During her storied career as a stage, film, and television actress, Kristen Bell has received many honors and awards — she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 6225 Hollywood Boulevard! — but, until now, no one has recognized her as the Queen of Television Euphemism. From her thespian throne, she ruled 2019, first as Eleanor Shellstrop in Seasons Three and Four of NBC’s The Good Place, a series in which profanity is automatically and ontologically replaced with euphemisms. Eleanor tries to say things like “motherfucking shitballs,” but they all come out like “motherforking shirtballs.” So, there’s no swearing in the Good Place, except that the Good Place is actually the Bad Place, so it’s hard to tell whether euphemism is diabolical or divine. Then, thanks to Hulu, Bell reappeared as Veronica Mars, grown-up private eye, in Season Four of Veronica Mars, another show in which euphemism is practically a character.
In “Spring Break Forever” (Hulu released all episodes on 19 July 2019), Season Four’s very first episode, Rob Thomas — creator, writer, showrunner — establishes the euphemism premise. Veronica’s father, Keith, investigates a shopkeeper’s claim that a giant rat infests his store. Some supposedly rat-induced damage drives Keith to expletive: “Holy cuss! A rat caused that? Was it a seventy-pounder?” Keith’s language momentarily distracts the shopkeeper from his plight: “Holy cuss?” he wonders. Keith provides the necessary exposition: “Yeah, sorry. My daughter and I have a bet who can go the longest without dropping an F-bomb. I didn’t think she could go thirty minutes and that was three months ago.” Veronica and Keith make it through the whole season, though middle episodes don’t dwell much on the bet — as a motif, it would easily wear thin.
Notably, the bet applies only to Keith and Veronica and only to variations on fuck. In the same episode, Veronica reports to a client, Carson, that her husband is having an affair. Carson calls hubby a cuckwaffle — my favorite word of 2019 — a “vindictive sack of shit,” and an asshole, and claims, “Uh, I wanna garotte him, you know? I wanna garotte him, I wanna stab him in the face, and I want to cut off that dick he’s just so proud of.” Despite the Mars’ pact, language in Neptune ain’t pretty. And the Mars family still swears, too. “Logan’s back and he wants me to marry him,” Veronica informs Keith, who replies, “What an asshole.” On the beach, V. pulls up to some young ladies ogling the man she hesitates to marry. One of the girls demands, “Ask me how many shits I give about his brain.” V. has no fucks to give, but gamely asks, “How many shits do you give about his brain?” The answer is, you guessed it, “None.” In “Chino and the Man,” Veronica admits, “Sorry. I’m the asshole.” In “Keep Calm and Party On,” she yells at a bunch of spring breakers, “No more shit music!” One episode on, in “Heads You Lose,” she insists, “You’re goddam right I said ‘No.’” Is the target of an investigation about to get away? “Oh, hell no,” quoth Veronica. The bet doesn’t fig-leaf profanity generally, just fuck and its familiar offspring.
But there are so many fucks hiding behind the Mars’ euphemisms. Veronica complains to Keith: “What the cuss? You’re no cussing fun!” But the cussing euphemisms, like these from the first cussing episode, keep the fun alive: “Are you cussin’ with me?” “Don’t you cussing point at me”; I’m not cussin’ around, old man”; “Oh, cuss you and the horse you rode in on” — the only instance of animal cruelty in the episode — “How long before we can burn this cussing cane of yours?” Sometimes cuss really does mean fuck, as in Veronica to Logan: “I’m gonna cuss your brains out.” Most of the time, though, it just means fuck: “Oh, lady, c’mon, lady …” “Lady? Cuss you”; to old friend and public defender, Cliff McCormack, “You cagey mothercusser, tell me what you know”; to new friend and spiritual doppelganger Matty Ross, “How are your hacking skills?” “Non-existent.” “Cuss a duck” (all from the fifth episode, “Losing Streak”); in response to Keith, “Oh, cussballs” (second episode, “Chino and the Man”); “Cuss me running” (third episode, “Keep Calm and Party On”); and, a classic Veronicaism, “WTC, dude?” Almost all the cussing comes from Veronica, which goes to show that Keith was at least partly right about her — she can’t go thirty minutes without cussing with cussing, even if she scrupulously avoids the f-word.
The euphemisms in the latest and presumably last season of Veronica Mars tell two stories. First, and no surprise, fuck is putatively the worst of profanities. This is true within the story, because Veronica and Keith settle on it as the one that must be euphemized. Or, perhaps they cuss the f-word because it’s so versatile and they doubt they can live and speak without it, so it’s bettable in a way other swears are not. Cunt, for instance, need not apply. But it’s also true outside of the story, as a narrative evaluation: the writers and directors felt that, while they could deploy shit and asshole and other deplorable words, fuck was either the word they found most in need of euphemism, or they anticipated that viewers would feel that way. It’s irony, people — on our side of the television screen, we decide whether Keith and Veronica are right about the whole fucking family of fucks. At least, we very much appreciate the archness of their cussing euphemisms.
Second, and to my mind yet more interesting, in its last season, Veronica Mars has introduced a generic euphemism. Do we have another one of those? It helped the show avoid cliché, I suppose. It would have been odd to hear fudge and effing cover Veronica’s incipient f-bombs, because Veronica is nothing if not clever, unusual — though verbal, fudge would have been a characterological mistake. But she could have come up with unexpected alternatives, like those imposed on Eleanor Shellstrop. Veronica Mars, however, rejects euphemisms specific to their profanities, like sugar for shit, and relies, instead, on a self-explanatory one: cuss. In the show, wherever there’s a cuss there’s a fuck lurking somewhere, but cuss could replace any swear word and announce itself as a euphemism, not a cuss but cuss. And, appropriate to Veronica Mars, it’s a little edgy, unwilling to renounce all profane phonetics: cuss ends soft but starts hard, with the /k/ of cunt and fuck, which is why Veronica prefers it to swear — cussing signals “Profane Situation” better than swearing, so “I’m not cussin’ around old man” rather than “I’m not swearin’ around,” even though, strictly speaking, she’s doing both while pretending otherwise.
The transparency of cuss — were it adopted universally — would spoil the fun of swearing. Luckily, it’s just a thought experiment. It’s unexpected and important, however, that shows like The Good Place — on network television! — and Veronica Mars incorporate swearing and, more subtly, the quality of euphemism as minor themes, as points of human conflict over the morality and pleasures of strong language. Veronica and Keith may not be able to clean up Neptune, California, but they can at least try to clean up their speech. Let’s face it, twenty-first-century television is a cussing miracle.