In an act of seemingly pointless but ultimately revelatory genius, Victor Solomon, a movie director from San Francisco, has meticulously mined all 86 episodes of The Sopranos and compiled a montage of nearly 5,000 curse words screamed, spat and muttered on the show. No wonder nobody has time simply to watch TV anymore.
As it turns out, Tony and his pals weren’t swearing quite as much as you remember. The montage lasts 27 minutes, which means that less than 1 percent of the show was devoted to swearing. Or at least, the kind of swearing that might upset your mom or the FCC.
According to Solomon, the impetus of his project was a sizable bet he made with a friend regarding how many instances of profanity the series included in total. Solomon believed there were fewer than 5,000; his friend thought otherwise. Their agreed-upon definition for what constituted a curse word: anything that “you would feel uncomfortable saying to your mother, or ... [hearing] while sitting with children,” Solomon explained in an e-mail. “Cross-referencing with A&E’s version of the show, and thus the FCC’s definition of what constitutes vulgar language, I pressed on, generally only including words NOT seen on A&E’s edited, syndicated version of the show. In the end, I came up with the video you’ve seen, which comes in at 4,983 bad words.”
On occasion, Solomon leaves a few juicy bits of context hanging from the expletives, but mostly he cuts with a pretty tight hand, so the compilation jerks forward in machine-gun bursts of profanity. You’d think that it would all get tediously repetitive, and it does, sort of, but it also deftly illuminates various facets of the show. For example, curse words are regularly exclaimed with murderous rage, cool menace, disgust, frustration, cynicism and ennui, but very rarely with humor, or lust, or pleasure of any kind. For a group of guys who spend so much of their time gambling, having sex with strippers half their age, eating great Italian food, stealing truckloads of state-of-the-art TVs and just hanging out and shooting the breeze, Tony and his crew don’t seem very happy.
Since 2007, The Sopranos has been running on A&E in expurgated format, with euphemisms like “freaking” and “forget you” filling in for the show’s trademark indecency. Ultimately, however, A&E’s version isn’t a curseless Sopranos so much as it is The Sopranos with a bad linguistic wig: Like Silvio’s hairpiece, it only draws attention to the problem it attempts to cover up.
Watch Solomon’s montage, though, and the notion of a genuinely curseless Sopranos becomes fairly plausible. On very rare occasions, the show uses curse words with explicit rhetorical or literary flourish. More frequently, they’re used as redundant verbal emoticons, the easiest way to signify that a character’s mood has escalated from “pissed” to “really pissed.” (When Tony Soprano is choking a man to death, do we really need the fricative blast of a few F-bombs to convey the depths of his rage?) Mostly, however, they’re just tossed off in the pursuit of the kind of generic, mean-streets authenticity that rarely results in a halfway decent hip-hop song, much less 21 Emmys.
Of course, I speak as a viewer, not as a premium cable channel or a show creator. For HBO, the stream of profanity that peppered The Sopranos served as a kind of less obtrusive onscreen logo; it was a constant reminder to viewers that they weren’t just watching TV, they were watching an R-rated entertainment experience worth paying $20 a month for. And for series creator David Chase, it no doubt served an important symbolic function, too: Every expletive he put into his characters’ mouths was proof of the artistic license he’d been given on this project—a small but reassuring reminder that everything was permitted.
Or to put it another way: If Chase didn’t have the freedom to make his characters swear like gangsta rappers with Tourette’s syndrome, would he have felt as free to portray a murderous thug as a lovable family man? Or have a little old lady plot to kill her only son? Thanks to Victor Solomon, we now know exactly what separated The Sopranos from run-of-the-mill television crime dramas. Isolated, consolidated, the 4,983 curse words that appear in Solomon’s compilation may seem gratuitous, banal, repetitive, unnecessary. But it took every single one of them, one suspects, to give The Sopranos the depth and daring that made it a masterpiece.