Netflix’s ‘History of Swear Words’ isn’t even worth your expletives

4 mins read
Nicholas Cage is the narrator of Netflix's "History of Swear Words", comprised of several 20-minute episodes dedicated to swearwords.

Each 20-minute episode of Netflix’s unscripted comedy series “History of Swear Words” explores the origins of a beloved expletive, five of which the streamer won’t spell out, four of which we can’t print. Fiddlesticks.

Nevertheless, the censored version of each profane word has kept you reading thus far, which explains why the series hosted by Nicolas Cage attracted a wave of buzz when it was announced last month and may well shoot to the top of the streamer’s most-watched list after premiering Tuesday. Too bad “History of Swear Words” isn’t half as colourful as the language it explores. Which raises the question: WTF, Netflix? How’d you, er, fudge up this one?

The platform’s easiest trash-TV sell since “Tiger King” is an unimaginative snooze, a bland serving of salty language, an insult to creative cursers everywhere. These profanities — embraced by truck drivers and sailors, captured on hot mics near politicians and preachers, murmured by harried moms and parroted by their toddlers at the worst possible moment — deserve better.

The series is a clumsy parody from the outset: Sitting by a fire in an armchair like a Masterpiece Theatre presenter, Cage hams up the highbrow delivery, setting up the expectation that when he starts dropping F-bombs, it’ll be a laugh riot. Just plain funny would be acceptable too. But it’s not. Predictable as [fill in your favourite expletive here].

Clips of Cage and guests shouting, repeating or giggling as they say bad words are also tiresome. If irreverence as entertainment is the point, “History of Swear Words” needs to pay attention to the pop culture it chronicles, be it “Pulp Fiction,” N.W.A, Lenny Bruce, “Saturday Night Live” or “American Pie.”

The show’s exploration of swear words’ origins, historical context and linguistic evolution is the best part of the series, which comes from Funny or Die and B17 Entertainment. Commentary from experts including a lexicographer, a cognitive scientist and a PhD specializing in the history of swearing is then used as grist for comics such as Sarah Silverman, Zainab Johnson and Nikki Glaser.

“F— is like the Tom Hanks of curse words. It can do anything, be in anything, and we never get sick of it,” jokes Glaser. “Parks and Recreation’s” Nick Offerman, musician Open Mike Eagle and Isiah Whitlock Jr. have some choice lines here as well.

Whitlock popularized the long, drawn-out pronunciation of s— in his role as corrupt state Sen. Clay Davis in “The Wire.” Film critic Elvis Mitchell provides cultural context: “S— is for Isiah Whitlock Jr. what f— is for Samuel L. Jackson,” he says.

Choice clips from movies, TV shows and music videos are interspersed throughout. Surprising “fact”: Jonah Hill is the big screen’s most prolific user of the word that rhymes with “buck.” Also covered is #TheResistance to the profane, from print censorship to the ratings system of the Motion Picture Assn. of America to parental warning stickers. The Netflix comedy also looks at euphemisms such as “darn” or “shoot.”

Sadly, it adds up to very little. After all, studies have shown that we feel better when we swear — not when Nic Cage does it for us.

Notebook

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