Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Swearies

With The Emmys coming up, it's time to pass out some awards in a category the TV academy doesn't see fit to award: The best and worst swearing in summer television series.

This year's winner: The Thick Of It, which aired early this summer on BBC America. For those who missed it, TTOI is very, very British, covering the ups and downs of a middle-aged, minor-league government minister and his staff of bureaucrats and go-getters. And it's profanity-laced in the best way, reflecting the way high-powered people under extreme stress toss around foul language as a way of making themselves feel like they're on top of the situation–and because they can't think of anything else to say. Much of the sixth and final episode (on BBC-A, anyway) revolves around the hero calling someone a "cunt" in an e-mail, which prompts one of his staff to say, "I would never use that word, not until society gets more comfortable with the idea of the female … twat."

Runner-up: Hell's Kitchen. Or really any reality show. So much of reality TV is pitched as good family television, but though all the bad words are bleeped out, a lot of these shows are still pretty much wall-to-wall obscenity. Hell's Kitchen, with Gordon Ramsay calling every contestant a "fucking donkey" at least once, is an exemplar or reality TV profanity. (The show is also very smoke-y. Has anyone else noticed that reality TV is the last place on the dial where it's okay to show the stars lighting up?)

Legacy award: Deadwood. I mean, c'mon. This show would get the award every year if we didn't retire it to the TV Profanity Hall Of Fame. It makes swearing an integral part of the poetry of the dialogue, and the nature of the characters. In the very first episode, when Al tells his customers, "Pussy's half-off, next ten minutes," it tells us all we need to know about how he feels about his employees and his job.

Dishonrable mention: Lucky Louie, which I had the chance to catch one episode of while on vacation. Leaving aside the overall shittiness of the show, the fact that the profanity is so awkwardly shoehorned-in says a lot about how movie and TV writers fundamentally misunderstand the ways we cuss. Louis C.K. has boasted that Lucky Louie is an attempt to make a traditional sitcom about marriage and sex in which people "talk the way people really talk." But I'm not buying it. When C.K, was on The Daily Show to promote his new series, he did an extended riff on why his young daughter is "an asshole" that sounded every bit like a comedian on a good roll, cracking another comedian up. But that same kind of material doesn't translate as well when it's supposed to be dialogue, and too much of Lucky Louie has unskilled actors trying to give a natural reading to awkward lines like, "So I was fucking my wife and I couldn't make her come."

Or maybe it's just that I get uncomfortable when people use swear words literally. It's not that I'm a prude. As my wife will not-so-happily confirm, the soundtrack to our happy home is me, having done something incredibly stupid and/or painful, muttering a string of unforgivable oaths–my favorites being "Ball sack!" and "God fuck!" And I think that's how most people swear. It's either a knee-jerk response to a momentary inconvenience, or an unconscious flavoring of everyday sentences with unnecessarily foul–and essentially meaningless–adjectives and adverbs. When I watch movies where everyday people–not buddies out for a drink or anything–say "fuck" to mean fuck and "shit" to mean shit, I feel like the writer is trying to hard to sound sophisticated and/or earthy. Instead, it sounds like bullshit.