Television: The Bard of Today

by Adriana Reyes


Bards, in the times of old poets and playwrights, were regarded as keepers of cultural memory. They were practically the center of a community who turned individual experiences into something the whole community could enjoy as a whole. This is what Fiske and Hartley describe when they reference the function of television as a “bardic function.” Television has turned into a modern day bard. For example, think about the show Breaking Bad and the way in which it holds many captivated audiences throughout the nation (and perhaps worldwide). It can be used as a source of interest or debate among many different types of people from wherever they may come from. This show encompasses the “bardic function” of Fiske and Hartley because it is able to unify society and is kept at the cultural center through its television medium.

One bardic function of television comes from its ability to articulate, as Fiske and Hartley state, “the main lines of the established cultural consensus about the nature of reality (and therefore the reality of nature)”. So, television is able to relay a sense of reality onto its audience, therefore, conveying a sense that whatever the message being sent is natural or normal in society. This leads to a notion of cultural membership which television is attempting to transmit to its viewers, which also assures them of their association and involvement in the world that they are in (88). Thinking about what is on television today, we can see so many examples of where this occurs.

For example, the producers of television series such as Law and Order SVU most likely have, not necessarily a hidden agenda, but an intent to try and bring to light the trauma and terror that come with sexual crimes. It seems that by doing so, they are incorporating these traumas into society in order to help cope with the trauma of a possible real-life assault or traumatic event. They put it on television where everyone can see so that individuals, who may have thought they were alone and isolated because of what happened to them, may feel that they are still a part of society. And this is not only for that individual, but this also allows the entire culture to accept and somehow understand the traumas these certain individuals may have had to go through.

Furthermore, with a bardic function, television implicates as well as celebrates the individual members and representatives of its society. It allows individuals to have eccentric characteristics (that society may not accept at first glance) without being excluded because of it. The two authors use the term “claw back” for this concept, which also allow certain features of the subject to be emphasized in order to centralize the message the television producers want to convey to their audiences. They used the example of a nature program, which tend to emphasize the characteristics of the subject (the animal) that are most similar to humans in order to compare our culture’s standard of organization with the animal kingdom’s. Conversely, if the subject cannot be successfully clawed back into society, then the audience will conclude that something in their culture is inadequate (87).

With reference to the bardic function of television that involves the “claw back” effect, Breaking Bad has many instances in which one of its characters’ actions lead to something that seems socially unacceptable but somehow, at the same time, the writers and producers of the series make it seem acceptable. So, the converse of the “claw back” effect is taking place in most of these episodes. For example, in the second episode of the first season titled “The Cat’s in the Bag”, Walt and Jesse must decide what to do with the bodies of two drug dealers, one of whom Walt severely injured and the other killed by a poisonous, phosphine gas. They flipped a coin to determine who would dispose of the already dead guy and who would have to kill the one that was already suffering from major burns and other internal injuries caused by the gas. Walt lost and had to kill the guy who was still alive.

Two aspects of this episode emphasize the central message about the morality of murder. One has to do with the instance when Walt backs out of his plan to kill the man and, instead, gives him water, a sandwich, a bucket, toilet paper, and even hand sanitizer. He not only gives the suffering man the necessities, but he also gives him a little extra, which makes one wonder if he will even kill the man. In contrast, after this incident, Jesse came back to the house empty handed from his search for a container big enough to fit the body of the other dead man. A specific container was needed in order to dissolve the body in acid, and so when Jesse came back Walt made a very disturbing comment about a solution to the problem. It went along the lines of, “you can buy two bins and (made a sawing motion) legs in one and torso in the other”.

These two moments show very different sides of Walt. One is compassionate and merciful, and the other is gruesome and insensitive. So, for the first example that showed the compassionate side, Walt was able to claw back to what would be considered morally correct by society’s standards. But the second instance shows the converse of the claw back effect. When Walt makes the gruesome comment, it brings to light the inadequacies of reality in that circumstance. And so, it can be speculated whether this contradiction should bring to light the inadequacies and contradictions found in society’s moral standards. Are the producers trying to show that the world is full of contradictions through the life of Walt? Is this a correct representation?

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