History of Swear Words

Review by Oz Russell

“History of Swear Words” is a new documentary series on Netflix, with a sweary Nicolas Cage serving as its host. The show uses a traditional talking head format, and the experts that the directors have assembled are almost all engaging, entertaining, and relevant: former Merriam Webster Dictionary editor Kory Stamper, historian Melissa Mohr, and film critic Elvis Mitchell being particular standouts. They provide us with interesting facts about swear words, and explore some of the deeper patterns of cursing over time, such as how most swear words started out as general descriptive terms (f*ck, sh*t) before becoming taboo later, or how others have faded from shocking to mild (damn) as the values of society have changed around them. 

Yet the series still feels short on content, despite totalling 2 hours in length. An interesting point will be brought up, we’ll cut to celebrities and comedians reacting to that point for five minutes, the show will move on to an entirely unrelated point and the process will repeat. The asides from comedians- Sarah Silverman, Nick Offerman, Jim Jeffries to name a few- are rapid fire, scattershot, and often directly contradict what one of the experts said a few seconds before. The clips are almost entirely unnecessary given that Nicolas Cage’s foul mouthed outtakes are frequently funny and surreal, and provide enough padding by themselves. 

“Comedians reacting to statements from lexicographers” sounds like a bad title for a youtube video, and the documentary’s format speaks to the influence of internet culture and the changing consumption patterns of young people in much of Netflix’s new material. The backgrounds and sets, the animated/collage sequences that accompany most facts, the short 20 minute run time for each episode, and the fact that the series is even produced by “Funny or Die” all give the show the sheen of a YouTube series. The episodes have a similar feel to Vox videos, and especially the Vox/Netflix collaboration series “Explained”. But the reliance on comedian reactions makes the show resemble a hybrid between that series and the more traditional quick and cheap celebrity reaction documentaries- 100 Best Christmas Movies, 10 Greatest Premier League moments etc. The lack of confidence in the underlying concept and stories make what could have been a good series grating, shallow, and, in the end, kind of crap.

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