Scott D. Pierce: Rhimes can't escape Washington fallout

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 14 2007 12:54 a.m. MDT

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Isaiah Washington isn't Shonda Rhimes' problem anymore, and yet the hypocrisy over the controversial actor continues.

Washington's contract on "Grey's Anatomy" was not renewed; he has a deal at NBC that begins with a five-episode arc on the new "Bionic Woman." Rhimes, the creator/executive producer of "Grey's" and its forthcoming spinoff, "Private Practice," is moving on.

But some of her own words are coming back to haunt her.

In the midst of the controversy over Washington's homophobic slur aimed at castmate T.R. Knight, Rhimes kept her mouth shut, for the most part. Except when she tried to turn an incident of homophobia into an incident of racism aimed at Washington.

Responding to rumors that almost no one had heard until she refuted them, Rhimes came out swinging at reports that Washington would be dumped from his role as Dr. Preston Burke and replaced with former "ER" co-star Eriq LaSalle. She called the rumors "not only ridiculous but offensive that we would consider replacing a member of our family."

"And also the (idea) that one black man was interchangeable with another seemed disturbing to me."

In addition to the sheer ridiculousness of that statement — when an actor is replaced on any TV show for any reason, it's generally with an actor of the same race — there's a huge amount of irony in that Rhimes recast one of the roles on "Private Practice" after the pilot episode aired as part of a "Grey's Anatomy" telecast.

Merrin Dungey is out in favor of Audra McDonald — one black actor replacing another.

Predictably, Rhimes maintained those were entirely different circumstances. On "Practice," the change came after one episode; on "Grey's," a recasting of Washington's character would have come in that show's third season.

"I think that Preston Burke is a character that audiences have come to know and love for three seasons and has really been sort of well known. I think it's very different," she said.

And Rhimes has a point. Or she would have a point were it not for her earlier statements alleging racism. And she wasn't backing off one bit when called on her inconsistency.

"At a time in which there was suddenly some talk of, 'Let's cast this actor or that actor' and sort of naming a bunch of black actors — as if the only thing that was important about the character of Preston Burke was his race," she said. "That was disturbing to me."

Again, that's ludicrous. And, quite honestly, offensive. It's not racism to suggest that, if an actor on a hit TV show is being recast (again, for any reason), the obvious pool or replacements would be actors of the same race.

If Sandra Oh quit "Grey's Anatomy" tomorrow, would it be racist to speculate that an Asian-American actress would brought on to replace her? Of course not.

The fact is that Rhimes' attempts to turn homophobia around and make it racism offended a lot of people. Did she understand that?

"I do now," she said.

But, she insisted, the unfounded rumors of LaSalle replacing Washington were "as disturbing as the entire incident that happened for T.R. and Isaiah."

To make this clear, unfounded rumors were "as disturbing" to her as actual events involving Washington's homophobic slurs.

What makes that even harder to believe is that Rhimes didn't ever come out with any sort of statement decrying the homophobia — she issued a press statement decrying the racism that wasn't really racism.

Doesn't sound much like she considered the former "as disturbing" as the latter, does it?


E-mail: pierce@desnews.com