Foul language isn’t used to develop character, punctuate emotions, or move the plot along. It’s dropped in to remind viewers that they’re privileged to be watching cable TV.
At the climactic end of a turbulent screen marriage, the hero, Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), tells Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) he’s through. Finished. How will she survive? she asks plaintively. What will she do?
“Frankly, my dear,” he snarls, “I don’t give a damn.”
He said “damn.” Clark Gable! In Gone With the Wind, back there in 1939, defying the Production Code and the much-feared Legion of Decency that, together, had established unshakable “moral” standards for film studios. You couldn’t say “damn” on screen without special dispensation, and you could only say “hell” if you meant Satan’s lair.
So Gable’s farewell to Scarlett was memorable on at least two counts, and because it represented the only piece of profanity in the nearly four-hour movie, it had momentous reverberating power.
Cut to the 1960s, when the code was loosened to the point of absurdity. Having sex and talking dirty somehow became acceptable film fare. Along came cable TV, and it seemed that if your script didn’t include at least one expletive every 30 seconds, the material was considered worthless or unfit. This meant a whole generation of lazy writers could now pepper their dialog with four-letter words, or the longer equivalents, as substitutes for thoughtful communicative language.
I was reminded of this when I acquired DVDs containing the first season of HBO’s hit series The Wire. I watched five episodes in a kind of marathon and found myself mesmerized—no, not by the action, only by the words.
Understand, please, I went to a public high school, I served in the military, I live in New York, I hear street language all the time—everywhere. I still found The Wire ear-popping. It professed to be presenting some form of hyperrealism, exposing a world where seemingly everyone—street kids, drug pushers, crime bosses, men, women, politicians, police—all had potty mouths with every line they had to speak.
Blue language was not inserted to develop character, punctuate emotions, or move the plot along. It was dropped in to remind viewers that they were privileged to be watching cable—especially premium cable—TV, which had unparalleled license to talk dirty.
Season one, episode four of The Wire contains a sequence in which a police detective and his partner enter a crime scene in a desperate search for a particular piece of evidence. As they poke and prod, their mounting fury and frustration are expressed this way:
“Aw fuck. Aw fuck.”
“Hmmm … fuck. The fuck?!”
“Mother of fuck.”
“Fuckity fuck fuck fuck.”
On and on they go. The scene lasts about three minutes; no other words are spoken.
Was this a joke? Hardly. It was a serious situation. Was it a stunt? Maybe. Did it make the moment seem more tense, more suspenseful, more dramatic? No way. To me it suggested that the two detectives were still mentally in some junior-high-school restroom, pissing and venting.
Another scene showed a junior officer reporting to his superior. What he said—and what no junior officer would ever say to his superior, in any police precinct anywhere, under any circumstance—was: “This motherfucker really fucked us. That fuck!”
No, frankly, I wasn’t shocked by any of this; I just grew weary of it. Watching those episodes of The Wire, I felt I was being doused with slops for no good reason—just for the sake of letting foul language spew forth. I guess I was cheered by the fact that “cocksucker” was used only once—and aptly—in referring to a drug king who enjoyed having sex with men.
I respond warmly to tautly written scripts that move along swiftly and pull me into the action, but when every character in the drama spouts filth, my head begins to reel and I have the urge to change the channel—or, in this case, stop the DVD.
Does anyone else feel that cable TV throws too much fucking shit at the motherfuckers who watch it?
Don’t agree? For another take on the merits of cursing, check out “Requiem for an F-Bomb.”