know what conversations take place behind the scenes of a show.
I think that we should all learn to be more tolerant of the personal choices of others, however, I don't think that if someone makes a poor judgement call and uses a derogatory term, they should be fired. The punishment just does not fit the offense. If he does not do a good job on the show, then he should be disciplined. But how he feels or doesn't feel as a person should not impact his employment. Acting, to me, is like any other form of employment. You should be judged on how well you perform your assigned job. Isaiah Washington is an outstanding actor and I have followed his work for many years. I would hope that the producers would look at his talent and not his politics.


We teach our chiildren that if you do or say something wrong, you apology. If you don't want to forgive, then that's your choice, but it doesn't make you better, just more hateful.


I don't think TR Knight "came out of the closet", I think he was publicly "outed" for shock value from an angry co-worker. Straight people don't have to "come out of the closet" and say who they are intimate with, so why do we label this for gay people? How about "everyone is entitled to their personal privacy, and whether someone is straight or gay should be such an insignificant part of who they are as a person and what it is about them that we hold value as being", and angry rude ugly words like faggott should fall into the same category as nigger …..NOT ACCEPTABLE - NO ROOM IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE FOR IT, AND PEOPLE WHO USE THESE WORDS SHOULD BE "OUTED" FROM BEING A PART OF ANY PUBLIC PROFESSION. I don't want to hear it, and I don't want my kids to hear it. TR Knight is entitled to his privacy at whatever level he is comfortable, and the choice of what he discloses to others should be owned entirely by him. Washington should be fired. Counseling does nothing for that ugly part deep inside that knows that word and even considers using it. No matter how much alcohol that I would consume, those horrible words would never enter my mind much less ever be spoken. Washington showed everyone what he carries inside his heart, and no therapy or apology will change the fact that now we know a lot more about who he is…..


Saying IW used the 'wrong word' to describe homosexual men is about the stupidest thing I've ever heard. I suppose you would say that Micheal Richards used the 'wrong word' to describe african americans. IW has a LONG history of having a temper on the set (well before Grey's Anatomy) with verbal and physical assults on other actors. If ABC has any balls, they would fire him. What bothers me, is when they talk about who should replace him, they always suggest another african american male. What's up with that?


Great post and THANKS! I'm so sick of reading and hearing about Isaiah being a bigot,what should ABC do about him?, etc. ABC shouldn't think of doing anything besides moving on. I'm sure there are several other networks who would LOVE to pick up Grey's Anatomy & allow humans to make some mistakes.
He simply chose the wrong description/word for "homosexual men", hell I know people that still call them sissies, "chemically addicted"=Junkies, "lesbians"=Dykes, LOL :)
you can't keep up with the politically correct language, it changes almost daily.
Unfortunately, we've become a society that tries to CONTROL EVERYONE and EVERYTHING . . .who amongst us hasn't said, done or thought something we regretted later?. . . give me a break again . . .GREAT POST


I think he was extremely wrong in his behavior and that it is totally inexcusable!! He grew up in the sixties and when blacks were in the throws of getting equal rights. He had to have grown up knowing what it was like living in a white persons world back then, being looked at as being different! He should look back on those times when he felt like an outcast due to the color of his skin! He no more chose to being born a black kid back then as did any gay choose to being born gay in a straight society! He of all people should know what it feels like to be looked down on for being different and always having to prove yourself!! NO ONE asks to be born gay and live in a world of bigots that are going to be mean to you and possible kill you for being different (remember Matthew Shepard)!! I being a Mother to a 33 year old daughter that is gay, there isn't a day or night that goes by that I don't worry about her being hurt emotionally or physically for something she can't help (SHE CAN'T CHANGE HOW SHE WAS BORN)!! No more than a child that is born without limbs can wake up one day and say, "you know what, I think I will grow some limbs today, I am tired of being different!!! To list just a few of the talented and wonderful gay professional people that have provided us with hours of their ended talent, I applaud the T.R. Knight, Ellen DeGeneres, Tracy Chapman, Joan Baez, Portia deRossi, Jodi Foster, Sara Gilbert, Patrick Neil Harris,Tab Hunter, Elton John, K.D. Lang, Johnny Mathis, Kristy McNichol, Sinead O'Connor, Rosie O'Donnell, David Hyde Pierce, Charles Nelson Reilly, Rip Taylor, Lily Tomlin, Rock Hudson, Michael Jeter,Barry Manilow, Liberace, Richard Chamberlainand, Paul Lynde's of the world. Isaiah Washington, you were and are wrong in your school of thinking! Maybe for one or two years, you and your family ought to go live in one of the southern states (like Georgia or Mississippi) that still are anti black and get a refresher coarse in humanity!! Even though you grew up in a household that was semi professionals in Texas! But you have forgotten where you come from and what it was like being a little black boy growing up!! And you seriously need to attend some anger management classes too!!


Have y'all seen the item on MSNBC.com referring to the possibility that TR might leave the show? I hope, hope, hope that it is only picking up on a rumor - especially after the incredible performances that he's given this season. I think he has really come into his own as an actor, and the character is really getting some depth. Frankly, I'd hate to see anyone leave, but I can see how it would be difficult to continue the quality performance as an ensemble if one or more of the cast was uncomfortable......I just hope they can work it out.


Grey's Anatomy Quotes

Did you say it? 'I love you. I don't ever want to live without you. You changed my life.' Did you say it? Make a plan. Set a goal. Work toward it, but every now and then, look around; Drink it in 'cause this is it. It might all be gone tomorrow."

Meredith (closing voiceover)

Burke was- He took something from me. He took little pieces of me, little pieces over time, so small I didn't even notice, you know? He wanted me to be something I wasn't, and I made myself into what he wanted. One day I was me Cristina Yang, and then suddenly I was lying for him, and jeopardizing my career, and agreeing to be married and wearing a ring, and being a bride. Until I was standing there in a wedding dress with no eyebrows, and I wasn't Cristina Yang anymore. And even then, I would've married him. I would have. I lost myself for a long time. And now that I'm finally me again, I can't. I love you. I love you more than I loved Burke. I love you. And that scares the crap out of me because when you asked me to ignore Teddy's page, you took a piece of me, and I let you. And that will never happen again.