Monday, November 3, 2008

Grey's Anatomy: The Wrath of Hahn

It's a good thing Erica Hahn is a doctor,
'cause she's about to get thrown under the bus.

When I last wrote about Grey's Anatomy and its horribly botched attempt at a lesbian storyline, I ended my lengthy, lengthy (sorry about that) post with this:
There are people who will always be happy with crap, and there are networks that will always be happy to supply it. Will Grey's Anatomy continue that trend? We'll know soon enough.
That was a little more than a week ago. Since then, another episode aired. I had planned on publishing something about it later tonight or tomorrow. The thrust of the post, as presented in its opening line, was going to be "This storyline just isn't going well at all." I was going to briefly recap what happened in the episode (you can view the Callie and Erica-oriented scenes online) before moving onto this analysis:
The endgame here seems to be Mark and Callie, with the "Callica" relationship being used, in effect, to strengthen and add richness of texture to Mark and Callie's bond; with potential criticism of the ploy offset by 1) Grey's writers being able to say they met with GLAAD, and 2) gay viewers being thrown a bone in the form of Erica, who will presumably remain a lesbian character long after Callie has gone back to shtupping guys.

The most basic elements of the storyline (two same-gender friends hook up; the experience is revelatory for one and plunges the other into confusion and panic) haven't been unrealistic. They create a scenario most gay viewers can probably relate to. The problem remains the terrible, awful, craptastic execution.

So far this has been an incredibly half-assed little arc. The writing isn't just flat, it plainly approaches a complex subject in a way that is immature, at times offensive, and always lacking in nuance; we're seeing questionable acting choices by Sara Ramirez (in her defense, this could easily be more a function of the writing and direction than anything else, but the result is the same no matter what -- her performances have been off-kilter and uncomfortable to watch for several weeks now); and aside from the "Callica" fangirl contingent, most viewers do not seem to like this story. They want it to be over.

In short, it has been a cringe-inducing misfire on almost every level. Its biggest missteps can be traced to the fact that there is a pronounced difference between the "Callica" affection (and chemistry) of season four and what we've seen in the first six episodes of season five, and it hasn't been sufficiently explained by the writers. Is a recovery possible? Since the show is set in a hospital, you'd think so. But nothing excuses the crumminess of these early, crucial episodes of season five, and while Erica could find happiness with another character down the line, I don't think "Callica" is salvageable.
Harsh, right? And that was after I scrapped a bitchy paragraph or two about why I think the writers will probably have to keep Callie fundamentally straight (hint: it has something to do with heterosexual viewers over-identifying with several of the female characters on Grey's Anatomy -- particularly the characters who get to sleep with hotties like Mark Sloan), and why I think so many viewers dislike Erica Hahn (hint: it has something to do with a majority of straight female viewers loving hard-assed female characters who fuck guys, but being decidedly more "meh" about them when they're sleeping with women -- particularly women who should be getting nasty with Mark Sloan). So harsh might be an understatement.

That's why I hadn't been in a rush to share my thoughts on last week's episode. I have a theory that negativity tends to turn off lesbian readers. They're excited when they see themselves represented on TV shows and in movies. It isn't something that happens too often. They're interested in staying hopeful and positive, in enjoying something while it lasts. I was worried about turning into an epic killjoy.

But guess what? It doesn't seem to matter now. Michael Ausiello, the adorable TV geek who went from being one of the three trillion gays over at TV Guide to working for Entertainment Weekly, is reporting that Brooke Smith, who plays Erica, has been canned. Canned! Like something you'd find at the grocery store. Writeth Ausiello:
I'm told this was not Shonda Rhimes' decision but rather an order that came down from the network. (ABC declined to comment.) According to one Grey's source, the suits "had issues" with both the explicit direction Callica was taking (think: undiscovered country, south of the border, etc.) and, more importantly, with the Hahn character in general. Basically, they didn't like her and wanted her gone ASAP.
Pretty brutal, isn't it? Brooke Smith spoke with him about her abrupt dismissal, and some of her comments about "Callica" are interesting.
AUSIELLO: What the hell happened?!

