“History of Swear Words” opens with Nicolas Cage, solemn as a rock, turning to the camera and unleashing a torrent of famous lines joined by one crucial, undeniably satisfying element: the thrill of forcefully exhaling the word “fuck.” With the canny combination of highbrow and lowbrow that Cage has turned into a profitable persona all its own, the actor rips into iconic lines ranging from the basic (“who the fuck do you think you’re talking to?”) to the perversely iconic (“fuck it, we’ll do it live”) to the legendary (“I’ve had it with these motherfuckin’ snakes on this motherfuckin’ plane”). It’s a short intro, but one that nevertheless sets the tone for a self-aware series that delights in exploring formerly bleeped words just as much as its host does in saying them.
In theory, “Nicolas Cage hosts a Netflix show about swear words” sounds like a wacky game show the algorithm spat out as an afterthought. In practice, “The History of Swear Words” is more educational and straightforward than that, delivering six bite-sized lessons on six verboten and/or controversial words with the help of etymologists, comedians and historians. Cage, who’s made a sport of revving up his inherent intensity to absurdist new heights, proves a smart choice for a host. This is both because he’s an enigmatic actor who’s game for anything, and because the show doesn’t overplay its hand with him, keeping his contributions brief enough that you don’t leave an episode going, “alright, we get it, Nicolas Cage is a weirdo like to curse.”
Each of the six episodes gives a brief overview of how six different words — fuck, shit, bitch, dick, pussy, damn — came to be, and how their definitions have since evolved. The balance of historians against comedians like London Hughes and Nikki Glaser give “History of Swear Words” a sort of documentary meets “Best Week Ever” vibe that really works for the subject matter. Everyone’s engaged, but no one’s taking themselves too seriously to have fun with it.
So the main problem with the series isn’t the presentation, but with how quickly it breezes through its material. Usually I’m begging Netflix shows to pare themselves down, and yet by the end of “The History of Swear Words,” I was left frustrated that I didn’t get deeper dives. Each episode does an admirable job speeding through all the medieval mythology, socio-political context, pop culture reflections and bizarre fun facts behind each swear word. But with only 20 minutes a pop, these chapters barely have enough time to lay out the basic facts, let alone dig in. Anyone truly interested in the history of swear words may find themselves falling down Wikipedia rabbit holes in order to fill in the many blanks this show leaves behind. Anyone who idly flips “History of Swear Words” on because they wanted to see Nic Cage passionately monologue about the magnetic power of pussy, however, should be satisfied.
“History of Swear Words” premieres Tuesday, January 5 on Netflix.