If You Haven’t Anything Obscene To Say, Don’t Say Anything At All

Uncle AndrewUncle Andrew
Filed under: @ 3:52 pm

Margaret and I catch a fair amount of two of the forty-plus spinoffs of the Law & Order franchise. We used to follow the original program fairly aggressively, but our attention has waned quite a bit over the years. So many other, more powerful, less senesced shows have come out over the years. Still, L&O’s writers definitely have some talent amongst them; Law & Order manages not to drive a stake through its own heart via thumb-fingered plot development and timing as much as 65% of the time—which, sadly, is a pretty good record.

The first sub-species to cleave off from the parent genome, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, has an even better success rate. We caught the first two or three episodes when the series premiered and decided that it wasn’t for us; it seemed like the producers were trying to sell the same series, only with a new, raunchier angle. So we ashcanned the program for a couple of years, then picked it up again after happening across a few episodes on Turner Network Television. (In case you yourself are not firmly lampreyed onto The Glass Teat, old episodes of SVU play on that network incessantly; at a conservative estimate, this show is on TNT no less than thirty-seven-thousand times per day. TNT is to Law & Order what Turner Broadcasting System used to be for Airwolf back in the late eighties.) SVU seemed to find its legs in the second or third season, becoming less prurient, something more than Law & Order With Kiddy Porn. The show had developed a heart, even if it doesn’t always seem to be packing much in the brains department. And it’s where I got to learn about the down-low. 😮

(Speaking of the down-low: check out this screen capture from the Home Page for SVU. I’ve highlighted the interesting part. The two characters portrayed are Detective John Munch, played by comedian-turned-actor Richard Belzer, and Detective “Fin” Tutuola, played by decent-rapper-turned-gawdawful-actor Ice-T. Ice-T is on the right, manhandling someone, presumably a “perp”. He’s the only one interacting with anyone else in the picture, and that person happens to be someone who is not in the actual series roster—what gamers would call an NPC, or non-player character. Presumably this is being done to show just how tough and streetwise his character is. However, the suspect being cuffed is almost completely occluded by the figure of Detective Munch….only the person’s arm and hand are fully visible. The layout and coloration of the scene further obscures the outlines of Munch and the figure behind him, making it hard to distinguish one from the other. The overall effect being that, at first glance, Detectives Munch and Tutuola appear to be holding hands. Interesting. Particularly since, in the story line of the show, these two characters are, um, “partners”.)

Anyway, this post isn’t really about SVU, or Law & Order; it’s more about crime drama on television in general, network television in particular. The writers on these shows are forced to walk a really fine line in their portrayal of the world of cops and criminals. They have to try to establish a mood, to give the viewer the impression that they are witnessing a windows into the “real life” of the characters on screen. A life that in this case happens to be fraught with pain, anger, misery, aggression, mendacity and, at times, true evil. And they have to do it without showing too much blood, too much of the more titillating bits (heh heh….”titillating”….) of the human form, or uttering too many naughty words: a task that is both Herculean and Sisyphean in scope. You can’t possibly win this one. You either satisfy the concerns of the bluenoses or the demands of the smut junkies….it’s simply impossible to do both with any certainty.

The Law & Order franchise does as well as a show really can under the circumstances, with one glaring exception: the phrase, “screw you”.

This phrase is used entirely too often on the program, whenever a character is particularly angry and wants someone to know it. When the grieving parent is questioned by police about his missing daughter and the cop intimates that said parent might have played a part in the disappearance; when the junkie is cornered on the street by detectives and pressured to give up the name of her supplier, wanted for questioning in an armed robbery; when the near-hysterical arson suspect takes a little girl hostage and screams through the barricaded apartment door at the cops acting as de facto negotiators. Any time the writers want to indicate that the character is furious, wracked with guilt yet steeped in denial, or mistrustful to the point of paranoia.

Problem is, “screw you” is quite possibly the most flaccid, desultory exclamation it is possible to utter within the confines of the modern American English lexicon. About the only thing that would make it less potent would be the addition of, “you big poopy head!”

My heart is with these writers, really. Compare poor Law & Order with something like FX Network’s The Shield, which airs on cable instead of over the airwaves. The Shield is probably the best drama on television, ever. Or the worst, depending on your perspective. (Suffice it to say that, if you feel as though, say, Touched by an Angel was one of the best dramas on television, you should probably never even look at an advertisement for The Shield; your eyes would most likely burst in self-defense.) Cut free from the tethers of broadcast television censorship, the writers for The Shield are able to use just about any kind of language or situation they care to. “Shit”s and “God Damn”s, references to sex acts and bodily fluids pepper the dialogue like grody sprinkles adorning the world’s least appetizing cupcake, and it all works. It feels real.

