Earlier this month, Syfy’s “The Magicians” began detonating quite a few F-bombs. And yet, the Republic of Television still stands.
The popular fantasy drama, created by Sera Gamble and John McNamara, had always included a healthy dose of “fucks” in its dialogue. But during the first two seasons of “The Magicians,” Syfy would dip the audio when characters used that word.
Times have changed: As Syfy prepared to bring “The Magicians” back for Season 3 earlier this month, the network gave Gamble the landmark news: Fuck it. “Fuck” would no longer be dipped.
“This is a new development for this season,” Gamble said. “It’s an ongoing conversation that they’ve been having. They were able to make the show TV-MA rated,” Gamble said. “Now that we’re TV-MA, we’re able to let the F-word fly.”
According to Gamble, the show is able to give 10 “fucks” per episode — which represents a huge advancement in commercial television, where the expletive is a rather recent addition. Another taboo word, “shit,” began showing up on basic cable a few years ago, but “fuck” was still avoided until recently.
But certain advertisers, particularly ones targeting younger audiences, have started to accept that edgy language is necessary for basic cable networks to compete with streaming services and premium cable networks, where language has always been unrestricted. Basic cable isn’t governed by the same content limitations that the FCC requires broadcast to adhere by.
“Our past seasons have gone on Netflix, where they are uncensored,” Gamble said. “People have noticed a difference. I think this is part of an evolving conversation about TV shows now that this is how people watch them. There’s a bigger picture about why content is evolving on basic cable, and that’s part of it.
“Places like HBO that have been prestigious for some time, it’s known that you’re going to get edgy, adult content from them,” she said. “Places like Syfy and Lifetime and USA, part of being competitive is presenting content that competes with the premium shows at a content level. The level of acting is the same, the level of writing is the same, and to me this is part of it. It signals to the audience we’re not giving you the watered-down version.”
At FX, “Louie” and “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” were early adopters of the word, but used it sparingly. Sarah Paulson, as Marcia Clark, screamed “Motherfucker!” at a news report of rival Johnnie Cochran, in the 2016 limited miniseries, and the usage raised a few eyebrows.
At the time, FX execs admitted that the goal was to quietly plant the seed for the word, and begin the normalization of “fuck” on basic cable. It worked. USA Network began featuring “fuck” during the third season of “Mr. Robot,” and FX’s “Feud: Bette and Joan” increased its use of the word.
“Basic cable realizes that you can’t have artifice,” said producer Carlton Cuse. “You have to be competing straight up with streaming shows and premium cable. Where you can’t restrict the audience in ways that make your show seem less than what the competition is doing.”
And now, the dam (or is it damn?) has burst. USA sister Syfy included the word on its recent new series “Happy,” and USA’s upcoming “Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G.” features the word. And then there’s “The Magicians.”
“For us, we’ve always been able to give you unlimited ‘shits,’ unlimited ‘assholes’ and unlimited ‘cock,'” Gamble said. “It’s different network-by-network and also at times per individual person at Standards and Practices at the network. The words that we really want to use that have required ongoing discussion are all the variations of the word fuck and the word c*nt. Which is a very strong word and a word that I use in my life sparingly and in ‘The Magicians’ sparingly. There have been a couple of instances where we’ve been able to use that word as well; it’s entirely driven by context. This is opening that up.”
For the final season of “Bates Motel,” Cuse said he and fellow executive producer Kerry Ehrin finally convinced A&E to include “fuck” in an episode. “When we first started ‘Bates,’ there was a ‘shit’ count,” he said. “I think we got three ‘shits,’ a couple of ‘damns’ and a couple of ‘bitches’ per episode. There was a word count and we had to go through the scripts and comb out the uses if we had too many.”
Cuse said star Vera Fermiga struggled at times to perform certain speeches without putting an f-bomb in there. “It was just part of the natural rhythm and she wasn’t able to; they didn’t have the same import or power without having the F bomb in there,” he said. “I don’t think it’s as loaded, its so common now. It’s become this critical modifier in real conversations. When you leave it out in dialogue for characters, it’s weird.”
