Like any other business, television is one filled with risks. It takes millions of dollars and a small army to put together a TV series, and that kind of investment automatically means, for better or (often) worse, that the networks who hosts these shows get a large say into what does or doesn't happen on said series. It's the rare show that gets by without a lot of network input (interference?), and it's safe to say that even in those cases, it's just that we don't hear about the notes that are passed along from executive suite to writers' room. But, as is often the case with many lines of work, we tend to hear about the messy stuff more than the clean. And this appears to be the case with one of the more popular series on TV today, the medical dramedy Grey's Anatomy, now in its fifth season on ABC.
A few seasons back, Brooke Smith, a respected New York-based actress known mostly for her work in the Big Apple theater scene and in some interesting film roles (Buffalo Bill's last victim in the Oscar-winning The Silence of the Lambs; a pregnant, gun-toting reality star in the satirical Series 7; Naomi Watts' jugdmental best friend in Woody Allen's Melinda & Melinda), did a guest-star arc on Grey's as Erica Hahn, a skilled but abrasive cardiac surgeon who was a rival to Isaiah Washington's Preston Burke. During the middle of last season, Smith became a regular as Hahn replaced Burke on the staff of Seattle Grace Hospital. What followed was an intriguing storyline when Erica started a relationship with orthopedic specialist Dr. Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez), marked in large part by a kiss shared between the two in May's finale. Prior to this, neither character had identified as gay or even bisexual, but the couple conitnued on as this fall's batch of new shows started. Tentatively, with humor and charm and poignancy and, yes, some missteps (including a few from the writers), Erica and Callie forged ahead, eventually going to bed together in a sequence that was marked by a great piece of acting from Smith in last week's episode, when Erica frightened Callie and maybe herself with the post-coital realization that, after all these years, she was indeed a lesbian. Many critics praised how Grey's writers, including creator Shonda Rhimes, were handling the plot, and much was made of the fact that this wasn't another "lesbian guest-star" situation, that this may have been the first time in network TV history that an ongoing lesbian romance consisted of two established regulars, neither of whom was going to just disappear one day.
Well, strike that, because today the news broke that Smith has been fired from the series, her last episode to air on Thursday. What's more, Erica in fact will just disappear, as the character has no departure story per se. As Smith told Entertainment Weekly in an exclusive online story, Erica just gets in her car and drives away, most likely never to be seen again.
But wait, it gets better. Despite a late-evening statement released by Rhimes in which she seems to take the bullet for Smith's abrupt pink slip (citing a lack of "magic and chemistry"), it seems that the decision was out of her hands - that ABC decreed that the Hahn character be removed from the Grey's equation. And, according to E! Online, a new bisexual character to be played by Melissa George (Alias) has been changed. George will still be on the show, but her character will no longer be bisexual.
TV is no stranger to characters who simply don't end up fitting into the mix of an established show, and if either Rhimes or ABC had felt that Smith's chemistry wasn't right on Grey's, that would have been seen as somewhat legitimate. But the subsequent alteration of another out character, George's, makes this developing quite troubling. Let us not forget that ABC was the network that was airing Ellen DeGeneres' eponymous series when both DeGeneres and her TV doppelgänger came out of the closet. ABC reaped the rating benefits of that whirlwind, but when Ellen's ratings declined and even gays though the show was "too gay," they bailed on the series the following year. Now, that was almost 10 years ago, but it may not be too hard for some to see a trend here. Of course, both ABC and Rhimes can say that Grey's still has the bisexual Callie in the cast, but how much will we see that side of her from now on? And one also has to consider what happened to another popular ABC series, Ugly Betty, where openly gay co-executive producer Marco Pennette was fired last season at around the time that Rebecca Romijn, who played a transsexual on the comedy series, was demoted to recurring status. Some interpreted that as an attempt by the network to "de-gay" the series. To be fair, it's important to note that gay characters remain on Ugly Betty, along with other ABC shows such as Desperate Housewives and Brothers and Sisters (though that series' openly gay executive producer departed under hinky conditions last season). But is there a trend here?
Meanwhile, there's Smith, who this summer told TV reporters, myself included, how excited she was about the opportunity of being on Grey's, and on doing some possibly groundbreaking television. The native New Yorker had moved her husband and two kids cross-country for the part, and the family had just purchased a house on the West Coast. Being an actor for most of her adult life, Smith no doubt is used to professional disappointment, and she's more than talented enough to bounce back from this setback. But it's a shame that what may be perceived, fairly or otherwise, as a bad case of network homophobia has such collateral damage.
Oh, and I can't what to see what GLAAD and other organizations have to say about this Tuesday morning. Or maybe Wednesday morning, since there are some bigger fish to fry tomorrow.