The closest the audience ever got hearing the oh-so-dreaded “F” word (which, by the way, is fuck. FUCKFUCKFUCKFUCK FUCK. Fuckity fuck. Penis.) is during an agonizingly tense moment of confrontation between two main characters. Detective Vic Mackey steps towards his best friend Shane, his face drained of blood and creased with anger. He balls a fist. “You f—” Shane, knowing he has crossed a line, takes a half-step back, scared but not ready to capitulate. Mackey reins himself in. “You’ve got one chance to walk away. Take it.”

In a series running positively rampant with so-called dirty words and phrases, this instance packs a real punch, as much for what is not said, what is almost said, as for all the nasty things that are. Particularly since none of the things said is “screw you”.

Thing is, if you are hamstrung by the FCC and can’t use the more colorful variants of the language, there’s still a fair amount of wiggle room. I can think of half a dozen phrases that convey more power and venom than “screw you”. “Go to hell”, for instance, which if said with sufficient menace conveys the willingness of the speaker to escort you there him/herself. “Piss off” is a good one too, as is “kiss my ass”, both dripping with dismissive contempt. “Eat me” has lots of aggression to it if coupled with a smoldering gaze. Hell, even “up yours” and “get bent” have more edge to them.

By comparison, “screw you” sounds….well, it sounds like the utterance of someone who’s afraid they will get in trouble if they say, “fuck you”. Which is the point, really: writers and producers of broadcast programming will get in trouble if they say “fuck you” on TV.

But unless you are assembling dialogue for a gripping crime drama about an eight-year-old Sunday school student who is caught stealing chalk, it’s really preferable to cast off one’s aspirations of obscenity and pick some other phrase entirely. Better to come out sounding evasive and complaisant than puerile and stupid….you big poopy head.

6 Responses to “If You Haven’t Anything Obscene To Say, Don’t Say Anything At All”

  1. Steve Says:

    And don’t forget The Wire; I love the season in Season One where Bunk and McNaulty are investigating a cold scene, and the only dialog is the repeated use of the word “fuck” with various emphases.

    OTOH, it took Deadwood to elevate swearing to a purity of art that I can never hope to achieve… an alien watching this show would understandably perceive that “cocksucker” was actually a pronoun.

  2. Uncle Andrew Says:

    Yeah, but now we’re talkin’ full-blown, pay-per-blue, no-holes-barred cable, which is a completely different animal. On the other hand, you’re like the umpteenth person I’ve talked to who has mentioned the swearing in Deadwood. I think I’m going to have to rent me some-a that.

    Your comment about Deadwood reminds me of an old Doonesbury cartoon, where BD has been called for duty in Gulf War I. He’s sitting on the outbound flight next to another reservist, who owns a flower shop back in the world. The guy’s complaining about his general lack of fitness for reinsertion into the military: his physical condition, his familiarity with the equipment, etc. He ends his musings with, “Why, I’ve even forgotten how to use the F-word!” BD replies, “Easy, you just use it like a comma.” 🙂

  3. Tony Lenzer Says:

    Love those TV reviews, Andrew, and I’m with you on “The Shield.” Good stuff. I’d also give high marks to “The Closer,” though Kira Sedgwick does lay it on a bit heavy at times. Still, it is well plotted and the secondary characters are an interesting bunch. I’m waiting to see what happens with “Rescue Me,” which has had more downs than ups recently…but you gotta love Charles Durnan no matter what! He’s getting pretty ancient, but I hope he has one more season in him.

  4. Uncle Andrew Says:

    I dunno about The Closer: you are right that Sedgwick seems to really ham it up at times, which kind of turns me off. Never got into Rescue Me; I still haven’t watched my DVRed episodes of season 1 of Damages. Boy, Dad, you seem to have a lot of time to watch TV! You retired or something? :mrgreen:

    Grrr…..Season 7 of The Shield doesn’t come out until September…. 👿

  5. SheriHi Says:

    Gotta say I loved “Damages”, but not in the way I love “The Wire”. With “Damages” you just don’t give a damn about any of the characters, but it’s amazing to watch how creatively they screw each other over without saying “screw you!”.

  6. Uncle Andrew Says:

    Shawn bought me Season 1 of The Wire for a present and I almost ditched the series because of it. Just didn’t click for me. IMHO, the program only really took off after they basically dumped the wiretap gimmick and began branching out. Good to hear some more support for Damages, though; maybe I should just kill the ones I have DVRed and wait to NetFlix it.

    Wow, yet another sentence uttered by me that a person from 1980 would completely fail to comprehend….

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