Who Let the Grim Reaper Get His Hands on the Remote Control? the Politics of Violence, Death, and Dying on HBO

Article excerpt


The paper examines how cable network HBO has used various depictions of violence and death to market itself as a cultural icon. In light of recent world events, HBO's programming can be seen as a response to a television audience's fears about death becoming more prominent in their daily lives. HBO has taken an initiative, beginning with Six Feet Under--a drama set in and around a California funeral home--to establish itself as a network unafraid of taking chances by airing controversial violent and death-themed programming. The research chronicles how the channel's initial success with controversy led it to further explore death themes in its later dramas: Carnivale--a serial set in a Depression era traveling freak show; Deadwood--a western detailing the birth of a civilization on the outskirts of the 1870s American frontier; and most recently Rome--a historical epic detailing Julius Caesar's rise and fall in the ancient city. The investigation details how every successive series has built upon its predecessors' use of violence, language, sexuality, and death to offer viewers a continuing narrative about life. It can ultimately be argued that HBO's continuing narrative is the equivalent of a public affairs program, facilitating an extended discussion of the nature of death in the modern world.

Historical Context of Real and Mediated Death

It would seem logical that television would serve as the modern world's foremost source of information with regard to events about which there are few chances to learn firsthand. Schiappa, Gregg, & Hewes (2004) are then correct to theorize that "because we learn about dying only indirectly by experiencing the death of others, it is reasonable to hypothesize that our attitudes about death and dying could be influenced by mass mediated messages" (460). Such was not always the case. Vicki Goldberg (1998) notes that, in eighteenth-century Europe, "death was everyone's intimate acquaintance, constantly on view" (27). A lack of sanitation standards, poor nutrition, famine, and disease, were just some of the causes which combined to make life a temporary condition. Those who could afford to do so died at home. Those whose families could not abandon work long enough to care for them were sent off to hospitals, where poor care and infection finished them off quickly. Afterwards, the deceased would be returned to their families "for washing and laying out, so if you missed the dying, you still saw, and most likely handled, the dead" (Goldberg, 1998, 27). The Christian ideal, then, viewed death as an occasion to be characterized by religious ceremony, and as an occasion that would "bring the spectator closer to God" (Goldberg, 1998, 27). The fear was of dying alone more than it was of death itself. And so, following the requisite funeral procession through the streets of town, mourners paid their last respects in the family (rather than the funeral) parlor.

In time, religious and medical changes made dying and death gradually retreat from the public eye. Mediated representations of death, from early photography and on through to modern-day films and television, thus replaced the actual experiences of death earlier society had come to accept. The contrast is striking: whereas President Lincoln's body was transported by railroad to several cities following his 1865 death, by 1963 the nation could attend John F. Kennedy's funeral via television and radio broadcasts (Goldberg, 1998). As modern technologies simultaneously lengthen life expectancy while distancing the living from the dead, modern audiences manifest an increasing fear of death as something to be avoided at any cost (Goldberg, 1998, 32). Such fright becomes strikingly visible in society's need to place a medium between the living and the dead, be it a formal funeral parlor or a television screen. The exact nature of the medium is unimportant as long as it is able to separate death from the survivors. …