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History of Swear Words Review 2021 Tv Show Series Season Cast Crew Online
Stars: Nikki Glaser, London Hughes, Elvis Mitchell
From his taste in scripts to his acting choices, there are plenty of reasons to question Nicolas Cage, but one thing the Oscar-winning actor and direct-to-video icon can rarely be accused of is phoning in a performance. Even in something as utterly forgettable as Season of Witch, you fully believe that Cage fully believes that he’s a 14th-century crusader trying to do, um, something to protect a pre-The Crown Claire Foy.
You can add “comic documentary series host” to the job titles earning Cage’s full commitment. Netflix’s History of Swear Words has its flaws. It’s slight and rarely as funny as it feels like it ought to be. But if your curiosity stems from the seeming oddness of the Leaving Las Vegas star serving as emcee for an overview of obscenities, that oddness is delivered in satisfying quantities.
Executive produced by Bellamie Blackstone (I Love You, America) and featuring Joe Randazzo as head writer, History of Swear Words delivers roughly on its titular promise. Each episode runs a brisk 20 minutes and focuses on a single swear word — “Fk,” “Sht,” “Btch,” “Dk,” “Pu**y” and “Damn,” to borrow from Netflix’s selective censorship. Details on etymology and historical usage and linguistic evolution are provided by scholars and experts, while a team of comics, most with direct relationships with Netflix, crack wise and celebrate their own relationships with the various swear words.
To some degree, it’s an extension of the round robin question James Lipton asked on every episode of Inside the Actors Studio about his subjects’ favorite curse words — a question none other than Nicolas Cage once answered with, “Horseshit.”
Informationally, History of Swear Words is sturdy, debunking various urban legends about word origins — “shit,” for example, is not a transportation acronym for “Ship High In Transit” — and examining certain words with bifurcated meanings, some naughty and some distinctly less-so. Kory Stamper, a lexicographer and Merriam-Webster dictionary consultant, is probably the breakout among the expert talking heads, relishing this strange opportunity, though Melissa Mohr and Mireille Miller-Young, who both have academic backgrounds in things you might not have guessed one could specialize in as an academic, have enlightening moments as well.
Critic and media gadfly Elvis Mitchell makes valuable contributions explaining swearing, its history in pop culture and how various swear words evolved through their appropriation within Black and gay communities. You won’t learn anything in much depth, but you’ll probably learn something, even if it’s just a couple Old English root words or terminology like “folk etymology” or “minced oaths.”
The series does a reasonably good job of putting its focus in clever places and, despite the shortness of episodes, in a lot of the directions I wanted acknowledged. The “Sht” episode pays worthy tribute to The Wire star Isiah Whitlock Jr. The “D*k” episode lets New Hampshire native Sarah Silverman talk about notoriously named congressman Dick Swett. Everybody smartly engages with the idea that while “Damn” isn’t really considered much of an obscenity these days, it’s the only curse word in the show that’s literally a word used to curse somebody.
I can accept that certain words were excluded so that there would be things to talk about in a second season and that the writers didn’t always want to steer toward the most obvious stories and connections. But I’m a bit incredulous that a show with this title could go six episodes without anybody mentioning George Carlin. Certainly the comics should have made sure that Carlin, Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor were acknowledged properly. They’re not.
The comics are, honestly, a real letdown. There are raunchy chuckles from the likes of Nikki Glaser, London Hughes and Baron Vaughn, but mostly disposable giggly laughs. I think it’s Glaser who jokes about being surprised by how well it played to call women in an audience “bitches,” and I think I would have loved more anecdotal discussion of the power of swearing in these comics’ own work. Perhaps an appearance by a “clean” comic like Pete Holmes or Jim Gaffigan would have been enriching — the kind of thing you might need 30 minutes to get to — rather than the same eight comics trying out the same glib one-liners, competing for limited screen time and generating limited laughter. It seems likely that the pandemic constrained the producers’ well of comic resources and you can tell.
If your fear is that Cage’s contribution to History of Swear Words will be merely a 15-second intro to episodes, a few wooden line-readings off of a cue-card for a fast paycheck, worry not. This is not Kristen Bell on Disney+’s Encore. Cage, looking dapper in a suit and an immaculately trimmed beard, probably provides a solid five minutes of content per episode, standing or sitting in a fake drawing room set in front of a fake fire (the entire series suggests a low-impact quarantine shoot). He recites classic movie lines, paints suggestive portraits, jokes about his own celebrity and swear words he’s been known to say on-screen, winks at the occasional silliness of the entire project and, when the situation calls for it, bellows with trademark gusto. You don’t hire Cage for something like this if you aren’t going to let him get weird; the producers of History of Swear Words are happy to let him get weird and he’s happy to comply.
Brevity aside, I probably would have checked out on this one after a few episodes were it not for the reliable amusement Cage contributes. It’s his fault that I wasn’t able to just accept History of Swear Words as the silly goof that it is, and instead looked to the not-quite-fulfilled potential for the series to be something truly good.
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