I consistently hear from Globe readers who are [expletive] sick and tired of all the [expletive] curses uttered by TV characters. Why, they ask, do TV writers — right now, their focus is on “Succession” — so often fill up their scripts with profanity? Are they trying too hard to be edgy and transgressive? Aren’t there more creative ways to get the same messages across? Dagnabbit all, they complain, we can’t even watch TV with our mother-loving kids any-flipping-more.
It is true that swearing has proliferated on scripted TV in the past two decades. Pay cable and streaming, which have revolutionized the medium since the turn of the century, are not subjected to the FCC standards of language that guide broadcast networks. They’re bursting with the “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television,” as George Carlin called them in 1972, and the words that got Lenny Bruce arrested a few times in the 1960s. Basic cable, too, isn’t regulated by the FCC and can and does feature profanity, although some of those channels, which include TNT, Lifetime, and AMC, often try to keep it at a minimum; they rely on ads, and their advertisers may not want to be associated with controversial words.
Even the broadcast networks, to stay in sync with cultural shifts, will now include risqué language despite the FCC and advertisers — not the f-word, of course, but certainly the b-word, which has become so common in songs and memes. The bad-word trend has only grown since the Trump presidency brought the country to a new level of public vulgarity, what he called “locker room talk,” including the p-word and the s-word (as in “s-hole countries”). His terms found their way into the mainstream on news and late-night shows, tacitly giving permission to other politicians and, perhaps, to those in the audience, to curse publicly.
The reader complaints get especially heated when it comes to shows that, on the surface, seem to appeal to the entire family, shows such as “Only Murders in the Building.” If you’re going to watch “The Sopranos,” you’re going to expect hard language, and you’re not going to explore those dramas with your kids if you don’t want them to hear it. Certainly you can pay close attention to the ratings system, which could help you avoid some of those awkward situations with children — but still, it’s no fun to have to dodge popular shows because of all the ongoing swearing.
As a lifelong pottymouth, I don’t cringe at all when I hear off-color terms on TV. In fact, I usually enjoy it, and especially on “Succession,” where it’s an integral part of the dark heart of the show. To me, the inclusion of swearing is a plus when it comes to authenticity. It would be off-putting to hear many of TV’s recent and current characters in today’s gritty story lines using euphemisms — for instance the kids on “Shameless,” or the prisoners on “Orange Is the New Black,” or the cops, drug dealers, and local politicians on “The Wire” (where state senator Clay Davis’s catchphrase was simply the s-word stretched out for effect). Back in 2007, A&E ran a cleaned-up version of “The Sopranos,” with racy words dubbed over with the likes of “freakin’,” and it brought a freakin’ phony vibe to a show known for its harsh realism.
Cursing is one of the ways we express ourselves emotionally, sometimes quite intentionally for effect, sometimes involuntarily, often in response to pain. Some of the best uses of profanity on TV capture the relief or the anger or the aggression or the humor when we let the vulgarity hit the fan. The words don’t seem gratuitous to me, when they indicate something about the speaker in that moment — catharsis, perhaps, or a need to bully.
Some of my favorite uses of bad words are for the purposes of humor. On “Veep,” for example, cursing became a kind of art form, as the writers wove it into the many insults that the characters hurled around. Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Selina had an especially dirty mouth, and she made each of her many f-words funny. So does Susie Essman on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and so did Jennifer Carpenter’s Debra on “Dexter.” I laugh a lot during “Succession,” as the characters spew their nefariousness in all kinds of twistedly dirty phrases, the actors brilliantly capturing the shameless Roy family’s mix of fury and irony. At times, it’s downright poetic.
I’m not saying I don’t value creative alternatives to straight-ahead swearing. As a writer for a family-oriented newspaper, I appreciate the art of finding elliptical ways to evoke a swear, using clean diction to suggest malediction. While I could probably pay my taxes out of my swear jar at home, I have to be more imaginative at work, going around the block but ending up in the same spot. NBC’s “The Good Place,” which ran from 2016 to 2020, found a wonderfully inventive solution that, for me, never got old. Cursing was prohibited in the show’s afterlife setting, so every time Kristen Bell’s Eleanor swore, which was regularly, it was automatically cleaned up with similar-sounding but more wholesome words. No matter how hard she tried to utter the f-word, she wound up saying “fork.” On “Will & Grace,” Sean Hayes’s Jack always got a chuckle when his curses were celebrities with three names — “Holy Anne Heche Laffoon, he’s straight,” for example, and “Billie Jean King, there are lezzies in this.”
But those kinds of solutions don’t work in many cases. Gosh darn it, sometimes there’s just nothing more realistic, more emotionally potent, more humorous, and more generally effective than a good old-fashioned — or beautifully refashioned — cuss word.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.