I was very excited when they told me that Erica and Callie were going to have this relationship. 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. And so I was surprised and disappointed when they just suddenly told me that they couldn't write for my character any more.
The part in bold clearly wasn't happening. And while the network had the final say, I think some of the blame belongs to the writers. They were treating the story like one big dirty joke. If they had come up with something more substantial, might they have received more network support? Programming-wise, ABC is the gayest major television network in the United States. They're not big fraidy cats when it comes to homosexuality.

Smith also seems to realize the relationship wasn't handled effectively:
AUSIELLO: Were you happy with the direction the storyline was taking?

SMITH: You know, I was starting to get there, yeah. I was personally a little impatient with the gay panic, but it was more Callie's thing anyway. I think Dr. Hahn was sort of figuring it out.

AUSIELLO: What did you think about Callie going to Mark to get pointers on exploring the "undiscovered country."

SMITH: It was a little icky. If you're a women, don't you know how to please yourself? But they seemed to be okay with that one.

And that's about it. According to the EW interview, Smith's last episode airs this week. As far as I'm concerned, ABC has made an enormous mistake. Grey's Anatomy has a very large, but not particularly talented, cast. Its most distinguished performers were Smith (if you haven't seen her work in the film Vanya on 42nd Street, simply observe the way she listened to her Grey's costars in a very thoughtful, genuine, and thoroughly actorly way you don't often see on TV) and Chandra Wilson. Don't get me wrong, James Pickens Jr. is great and so is Sandra Oh, but at least in the context of Grey's Anatomy, Smith and Wilson can do more with a fleeting sideways glance than the rest of the cast combined.

Wanting to get rid of the "Callica" storyline makes sense. It was floundering, and you can't waste five to seven minutes per week on something that isn't going anywhere. But getting rid of the only person out of all the writers, directors and actors who worked on it and did her job competently? The word that comes to mind is bullshit.

UPDATE (8:45 PM) - From the Department of Oy Vey and the Department of WTF comes this wacky statement issued by Grey's Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes:
"Brooke Smith was obviously not fired for playing a lesbian. Clearly it's not an issue as we have a lesbian character on the show – Calliope Torres. Sara Ramirez is an incredible comedic and dramatic actress and we wanted to be able to play up her magic. 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. I believe it belittles the relationship to simply replace Erica with 'another lesbian.' If you'll remember, Cristina mourned the loss of Burke for a full season."
First of all, how is Callie Torres a lesbian when they just spent several episodes establishing that she still loves cock? Second of all, how is Callie Torres a lesbian when they just spent several episodes establishing that she still loves cock? And third of all, how is Callie Torres a lesbian when -- well, I think you get the picture.

Furthermore, why does an inability to "sustain chemistry" equal "fire Brooke"? Wasn't she made a cast member before the writers started in with the Callie/Erica nonsense? Shonda Rhimes needs to be honest. She came up with a half-baked storyline, let her writers fuck it up, and she should own it. And the chemistry problem, if you want to call it that, had more to do with Sara Ramirez than Brooke Smith. Brooke Smith had zero problem conveying Erica's attraction to Callie. I get that you wouldn't fire Sara Ramirez in such a situation, because she's been on the show longer and people like Callie more than they like Erica -- not to mention, for the eight thousandth time, that it's not her fault the writing sucked -- but the way Rhimes is trying to frame this isn't quite fair to Smith.

Finally, assuming it isn't some kind of misdirection, the "it belittles the relationship to simply replace Erica with 'another lesbian'" line is a pretty hilarious way to try to quell a gay backlash. Weren't Cristina and Burke a big deal couple on the show? How is the stupidity that went down between Callie and Erica remotely comparable to that? My guess is the only thing the stories will ultimately have in common is GLAAD, an organization that was happy to see Isaiah Washington go and probably won't be as pleased to see Smith axed.

UPDATE AGAIN (9:26 PM) - Or, if you want to read something that isn't a gazillion words long, you can check out what Mary McNamara had to say about Smith's firing in the L.A. Times.

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