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Head-on-a-Pole-arizing: HBO, Game of Thrones Apologize for Decapitating George W. Bush

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A recent study on TV brands by a research firm showed that HBO (along with Showtime) is one of the most politically polarizing channels on TV, loved by Democrats, not so much by Republicans. Here’s something that is probably not likely to ameliorate that situation: putting the severed head of the most recent Republican president on a pike.

As posted yesterday at io9, a scene near the end of season 1 of Game of Thrones, depicting a quick shot of the severed heads of King Joffrey’s enemies on display at King’s Landing, includes one head that looks oddly like an image of George W. Bush. Because, by the producers’ own admission, it is.

This has apparently been an open secret for some time. In the DVD commentary, the producers volunteer that the head is a likeness of Bush—not, they say, as a political statement, but because they had a limited amount of prostheses available, so they had to use the head of the 43rd president because they happened to have one lying around.

You know, as one does.

HBO (a sister company of TIME in Time Warner), quickly issued a mortified statement: “We were deeply dismayed to see this and find it unacceptable, disrespectful and in very bad taste. We made this clear to the executive producers of the series who apologized immediately for this inadvertent careless mistake. We are sorry this happened and will have it removed from any future DVD production.” Still, the whole incident is not likely to win HBO much more love from conservatives, who already see the network as enemy territory because of projects like the recent Sarah Palin movie Game Change. (Update: Ironically, by the way, all this comes just as HBO is airing a largely innocuous documentary about Bush’s dad.)

Personally, I would be flattered to see my own noggin on a spike for posterity in Game of Thrones. But I don’t receive death threats, nor have I held a job that requires Secret Service protection against assassination. The incident may not have been malicious, but it’s rightfully a sore subject.

It’s also an example of the ways political attitudes and insular cultures manifest themselves casually in entertainment. I don’t know the Thrones’ producers’ politics, and I have no reason to doubt them that they didn’t mean the scene as a political message. (Seeing their statements, I am still not entirely sure if the head is literally a Bush likeness or just one that closely resembled him, though they say, “The last head on the left is George Bush.”) But there’s also something tone-deaf about, beyond using the prosthesis (which might have been an oversight), mentioning it on a commentary without realizing that it might be anything other than an amusing anecdote. It says, if nothing else, that there was apparently no one around to whom it might have occurred that Game of Thrones might have some fans who wouldn’t find it funny.

It’s also too bad, because it’s the kind of stupid, offhand incident that gets in the way of looking more deeply at whether TV channels do have political tones, and whether there’s anything wrong with it. If HBO and Showtime do appeal more to liberals, why is that? Some of their shows are more or less overtly political: Real Time with Bill Maher, say, even if he’s more on the libertarian side of liberal, and David Simon’s dramas come from an obviously progressive point of view. But the inherent politics of, say, The Borgias or Entourage are tougher to read; HBO’s most topically political show, Veep, is also studiously apolitical in its cynicism.

The fact that HBO and Showtime read as “liberal” probably has something to do with the fact that, in our society, we read things as “liberal” or “conservative” even when they have nothing to do with advocating a political policy. Cops tend to code as “conservative,” Hollywood shows as “liberal.” And I think there’s a whole interesting discussion as to whether people simply read certain types of storytelling itself—say, shows that focus on antiheroes, or drugs, or sex—as “liberal.”

All of which is fine by me: I think storytelling is better when it has a strong point of view, political or otherwise, and if pay cable reads as liberal and History channel as conservative (according to the same study), that may just say that the channels are doing a good job of projecting a strong brand, even at the expense of turning some viewers off. There’s nothing wrong with a channel wearing politics, or just a strong cultural worldview, on its sleeve. But maybe it’s not such a good idea to display them impaled on the end of a stick.

(Video above via The Hollywood Reporter.)

Update: Because this is the Internet, I am going to assume that at some point, somewhere, this whole issue is going to turn into a comparision of what-did-the-media-do-when-this-one-other-prosthetic-head-was-used-somewhere and/or I-am-going-to-tell-you-what-the-hypothetical-version-of-you-would-have-said-if-it-were-Obama. Knock yourselves out. Mostly, I am grateful to @delrayser for sending me a link to this Futurama picture on Twitter, and giving me an excuse to use it. Commence outrage:

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