Netflix’s ‘History of Swear Words’ swears up a storm, shipwrecks Nicolas Cage

Photo of Netflix Documentary Series Swear Words
Netflix/Courtesy

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Grade: 2.5/5.0

Nicolas Cage, Hollywood’s patron god of chaos, is the perfect host for the new Netflix docuseries, “History of Swear Words.” Wearing a sharp suit and a contemplative countenance, Cage conjures a sort of manic scholarly bravado from the comfort of a lush emerald drawing room adorned with built-in bookshelves, a tan leather armchair, a tower of tomes and a fully stocked antique bar cart. He swaggers around the manicured, pompously intellectual room as if he were an instructor for MasterClass —  and in this messy, meandering show, he is.

Each episode of the six-part series explores one expletive. The series starts off strong: “History of Swear Words” begins with the episode “F**k,” the most profane swear word, and Cage spends the first 30 seconds swearing at the audience. He’s all in, committed and cussing with the kind of kinetic energy that excuses the script’s trite, disconnected ideas. (“An actor’s greatest tool is their imagination,” he muses, “But swearing … is definitely up there.”) It’s totally ridiculous — but on Cage, it works.

The episodes haphazardly flit between segments, but they abide by a fairly formulaic structure. Cage delivers a rousing introduction to each episode’s titular profanity, and then, the camera cuts between earnest linguistic scholars and unfunny comedians to reconstruct the history of how our most taboo words got that way. To act out the history, the camera intercuts campy animation reminiscent of Terry Gilliam, but its occasionally superfluous placement comes across as a spoon-fed punchline as the show jeers, “Do you get it? This is funny!”

Among the scholars is Kory Stamper, a lexicographer and author who formerly wrote dictionary definitions for Merriam-Webster. Stamper’s excitement for curse words is contagious, while Dr. Melissa Mohr, another expert, speaks with gentle composure that makes her eloquent testimonials fun and cheeky. Film critic Elvis Mitchell is another standout throughout the series, delivering charismatic and interesting cultural observations on subjects such as the Parental Advisory sticker and its implicitly racist applications.

“History of Swear Words” is suited for levity, but the show could stand to take itself a little more seriously. Alternatively, it needs comedians who are funny. The show invites Joel Kim Booster, DeRay Davis, Nikki Glaser, London Hughes, Jim Jefferies, Zainab Johnson, Nick Offerman and Baron Vaughn to offer their interpretations of and react to each word’s often surprising history. Their trigger-happy swearing quickly curdles the show’s gimmick, and it’s an unsolved mystery as to why they laugh at their own jokes.

As the series progresses, it is bewildering that Cage’s role as a host becomes hollowed out to brief introductions, voice-overs, transitional interludes and conclusions. His decorated den seems disconnected from the rest of the show, and it’s bizarre that he doesn’t interview the comedians or the experts. In the hands of the comedians, the show’s attempts at comedy often stumble: The “fuck family tree” and “bitch quiz” prove that swearing for the sake of swearing is comedically impotent.

“History of Swear Words” is more interesting than reading a Wikipedia page, but it’s frustratingly less informative. In the episode “Pu**y,” comedian Patti Harrison (the best in her company) mentions that she’s not fully on board with the “Pussyhat” phenomenon at the Women’s March, but before she can elaborate on her point and give a semblance of gravitas, the camera darts to another scene. The show maintains the disappointing depth of a kiddie pool through its reluctance to explore substantive discrepancies among its cast. In most of the episodes, Cage, the experts and the comedians converge in unified agreement, creating an echo chamber of circular conversation that drones into monotony.

“History of Swear Words” is mainly concerned with getting a laugh, but it ultimately levels its best asset. With an episode runtime of 20 minutes, the whole series of “History of Swear Words” is approximately the same length as the movie “Con Air,” but the latter is a far more fun way to satisfy your appetite for cursing and for Nic Cage.

Contact Maya Thompson at [email protected].