Why Did 'Grey's' Get Rid of the Gay Romance?

End of Callie-Erica affair raises question: how far can gay characters go on TV?

November 9, 2008, 6:46 PM

Nov. 10, 2008 — -- Something's sketchy at Seattle Grace.

The hospital home to "Grey's Anatomy" seems to specialize in shady cast changes. The latest: actress Brooke Smith's abrupt dismissal from the ABC series, just as things between her and her on-screen lesbian love interest, Callie Torres, played by Sara Ramirez, were getting juicy.

Smith's character, Dr. Erica Hahn, left the drama Thursday without the drama deserving of her multiple-season tenure. After a spat with Callie at Seattle Grace, she simply walked off screen and off the show, nary a tear shed. Last week, Smith told Entertainment Weekly she was shocked to learn her "Grey's" fate:

"I was very excited when they told me that Erica and Callie were going to have this relationship," she said. "And I really hoped we were going to show what happens when two women fall in love and that they were going to treat it like any heterosexual couple on TV. ... I was floored when they told me [I was being let go]. It was the last thing I expected."

Show creator Shonda Rhimes said the decision to write Smith off "Grey's" had nothing to do with the escalation of the romance between Callie and Erica.

"Brooke Smith was obviously not fired for playing a lesbian," Rhimes said in a statement. "Unfortunately, we did not find that the magic and chemistry with Brooke's character would sustain in the long run. The impact of the Callie/Erica relationship will be felt and played out in a story for Callie."

Asked to comment on the decision, ABC declined to elaborate beyond Rhimes' statement.

It's not the first time controversy has swirled around gay issues on "Grey's." Last year, Isaiah Washington was dismissed from the show after he was accused of calling fellow cast member T.R. Knight a "faggot," angering the gay community and fellow cast members. Washington has denied the accusation.

At the time, ABC didn't reference Washington's slur, saying instead that the studio had decided not to renew his contract. Washington weighed in on Smith's dismissal in the latest issue of TV Guide, saying, "The fact is that just before the holidays, you have a mother, a wonderful actress removed from a steady income without the proper reasoning behind it. You look at the way another consummate professional's being treated because her character, her story line, potentially made producers uncomfortable."

Other television insiders agree Smith's canning was likely caused, at least in part, by her character's lesbian leaning and in-depth sexual discussions.

"What's odd about this is the timing. Usually you see these things percolating," said one TV executive who asked to remain anonymous. "I don't think this would be an affiliate issue. It doesn't seem to be an indecency issue. That means it's got to be a creative issue or an advertising issue."

While gay couples and characters may not abound on screen, they certainly exist in shows like NBC's past hit sitcom "Will & Grace" and ABC's "Desperate Housewives" and "Brothers & Sisters." But "Grey's" got into the nitty-gritty of being gay, while those series strived to make homosexuality palatable to mainstream audiences.

"Perhaps viewers have an easier time with gay humor than realistic -- some could say, graphic -- depictions of gay issues on a drama like 'Grey's Anatomy.' A lot of the country might view gay topics as something to laugh at, not something to be explored seriously," said TV Guide senior editor William Keck.

"With Kevin and Scotty on 'Brothers & Sisters,' we don't see a lot of graphic discussions of their sex life," he said. "We see them as a happy couple who have their place at the Walker dinner table. They discuss social topics, not sexual topics. ['Grey's''] instructions about how to pleasure a woman. … I could see a lot of the country being uncomfortable with that."

As evidenced by the fact that more than 10 million Americans in California, Florida and Arizona voted last week to deny marriage rights to homosexual couples.

Not only did "Grey's" ax one lesbian doctor; some say the show is also scaling back on story lines of gay characters and actors, like Knight's George O'Malley -- even though George isn't gay, Knight is. E! Online reported last week that "Alias" alum Melissa George, slated to join the show this week, was originally intended to play Callie's new love interest, but now "starts off flirting with Callie but it never goes anywhere."

Corey Scholibo, entertainment editor of The Advocate, said the appearance that "Grey's" is turning a cold shoulder to the gay community could drive gay fans further from the show, which needs all the viewers it can get as its ratings drop.

Once the No. 1 show on television in 2006, as of Oct. 27, "Grey's" stood at No. 9, according to Nielsen.

"I think gay fans are ultimately going to start getting alienated by these story lines," Scholibo said. "Callie's character isn't going to have another romantic story line so she's basically been neutered. T.R.'s story line is getting cut and he's not even playing a gay character. And the gay community is one of ['Grey's''] most popular demographics."

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