Added Ehrin: “It seems silly at this point, it’s such a part of the vernacular. It’s almost impossible to write realistic dialogue without using that word. By omission it will make it feel stilted, the dialogue. I think that we should all get over it. It’s a word, everyone says it.”
Perhaps most notable is the utter lack of outrage or surprise over the increased usage of these words. That’s a stark contrast to 25 years ago, when the broadcast networks first tested their boundaries with racy shows like “NYPD Blue.”
Producer/director Paris Barclay, who worked on “NYPD Blue” under creator Steven Bochco, said he noticed a retrenchment at the networks in the years after that show stirred the pot. Even “Sons of Anarchy,” which he worked on at FX with creator Kurt Sutter, never used the word “fuck.”
“It’s not cute when you have to make up words. You know they’d be cursing here, but they have to say ‘fudge’ or something else. We would say ‘fudge’ on ‘Sons.’ It’s awkward when you have some made-up curse word that just bounces out of the script.”
Barclay said Fox wouldn’t even let him bleep words on “Pitch,” a show last season set in the world of pro baseball. “That would have added a dimension of reality to ‘Pitch,'” he said. “Language is pretty salty in that game. So there are still barriers to entry when it comes to foul language.”
Pop TV president Brad Schwartz said two of his network’s shows, “Schitt’s Creek” and “Let’s Get Physical,” choose to bleep swear words for comedic reasons. But networks also run into contractual obligations with cable and satellite operators. If a network’s contract with distributors stipulates that it is geared toward kids or a TV-14 content rating, then salty language is tougher to justify.
“Obviously in cable you’re not beholden to FCC rules like the broadcast networks are,” he said. “Technically we all just decide what’s best for our brands. But sometimes you have to be careful.”
Pop’s post-midnight airings of “Big Brother After Dark” will feature the F-word, but a censor is still on hand to bleep out a list of about five words that are still verboten — mostly terms considered “a little too evil,” either because they’re racist, homophobic, or other terrible connotations.
Gamble said she doesn’t want to use expletives as a crutch, but it’s the authentic voice of her characters, who are twentysomethings in graduate school. “As in life, the word ‘fuck’ can be extremely funny, and we have some actors who are just so fucking funny. We’re not throwing the ‘f’ word as a substitute for depth or hilarity or angst. We’re not using it to be edgy. It’s just about capturing the most authentic voice at the moment. You can color great with 12 crayons but you really want the box of 64.”
At Turner, chief content officer Kevin Reilly said networks have become more lenient as shows find themselves at the top of the ratings and advertisers clamor to be there, content concerns be damned.
“I’m actually myself looking up and going, ‘Oh, so we’re doing that now!'” Reilly said. “It becomes a bit of an arbitrary weird line at this point because once you’re in that edgy material, you’re with a certain kind of advertiser and others aren’t going to come to you no matter what. I still believe it can be a cheap fall back, and I’m not in favor of no-holds barred, have at it. I still push back to use it with restraint and find creative ways around it.”
Meanwhile, all bets seem to be off in 2018 now that we live in a world where the president was recorded saying “grab them by the pussy,” and his derogatory use of the word “shithole” to describe certain nations was widely reported.
“I think the conversation about language changed when the news cycle exploded with the words ‘grab them by the pussy,'” Gamble said. “At that moment, every conversation that I have had since, and I’ve had the conversation about the word pussy, is different now. I’m not afraid to talk about it.”
“The fact that we turn on the news and the news cycle is perpetually dominated by someone who speaks this way,” she added. “I think these conversations aren’t just happening at scripted television at this point. The world is in a very strange place because of President Trump. And he’s unlike previous public figures in that way. There’s something disingenuous in pretending these are not words that are powerful in storytelling when these are the words that are the most powerful in storytelling in news right now.”