Warning: This story contains strong language that may be offensive to some readers.
Back in 1972, legendary American comedian George Carlin debuted his famous and very filthy riff, Seven Dirty Words, about the ones you could never get away with saying on television (you can imagine what they are). Today, only the C-bomb is still taboo. Times have changed and television is reflecting that to varying degrees in its use of profanity. And that’s a good thing. People swear, that’s life, whether you like it or not.
In the opening episode of SBS’s much anticipated legal drama, The Good Fight, esteemed lawyer and epitome of elegance Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) is on the verge of retiring when she learns a Ponzi scheme scandal has decimated her retirement fund. If ever there was a time to blurt out, “F***!”, this is it. And so she does.
So, big deal? Everyone swears like a sailor in American prestige TV don’t they? Well, yes and no. It’s complicated. There’s a certain vagueness to what profanity is allowed on the platform tiers of US television.
Let’s break it down: on free-to-air broadcast television (ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, etc.) regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, the F- and S-word is scarce, if allowed at all (milder swearing is OK). Basic cable (more affordable pay TV channels like AMC and FX) is unregulated, but swearing is at the discretion of individual channels. On premium cable (HBO, Showtime, Starz, etc.) and streaming platforms (CBS All Access, Netflix, etc.), it’s pretty much open slather.
It means that, unlike its predecessor, The Good Wife, which aired in the US on CBS with minimal cussing, The Good Fight on CBS All Access can maximise language to tackle controversial topics unencumbered. In one episode dealing with trolling, trolls appear on screen reciting their online abuse with one particularly nasty tirade including the term “double c***”.
“You’re going to hear people talk the way they speak in life,” said The Good Fight co-creator Michelle King at the Television Critics Association conference earlier this year. “They’re using the words that they would in the real world.”
Similarly, acclaimed legal thriller Damages was allowed to spice up its dialogue when it moved from basic cable channel FX to the premium DirecTV network.
On the notoriously permissive premium cable channel Starz, it’s pretty much anything goes in terms of content. For Steven S DeKnight, creator of Spartacus: Blood and Sand and prequel Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, it was liberating to tell the epic story in all its bloody, sexy, sweary glory.
“The great thing about being on Starz is that, when it comes naturally in the story, we don’t have to cut away from it and we don’t have to water it down,” he told Collider in 2011. “We can go to that place, and they let us go to that place, which is very liberating, as a storyteller. On network television, you are always censoring yourself. One of the hardest things to do, in network television, is finding euphemisms for cursing because, oftentimes, it just sounds lame. So, it’s great to be able to just take the gloves off and really go for it.”
The current marquee hit on Starz, American Gods, takes things one step further (or is that back?), making a statement that, even in a show where anything goes, sometimes even the bluntest language is beyond the pale. When testy “leprechaun” Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) calls his undead nemesis, Laura Moon (Emily Browning), a creative derivation of the C-bomb, she promptly grabs his bottom lip. “If I hear that word pass your lips one more time, I’m gonna peel them off your gums.”
But other TV creators are forced to hold their tongues. It’s hard to believe that gritty shows like Sons of Anarchy (FX), Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead (both AMC), all produced for basic cable, haven’t been allowed to use the flintiest cussing to match their content. Some show creators, like Sons of Anarchy’s Kurt Sutter, remain pragmatic, arguing that the edgy worlds they have created will make up for any restrictions on profanity.
“We just live in a world where the word ‘f***’ doesn’t exist,” he told The A.V. Club. “We can pretty much say everything else, and I think what happens is that the emotion is there, the intent is there, and interestingly enough, if you polled a hundred people who watch the show, I’ll bet half of them would believe that we’ve used the word ‘f***’ before. The visceral approach to the show is such that you don’t even realise that you’re not hearing it.”
But in some shows, the lack of hard profanity just seems ludicrous. Does anyone really believe that, faced with the marauding zombies (and the even deadlier humans) of The Walking Dead, you wouldn’t drop the F-bomb and much more?
The deficit became really apparent when the final scene of season four aired in 2014, as Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and his band of survivors found themselves trapped by an enemy faction. Rick’s iconic line in Robert Kirkman’s comic source material of the same name was written as: “They’re f***ing with the wrong people." For broadcast, the expletive was sanitised to the more anodyne “screwing”.
At this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who plays the show’s brutal villain Negan, a colourful cusser in the comics, made light of the show’s predicament. “We are allowed seven s***s, like one goddamn, zero f***s.”
When it comes to European dramas, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume TV creators operate in the same kind of expletive-peppered wonderland as HBO can. In truth, the literal translation of swear words may prove to be more conservative than subtitles suggest.
The BBC learnt this the hard way when it aired the first series of Danish-language drama The Killing (Forbrydelsen) in 2011. A viewer complained that “relatively inoffensive” swear words had been translated as the F-word in English subtitles. Radio Times quoted a source from Voice and Script International, the company that subtitled the series, who explained the disparity.
“‘Svin’ in Danish translates directly as ‘swine’ but also has a stronger meaning. In English you could use either ‘bastard’ or ‘f***er’. The Danish ‘piss’ actually translates as ‘s***’ or something stronger. The Old Norse word ‘faen’ literally refers to the Devil but can now also mean ‘bastard’, ‘s***’ or ‘f***’.”
So, to paraphrase George Carlin, it’s all about context. We’re unlikely to see the crew of the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery (also a CBS All Access production) uttering the command “Beam me the f*** up, Scotty.” Explicit language loses its currency when it’s not warranted on TV. But when it is, the freedom to swear can only add to a show’s veracity. And for The Good Fight, that’s a good fit.
The Good Fight airs every Wednesday at 9:30pm on SBS. Episodes are also available on SBS On Demand after each episode airs.