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What The $@** Is Up On Cable These Days?

Michonne (Danai Gurira) and Rick (Andrew Lincoln), in between curses on AMC's <em>The Walking Dead.</em>
Gene Page
Michonne (Danai Gurira) and Rick (Andrew Lincoln), in between curses on AMC's The Walking Dead.

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.

They want to be able to say 'bull- - - -,' which is a really hard word to substitute for. It's hard to find anything else that feels as good.

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."

Charlie Hunnam (left) with Mark Boone Jr. and Michael Beach, in an episode of <em>Sons of Anarchy. </em>Don't you just feel a cuss coming on?
Prashant Gupta / FX
Charlie Hunnam (left) with Mark Boone Jr. and Michael Beach, in an episode of Sons of Anarchy. Don't you just feel a cuss coming on?

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.

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Neda Ulaby
Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.