(THE HISTORY OF SWEAR WORDS is on Netflix now. Full season screened for review.)
What the fuck
Swearing is cathartic. It might not be big or clever in general, though it can be both; swearing still makes us feel good on occasion. There’s even science to back this up. But where do our current swears originate? What are their etymologies, and how did they end up meaning what they mean today? In Netflix’s latest infotainment series, host Nicolas Cage and a slew of comedians band together to answer that question.
Not in any depth or accuracy, mind you, but entertainingly nonetheless.
Split between six 20-minute episodes, THE HISTORY OF SWEAR WORDS is light, funny, and ultimately disposable entertainment. Each section dealing with one particular swear, fuck, shit, bitch, dick, pussy, and damn. The episodes track their history to modern usage, skimming each slightly, but never fully diving into the untapped potential available.
There are moments of insight, but a lot of the series feels like it tries to avoid anything educational, lest it scares away potential audiences looking for a quick laugh. So instead, we get pseudo-science of comedians holding their hands in ice-cold water, with some allowed to swear and others not. Is it an excuse to see the always hilarious Nikki Glaser swear like a sailor? Yes, it is. Are we learning anything new? No, we are not.
Cage hosts and narrates most of the show, and he’s fully aware of why he’s here. They need the manic, loopy, and unpredictable Cage. The man so thoroughly memed he’s barely recognizable as the Oscar-winning and multi-talented thespian behind the persona. But he’s also one of the best parts of the show, effortlessly channeling his natural charisma and comic abilities to deliver dry zingers out of stale material. The writing is, well, not great, and the clunkiness is more pronounced when put alongside actual comedians, but Cage makes it sing even so.
The guests range from instantly recognizable to “who is this again?” Not everyone has something interesting to say, and many are there just to react in obviously wacky and staged ways. These bits aren’t necessary and end up detracting from the engaging portions of the series. I have no interest in hearing poorly thought out improv about swears when it’s far more interesting to learn how and why the word pussy has changed its meaning over the years. What began as a pet name for spouses has now evolved to something akin to a reclaimed power word of the feminist movement.
There are also great bits of personal histories and insights about what certain words mean to these perfomers. Surprising and revelatory, they’re the kind of focus the show really needs. Also, anything to do with old-timey swearing is a hoot (Cecily Bumtrinket!).
Similarly, the actual etymologists are a treat. Wry, funny, and informative, their portions are cleverly animated, clear, and always interesting. They prove the series doesn’t need to be dry to deliver laughs, but it also doesn’t require the forced talking head structure.
That said, HISTORY OF SWEAR WORDS is never dull, and the hour-long total flies by upon viewing. But considering what Netflix taps into here, it would be a shame if this was it. Here’s hoping that next season, if there is one, we get more of everything. After all, this is really fucking interesting.