History of Swear Words: Season One Review
This review contains strong language
A show exploring the History of Swear Words, hosted by Nicolas Cage, sounds like a match made in heaven. Unfortunately, this new Netflix documentary doesn’t quite deliver on the promise of its premise.
Broken up into to six episodes (F**K, S**T, BITCH, D**K, PU**Y and DAMN) each episode is a breezy 20 minutes long. This is good because the show style doesn’t go very deeply into the subject; while I would have happily watched a longer episode taking a deeper dive, for this surface scratch approach, longer episodes would have been too much of a stretch.
The series is, unfortunately, very US-centric. It’s very much an American’s view of swearing and the show really doesn’t explore the wider world of swear words, what they mean and how they’re used in different parts of the world, which is a shame. The nearest we get is Brit London Hughes casually remarking you can call someone a “fucking cunt” in the UK and get a smile but in America they will shoot you. This is pretty much the only concession the programme gives to swearing outside of US culture. When references are made to the first time words are used in print and TV and words that still can’t be used on TV etc, it's all in relation to American media.
The first episode is focused on the word Fuck. Which is a pretty good place to start. It sets the tone for the show going forward and it's pretty much the number one swear word. It also allows an opening section with Nicolas Cage demonstrating different ways to say fuck. This is fun.
The main bulk of the show is made up of talking heads, a series of (admittedly better known in America) B-list stand up comics are dragged out to do their stock material on swearing like an extra long segment of ‘Thing’s You’d Hear…’ from Mock the Week. Rather like a top 100 kids TV shows from the 80s style show on Channel 5, these contributors have nothing especially interesting to offer about swearing and their anecdotes aren’t especially funny. I put this down to the editing of the show . It's as if they’ve actively cut around anything that might be funny. Sarah Silverman, probably the biggest international name to pop up, speaks in some episodes and her contributions are earnest and dry; I can’t believe what they used was the funniest stuff she recorded?
The sections with Cage are admittedly great. The debate of if Cage is a controlled genius or unhinged ham is not one I’m going to get into here (he’s the former) but in his presenting this show he is very, very much in on the joke of having him present this show. His delivery of the dialogue is dry, enthusiastic and witty. He knows how to swear and he does it well. His scripted sections, that of a scholar host, are funny and informative, as is his voice over throughout. Where the show drifts though is in its talking heads. This really is a talking heads show, so this is a pity.
There are a handful of experts on language who, while interesting and clearly experts in the field, are all a little dry and don’t get to offer especially deep insights. This is perhaps the biggest problem with the show; the lack of deep insight into each word. I don’t claim to be a expert in swearing, but I am interested in language and swearing and its use in society; enough to be intrigued by this show. For me, there was very little discussed that I didn’t already know or consider ‘common’ knowledge. I would have liked to see more time spent on a deeper exploration of these words. In the first episode, for example, lot of time is spent on a little animated sequence about an apocryphal story that fuck comes from Fornication Under Consent of the King. This is untrue and, frankly, wasn’t funny enough to spend this much run time on.
The episodes BITCH and PU**Y are probably the most interesting, as they have a bit more to say in terms of gendered swearing and the reclamation of profanity. With the short run time, these episodes feel like they stop just as they start to get interesting. Again, they’re still incredibly America-centric – there is very little, if no, acknowledgement of how these words are dealt with and used outside the US. I don’t necessarily expect the documentary to address every obscure usage of the words they’re exploring but for example, if you’re talking about the word Pussy, surely the mainstream use of the word in Are You Being Served? is worth at least a footnote? If Dolemite gets a mention, why not Mrs Slocombe?
D**K covers the word pretty well, probably because it’s a relatively recent swear word so they can cover all the bases in the run time pretty well. Nicolas Cage pushing for ‘Nick’ as a replacement for dick s a fun running gag here as well.
The final episode, looking at the word Damn, feels like it should be more interesting than it is. Talking about the proto-swear! The biblical curse word! And there are some interesting points about swearing made in the show but still, the American experience is front and centre, with damn still having more power in the US than other parts of the world. Though its interesting to see the experts address the shifting nature of swearing and the fact that in the future, shit, piss, fuck etc will be as mild as damn is today and that’s it's racist and gendered slurs that will remain and be the most provocative and taboo words for future generations.
I’m not a huge fan of the standard American TV style of documentary; a constant plinky-dink soundtrack, twee Terry Gilliam style animated reenactments of certain parts of narrative, its all a bit tedious for me and the documentary’s content needs to be really good not to grate on me. Frustratingly with this show, it’s a little inconsistent; the first few episodes have extensive animated sequences, the last few don’t have any. Some episodes flash up cheeky images between clips, some don’t. I actually feel that the show works better if watched as a whole; these inconsistencies do get papered over in a binge watch but will feel more obvious if watching episodes by themselves.
The show is a bit disappointing. It was an easy, casual watch and was quite funny at times, but by the end of the run, I didn’t feel entertained or educated enough. I would have rather seen only the experts talking and Cage doing scripted interjections and I really would have liked a wider field of discussion. The show should have been funnier and a little more insightful. More international discussion is needed, but it’s a short series of short episodes, so you’ll probably find some fun in there without to much commitment.
History of Swear Words is just a little tame; not as fun as it could’ve been and just lacks the balls to say what it really means…