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The Bionic Woman's Toughest Mission
Can She Get Her Gay Fan Base to Overlook Isaiah Washington? Stay Tuned . . .

By Jonathan Padget
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 9, 2007

Gays and the Bionic Woman? Love her!

Gays and Isaiah Washington? Not so much.

Thus you have one of the Great Pop Cultural Dilemmas of 2007:

What's a thoroughly postmodern gay to do when one of the iconic heroines of '70s television is relaunched on a network that eagerly embraces an actor who gets dumped from his hit show on another network after proving himself all too comfortable with a certain homophobic slur?

Okay, fine, maybe you don't get the Bionic Woman idolization. Maybe you've never been on the receiving end of the "f" slur. (What are you, one of those nine out of 10 people who "scientific research" suggests isn't gay?) But unless you'd rather be contemplating lesser, tawdrier issues -- say, the public-restroom dating habits of a certain Republican senator -- stick with us here.

NBC's new "Bionic Woman" series, premiering Sept. 26, was not without a certain amount of audience anxiety before Isaiah Washington even came into the picture.

Emotional connections to characters like the Bionic Woman can run deep for countless gay viewers who see isolation and repression reflected in heroes who must harbor secret identities and who can't show off their fabulousness in their everyday lives.

Take, for example, a misfit child in 1970s Anytown, U.S.A., who doesn't even have a name for his difference -- homosexuality -- but is deluged with cultural cues that whatever his true nature is, it's wrong. The Bionic Woman, Jaime Sommers, was a bright spot in dark times: She could protect you; she knew what it was like to not fit in; she could pull off a velour tracksuit.

"She's literally made different," says Andrew Belonsky, editor of Queerty.com, an outpost in the gay blogosphere, which has kept close tabs on the new series and its casting controversy. "Any show where someone is on the fringe" can be close to a gay viewer's heart.

NBC has played heartbreaker to many gay fans by bringing Isaiah Washington into the "Bionic Woman" fold. Then again, the network hasn't exactly treated the show as sacrosanct.

Jaime (British actress Michelle Ryan) has been re-imagined as a bartender who's involved in a terrible car accident, then saved by a top-secret government agency that outfits her with bionic body parts.

Car accident? Bionic bartender? British?

No, no, no. Jaime (Lindsay Wagner, back in the day) is supposed to be a tennis pro. She's the now-reunited childhood sweetheart of astronaut Steve Austin (Lee Majors, who could work a leisure suit), whom the government turns into the Six Million Dollar Man after he nearly dies in a test-flight crash. Later, Jaime nearly dies as well when her chute fails during a skydiving trip with Steve -- a common mid-'70s courtship ritual -- but he convinces his bosses that Jaime deserves bionics, too (and, in the process, her own spinoff).

Jaime is supposed to live in a converted barn in Ojai, Calif., with one of those groovy freestanding inverted-funnel fireplaces, like they used to give away on "The Price Is Right." Jaime can do housework really, really fast. And Jaime is supposed to drive a sporty Datsun!

Add to NBC's tinkering with the show's formula the fact that the network has hired Washington to portray some kind of mysterious government handler for the new Jaime. Washington, you'll recall, was fired in the spring from ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" after using a homophobic slur on the set in reference to a gay cast mate, then repeating the slur at the Golden Globes in the process of denying he'd said it in the first place. He filmed a public service announcement about hate speech, in a last-ditch effort to save his job, and when that didn't work, he lashed out in such a way that suggested, well, maybe he wasn't so sorry after all.

"He's sorry he got so much flak for it," says Queerty's Belonsky.

NBC initially played dumb about the controversy (network honcho Ben Silverman said during a press event in July that he "didn't quite understand what had gone on there." Right. . . ).

Meanwhile, Brit Chick Ryan isn't sporting velour in promos; Lindsay Wagner is nowhere to be seen, except as the bored TV pitchwoman for those bionic -- uh, we mean, Sleep Number -- beds; and, well, all is simply not right in Tinseltown.

Still, gay viewers have been drawn to the new "Bionic Woman," out of fondness for the original broadcasts in the '70s, or out of love for all things camp, or out of mere curiosity -- "to see how they update it, the new technology," observes Belonsky.

But is curiosity enough to override negative feelings about Washington?

"Most people don't want to see his career end," says Michael Jensen, editor of gay Web site AfterElton.com. Yet, "there aren't very many gay people who are eager to watch Isaiah Washington on another program."

The least NBC could do is put him in velour.

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