Tuesday, June 25, 2013

How We Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the F-bomb

James Gandolfini's death last week generated a lot of retrospectives on his role as Tony Soprano and the influence of HBO's The Sopranos on television and American popular culture.

If nothing else, that show was influential for making the f-bomb commonplace on the small screen.  In the 1980s and 1990s, American audiences were growing accustomed to that word on the big screen, but then came January 10, 1999, and the debut of The Sopranos.

That special word appeared in the first season of The Sopranos more than 400 times.  In the second season, more than 700 times.  There are several online homages to the F-bombs on the show, such as this.

Then came The Wire, a show more respected among TV critics than even The Sopranos.  It debuted in 2002, and it is famous for a scene in which two detectives examine a crime scene and the f-word is the only thing said between them -- numerous times with different inflections and meanings.

Then came Deadwood, which debuted in 2004. In its first season, the f-word was used more than 800 times. Season two: more than 1,000 times. Someone calculated the number of the f-bombs in the series' three seasons: 2,980.  That is 1.56 FPM.

In a 2010 report titled "Habitat for Profanity," the Parents Television Council claimed that between 2005 and 2010, prime time television experienced "a significant increase in both the number of instances of use of profanity and the harshness of the profanity used." Thanks, in part, to The Sopranos.

Most times, I believe, the f-bomb is used too cheaply.  It is used to give a character a veneer of coolness or distance or anger, but often times it is just that: a veneer, an artificial surface used to disguise the actual material underneath, to make particle board look like pine, for instance.  And the f-bomb can used by many writers as a simple way of generating tension or drama -- rather than creating real tension and drama through the personality of the characters or the quality of the dramatic situation.

Having said that, despite Deadwood winning the F Crown on HBO, I would say it was the best written show among the three I mentioned.   (I know that is not the consensus.)  For me, the f-word didn't stand out on that show; it seemed more of an ornament on the already convincing and compelling speech of its many well-imagined (though dark) characters.  An ornament enhances, whereas a veneer conceals.

Some people argue for cursing because they feel it adds a sense of realism to a story. But keep in mind that the stories are fake to begin with, and realism is only an illusion created by the writer/director.  Some might say that the three examples I have cited -- mobsters, police detectives and criminals, tortured souls in the Wild West -- would lend themselves quite easily to profuse profanity.  And they would.  But if that is done in the name of realism, why do those same shows flinch away from other realisms? Such as blood.  One of the characters in Deadwood likes to cut throats.  That is a rather messy way to kill someone, yet the victims leave hardly a puddle on the floor.  What is "real" on the screen is whatever I am convinced to believe is "real."

David Milch, the creator of Deadwood, even has addressed the artificial nature of the cursing in the series.  The curses used are not the curses of the late 1800s, he admits. But his characters would have sounded silly spouting the language considered foul in that era.  So to make the show seem "real," he had to resort to "fake" cursing.

The topic of potty mouths came to mind this week after I saw This Is The End -- apparently the world ends from the fallout of all the f-bombs dropped by a troop of stoner comedians. But before the movie started, I saw the trailer for The Heat, the buddy-cop movie starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy.  A surprising number and variety of f-bombs exploded in that two-minute trailer, and even I felt a little assaulted.  (I heard it so much in This Is The End that I tuned it out.)  I hadn't recalled hearing such cursing in a movie trailer. Perhaps the trailers were R-rated because I was in the theater to see an R-rated film, but I had the impression that previews were prepared for "all audiences."

Sometimes in class I use a short story by Kurt Vonnegut titled "The Big Space Fuck."  It was published in 1972 and is a dystopian imagining of the planet's future -- and in some regards it was rather prophetic: "This was a period of great permissiveness in matters of language, so even the President was saying shit and fuck and so on, without anybody's feeling threatened or taking offense.  It was perfectly OK."  (I cited the story also when I discussed the advent of another word in "The Big Bitch Theory.")

As I have said before, I am not a language prude.  I do not shy away from using the right word for the right purpose.  But I can't help but think the proliferation of cursing in our popular storytelling can be a sign of laziness -- and it disregards the fact that most Americans do not talk like a Quentin Tarantino character nor do they want to spend time with someone who does.

I can't help noting this: When was the last time someone complained about the LACK of cursing in a film or television program?  No one has finished watching Raiders of the Lost Ark or Sherlock and said, "You know, it would have been better if there had been more cursing."

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