Is ABC Becoming Afraid of Diversity?

One of my guilty pleasures in recent years has been Grey’s Anatomy. I say “guilty pleasure” because, while I’ve found the storylines on the program increasingly erratic and some of the characters once considered favorites to become mere shadows of who they once were, I can’t resist the lure of watching the program every week.

This season, though, there seemed to be an uptick in the storylines – not necessarily an air of believability, because that will probably never happen with this show, but still an improvement over the past few seasons.

Note: spoilers for the current season follow. Read at your own risk.

Part of that, I attributed to the relationship between the characters of Callie Torres and Erica Hahn. Rather than simply going with the hookup route commonly practiced by the characters on Grey’s Anatomy, their relationship grew over the course of the past season from surprisingly close friendship to…well a burgeoning lesbian relationship.

It then came as quite a shock a few weeks ago when it was suddenly revealed that not only was the storyline over – just as it was building up – but that Brooke Smith, the actress playing Erica, was being let go. Almost immediately, word came out that the choice to end the storyline and let Smith go was not a creative choice, but a decision made by ABC. The network claims that they were not pleased with the way the storyline was progressing, and that the best resolution was simply to end the storyline immediately. They also claimed that Smith’s character was off-putting, which was the reason for the actress’ termination.

Something about this feels…off to me. Admittedly, there were parts of the storyline that felt like a little…much, but it never concerned Callie or Erica. Rather, it was Erica’s concern with their own sexuality that led to her hooking up with another doctor that made me feel uneasy. But Erica’s monologue comparing the discovery of her sexuality to her childhood experience with vision before getting glasses and being able to “see leaves” is one of the most heart-wrenching moments the show has provided.

My skepticism about the nature of ABC’s decision has grown for a few other reasons. First, Grey’s costar Patrick Dempsey revealed that the network approached the cast with the mandate that they should simply state that Smith was a valued member of the Grey’s cast and that they wished her the best in future endeavors. Dempsey instead chose to share his shock that the network would pull such an unexpected move.

Further decisions made on other ABC shows in recent months also make me question ABC’s recent trends towards becoming a more diverse network.

With two of its series over the past two years, ABC introduced the first regular or recurring trans characters on TV. First up was the character of Alexis Meade (played by Rebecca Romjin) on Ugly Betty, who came onto the show’s scene in the middle of the first season in 2007. That fall, the network went a step further with the introduction of a trans character played by a trans woman, Carmelita, on Dirty Sexy Money. Both characters provided new insight into a realm of the LGBT community most people still don’t discuss normally.

Then, over the summer, it was announced that Romjin was being demoted to recurring status with Ugly Betty. While the timing proved to be fortunate for Romjin, who later became pregnant with twins (which might’ve been a hard storyline for the series to swing, even with the outlandish storylines sometimes portrayed on Ugly Betty), the omission of the character was curious.

During the course of the first season, Carmelita has also been written off of Dirty Sexy Money. While the character was recurring, and therefore more easy to write off, the absence is noticeable.

Even on Grey’s Anatomy, the new character of Sadie Harris (played by Melissa George), an old friend of Meredith Grey, was originally intended to come in as a bisexual character. While the bisexuality has not necessarily been eliminated completely, network references to the character’s sexual orientation went missing around the time of Smith’s dismissal from the show.

It seems that ABC is fine with gay men on its network, at least. Ugly Betty has its fair share of characters, and Desperate Housewives still has the character of Andrew Van de Kamp, who is beginning his first relationship on the series since its second season in the coming weeks. Now, though, there are no real signs of any other types of LGBT characters on the network.

It’s really a sad state of affairs when ABC appears to be working on eliminating a group of characters from its shows, especially in light of the progress it showed back at the launch the 2004-2005 season, when Desperate HousewivesLost, Grey’s Anatomy and Boston Legal started. All four shows represented something new for network television – making entire casts based on talent, regardless of age, gender, or race. The pattern continued with future shows on the network, and can still be seen today. But for at least one segment of the population, seeing representation on television continues to be unlikely in the foreseeable future.

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