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Critic's notebook: 'Grey's Anatomy,' blasted for Brooke Smith firing, is behind the gay character learning curve

November 7, 2008 | 12:14 pm

Aaaand they’re back. After a brief respite from the entertainment media and Internet chatterazzi, “Grey’s Anatomy” has returned to the headlines with charges of homophobia, cultural obtuseness and just plain poor judgment for the firing of Brooke Smith. Smith found herself in the tragicomic situation of getting the big Emmy-worthy “Oh, my God, I’m gay” monologue in one episode and the boot in the next.

So swift was that boot that just last night Dr. Erica Hahn (Smith) took her final stand against the generally disgraceful medical standards of Seattle Grace, turned on her complicit almost-girlfriend Callie (Sara Ramirez) and stalked off into the night presumably never to be heard from again.

Just as many Americans were simmering in outrage over the passage, in three states, of bans on gay marriage, the folks at “Grey’s” jettison their first, and newly realized, gay character. That show has had its share of what-were-they-thinking moments, but this one may set the industry standard.

And it continues to resonate. On Wednesday, it pierced even election-saturated HuffingtonPost, which first reported that Patrick Dempsey, when asked by Ellen DeGeneres what had happened with Smith, literally pulled out the list of talking points given to him by ABC and read them.

Part of the outrage is due to Smith’s small but devoted fan base, but the decision also provided an exasperating reminder that certain prejudices are still ascendant in television, even on shows as forward-thinking as “Grey’s.”

While the success of NBC's “Will & Grace” opened the door for ABC's gay weddings (“Brothers & Sisters”), gay children (“Ugly Betty”) and transgender romance (“Dirty Sexy Money”), female characters seem restricted by rules that are (surprise, surprise) more about providing sexual titillation than narrative honesty or character development. When Smith got those first fateful pages sending Erica into the arms of Callie, she should have made darn sure it was just a single drunken interlude or that she, like Callie, would quickly follow it up with hot sex with a man. Because most lesbian characters are only allowed to have sex on network television if they are part of a single-episode story. Any main character hoping to explore her Sapphic side must be sylphlike, gorgeous, under 30 and bi. For obvious and irritating reasons.

Yes, complaints that the Erica/Callie romance took a graphic and ghastly turn mid-month were excruciatingly valid, but that was a single-episode problem, easily resolved and much more quickly forgotten than Meredith’s drowning or the George and Izzie debacle.

I suspect what irked whoever made the call — and it appears that it was the network's decision, not the show's creator, Shonda Rhimes — was precisely what made the Erica/Callie relationship significant. Not that they were both women. But that they were both women of substance, of, how shall I say this, average size and appearance. At least, by TV standards. With hips, you know, and actual breasts. Not two girly waifs exchanging a stolen kiss and grope over a line of coke in a bathroom stall, not an androgynous club kid putting her best moves on some sitcom heroine. These are the kind of gals who aren’t supposed to be sexually active at all on television, much less with each other.

Other networks have pushed lesbian themes a bit more successfully by playing by the hot-girl rules. On “House” the bisexuality of 13 (Olivia Wilde) is mostly a narrative tic — not only an easy way to keep her “mysterious” but also good for a few punch lines — but this season she did engage in some steamy, though mostly anonymous, sex. On “Bones,” Angela (Michaela Conlin) recently revived feelings for her college girlfriend (though her need to get everyone’s approval about her past would have made more sense if she was actually still in college. Twenty years ago.)

In the wake of protest over Smith’s firing, Rhimes insisted it was not because Erica was a lesbian because Callie was a lesbian (though this does not explain Callie’s frequent and highly satisfactory sex with men). But because the two characters didn’t have the right chemistry.

I’ll buy that. If by lack of chemistry she means it wasn’t believable that these two women would have sex with each other in a supply closet.

The real problem with Erica, and perhaps with Smith, as a part of the show, is that the character and the actress is a grown up. Smith looks and acts like a real woman, and Erica behaved like a real surgeon, which made her seem angry and cold compared with her more youthfully appealing cast mates. As an actor, Smith shines rather than sparkles, and “Grey’s,” for better and worse, is all about the sparkle.

In other words, and they are words I deeply regret, Ramirez, with all her lipglossed lusciousness, may be hot enough to be bi, but Smith is not hot enough to be gay.

At least not on network TV. At least not yet.

— Mary McNamara

Note: Some of the language here is grabbed from my post on this topic on Monday.

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