The novelty of Nic Cage helps to elevate a thin concept to something intermittently entertaining, but the material here is more a collection of skits than a proper miniseries.
Nicolas Cage – brilliant or bonkers? It’s difficult to tell. The man never saw a sentence he couldn’t emphasize the wrong syllables of or an expression he couldn’t contort into a manic extreme. He seems perpetually perched on the cusp of profound gravitas or a mental breakdown. Whatever you think of the man, there’s no better one to host a tongue-in-cheek Netflix miniseries about the etymology of swear words, an exploration into both academic history and juvenile mystique. Swearing, you see, is funny, and nobody seems to know why. History of Swear Words doesn’t manage to explain this phenomenon, which is perhaps unsurprising. It doesn’t manage to do much of anything, really.
But it is intermittently entertaining, thanks in large part to Cage, who pops up infrequently for intros, outros, and asides, dressed for the occasion and treating the six 20-minute episodes with a level of respect they probably don’t deserve. Nobody is taking this show seriously, of course. You don’t come to Nic Cage – or, for that matter, Netflix – for a thorough exegesis of the origin and evolution of language; you come for the facile pleasure of seeing a famously nutty actor read cuss words out. This is probably just as well since there isn’t enough space in such a lean runtime to do much more, much less anything edifying.
Splitting the difference between comedy and actual information only hurts History of Swear Words, since it means little history but lots of swearing, sometimes to make a point, but mostly to elicit a chuckle. There are enough attempts at serious etymological analysis, though, that the laughs can dry up, and despite the involvement of professional comedians, the balance is always off. A loose informal tone means the show’s better at one thing than the other but wants to do both.
The best in-person accounts are about the re-appropriation of derogatory slurs by the cultures they were originally leveled against, which you’d imagine could be a show all of its own, but there isn’t enough time and space to make much of it. Frequent tangents, likewise, make for some of the best stuff but also exacerbate the limitations of the format; you couldn’t fit in more, but there’s so little room you get the sense there shouldn’t be any anyway.
The overall impression is of a series of skits or perhaps a YouTube show – I was reminded immediately of Ricky Gervais and Karl Pilkington trying to teach people English, which was much funnier because it was trying to be less informative (or not informative at all.) To say Netflix is the best place for a miniseries that barely qualifies as a miniseries is, I think, a backhanded compliment. The involvement of Cage and his indescribable screen presence is the real highlight, but the same effect could be achieved by having him read virtually anything. Classic literature? Takeaway menus? The phone book? The possibilities are endless.