Seriously, if you were being attacked by zombies, you might yell out the word f- - -! But no one does on The Walking Dead. When it comes to language in this golden age of basic cable dramas, the rules are idiosyncratic and unclear.
"It's so arbitrary, hon," says Kurt Sutter. "It's just basically people in suits making up the rules."
Sutter created the biker-gang drama Sons of Anarchy on F/X, and if you've ever looked at his Twitter feed, his language might put you in mind of another program: the famously profane Deadwood on HBO, where for three seasons pretty much anything went, cursewise.
Sutter says he's not allowed to use the F-word. Or the word "retard." He also can't use his very favorite swear word. It's probably the most vulgar reference to female anatomy you can think of.
"But we can use the word 'gash,' which I think is far worse," he observes.
Sutter wishes he could use any word he wants while writing Anarchy scripts, but he's pragmatic about the rules. The show lives, he says, in a world where the F-word does not exist. So how does he express the sense of authenticity and emotional registers that the word conveys?
" 'Jesus Christ' is probably our replacement, ironically," Sutter says wryly. And he says the network keeps careful track of how often his writers use that expression as well.
Everything remotely like a swear word is tracked on every show by every cable network. But the rules around language are constantly tested and redefined, says NPR's pop-culture blogger, Linda Holmes.
"There is a little bit of soft-profanity creep," she notes, particularly on the big broadcast networks.
ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox don't allow characters to use the S-word, let alone the F-word. But that said, these days words such as "dick" and "bitch" — which would've been found too vulgar just a decade ago — are bandied about even on Glee and other shows that draw younger audiences.
The rise of profanity across television might have to do with the rise of profanity generally. But it also has to do with the rise of quality cable drama. (For that, thank HBO.)
And it's why the broadcast networks want to use harder swears. The Big Four recently asked the Federal Communications Commissions to relax its guidelines, arguing that nobody cares anymore whether a show is on cable or broadcast.
"They want to be able to say 'bull- - - -,' " says Holmes. "Which is a really hard word to substitute for. It's hard to find anything else that feels as good."
Meaning there's no other word that carries exactly the same meaning, Holmes says — and certainly no more effective way to call something out.
Characters can get away with saying "bull- - - - " on basic cable. Not so much with the F-word. AMC actually has a f- - - quota on the show Breaking Bad. It's acceptable a certain number of times per season. After that, it's tastefully dropped out. You have to listen carefully to notice, as when Jesse screams to Walt, "Get the <silence> out of there and never come back!" in Episode 9 of the fourth season.
Other cable dramas, such as Southland on TNT, routinely bleep the word. Others try to have it both ways. Maybe you remember all the characters employing their own F-word — "frack" — on Battlestar Galactica. Holmes finds made-up curse words distracting.
"If you know that frack is just f- - - , it feels phony," she says. "It takes away from the moment."
Vulgar language ruins TV shows for some people. And most of us agree there should be channels or times of day that are free of obscenities.
But to think about dirty words on cable is to think about how we use language, and how it evolves. All of these amazing cable dramas— and the language they use, or don't — are themselves a drama about community standards, artistic choices and the values we put into words.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish. A warning, this next story is about swearing. There are some words you just can't say on the radio or on broadcast TV, but cable television, that's different. It's not subject to the same oversight from the Federal Communications Commission. So, cable executives and their show writers make up their own rules about what characters can say and what they think will offend viewers. NPR's Neda Ulaby reports on the two worst swear words by FCC standards and the fuzzy line that separates them on basic cable.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Since this is the radio, we can't actually say the two worst swear words on the playground so here's how we're going to handle it. The worst one, the very worst swear word is (beep). And the second most horrible word is (beep). Got that? Worst swear word is (beep) and the second worst swear word is (beep).
Now, basic cable dramas treat (beep) and (beep) very differently. So you might yell out (beep) if you were being attacked by a zombie.
(SOUNDBITE OF GROWLING AND SCREAMING)
ULABY: But no one on "The Walking Dead" ever yells out (beep), no matter how dire the situation. They do, however, say the word (beep). It's the same with other basic cable shows, like "Justified" and "Sons of Anarchy," a biker gang drama heavy on tattoos and violence.
(SOUNDBITE OF "SONS OF ANARCHY")
ULABY: "Sons of Anarchy's" fifth season starts tonight on the cable channel FX. The show's creator, Kurt Sutter, says he and his writers can use the word (beep), but not the word (beep).
KURT SUTTER: It's so arbitrary, hon. It's just basically people in suits making up the rules.
ULABY: These suits will not let Sutter say retard. He also can't use his very favorite swear word, the really, really bad one for female anatomy.
SUTTER: But we can use the word gash, which I think is far worse.
ULABY: Using words like (beep) and (beep) is not about trying to sound cool, Sutter says. It's about conveying rhythms, cultures, intense emotions. You can't hear actors' voices when you bleep them, so he swaps in other words instead.
SUTTER: Jesus Christ is probably our replacement, ironically, for (beep).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Oh, Jesus.
ULABY: FX carefully counts all those Jesus Christs. Everything remotely like a swear word is tracked on every show by every cable network. NPR's pop culture blogger, Linda Holmes, has written about how rules around language are being tested and redefined on TV. She says you can hear it on the big broadcast networks, too.
LINDA HOLMES: There is a little bit of soft-profanity creep.
ULABY: There's a curse word chasm between what you can say on cable and what you can say on broadcast networks, like ABC or CBS. Broadcast shows never allow their characters to say the word (beep), let alone the worst word, (beep). That said, now they use anatomical language that would have been found way too vulgar just a decade ago.
Even on shows for younger audiences like "Glee," you'll hear words like bitch.
(SOUNDBITE OF "GLEE")
ULABY: You could argue the rise of profanity across television has to do with the rise of profanity generally. But it also has to do with the rise of quality cable drama. For that, thank HBO. Think of the language in "Deadwood" or "The Wire." Not everyone takes pleasure in extreme language and many may find it offensive.
Still, the broadcast networks like Fox, ABC, NBC and CBS want to be able to use harder swear words. They recently asked the Federal Communications Commission to relax decency guidelines because, they say, nobody cares anymore whether a show is on cable or broadcast. Linda Holmes.
HOLMES: They want to be able to say bull(beep), which is a really hard word to substitute for. Bull(beep) is really hard word to find anything else that feels as good.
ULABY: Holmes says no other word contains exactly the same meaning of bull(beep), and certainly there's no more effective way to call something out. You can say bull(beep) on basic cable, but the word (beep) not so much. I was told that AMC actually has a (beep) quota with "Breaking Bad." It's okay a certain number of times per season, but after that, they tastefully drop it out.
You have to listen carefully to notice.
(SOUNDBITE OF "BREAKING BAD")
ULABY: Other cable dramas bleep the word (beep) like "Southland" on TNT. Others try to have it both ways, like "Battlestar Galactica."
(SOUNDBITE OF "BATTLESTAR GALACTICA")
ULABY: But Linda Holmes finds made-up curse words distracting.
HOLMES: If you know that frack is just (beep), it feels phony. It takes away from the moment.
ULABY: Vulgar language ruins TV shows for some people. And most of us agree there should be channels or times of day without obscenities. But to think about dirty words on television is to think about how we use language and how it evolves. All of these amazing cable dramas, and the language they use or not, are a drama of their own, about community standards, artistic choices and the values we put into words. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.