Swingtown tried premium-cable steaminess by broadcast-network standards

Swingtown tried premium-cable steaminess by broadcast-network standards

Some TV shows never even make it past the first season. Maybe a series lacked the ratings to match its artistic accomplishments, or maybe it floundered its way into the network crosshairs, but it’s time to look at one-season series outside the immediate context of ratings and renewals. One-Season Wonders, Weirdos, And Wannabes considers the merits of these short-lived shows.

Swingtown, a dramatic series about three families navigating changing social attitudes and sexual mores in the mid-1970s, ran on CBS for 13 episodes in 2008. By beginning in the Bicentennial summer of 1976, creator Mike Kelley used the brief window of time between the unofficial, spiritual end of the ’60s and the big chill of the ’80s to show how “average” Americans finally absorbed the fallout from the sexual revolution. To watch the series now is to revisit a very specific moment in pop-culture history: Namely, the moment when even CBS—the broadcast network most vulnerable to jokes about how its loyalest of viewers never watched anything else, because they were too crippled by arthritis to change the channel—felt the need to compete with the more daring programming available on premium cable.  

The commercial networks initially had a funny, schizoid reaction to the critical accolades and zeitgeist buzz generated by such cable shows as The Sopranos. In 1999 and 2000, newspapers and magazines ran a lot of trend pieces on that show, and no article was complete without a quote from some genius at one of the old-school networks, comparing the actual number of people who watched The Sopranos week-to-week with the number of those who dozed off in front of the latest episode of Diagnosis: Murder or Judging Amy. Their point was that Tony Soprano and family wouldn’t have lasted a month on a “real” network. (Critics would counter that this was exactly the problem with the real networks.) 

But at the same time, network brass were loath to concede that the cable upstarts made better TV shows than they did, even if they could console themselves with the idea that fewer people watched them. So the networks began to turn out shows that represented their version of an HBO series—shows like Kingpin, a smart, engaging drug-cartel drama created by David Mills. NBC proudly hyped the show 2003, only to burn off its six completed episodes in little more than two weeks. More recently, the network has lavished its hopes on Hannibal, which NBC executives seem prepared to keep around for as long as they can, no matter how few people watch it. Presumably, they’ve finally figured out that a well-tended cult show can generate more money further down the line, for whoever holds the rights.

One thing that Kingpin and Hannibal had in common—with each other and with other, more misbegotten attempts at envelope-pushing network shows like ABC’s 2003 mob drama Line Of Fire—was that their major line of attack was through scenes of violence, gore, and general amorality. A show that intended to redraw the boundary lines regarding sexual content on TV was a trickier sell, and as if to prove it, Mike Kelley and his co-producer Alan Poul (whose credits included Tales Of The City, My So-Called Life, and Six Feet Under) had previously failed to sell Swingtown to HBO. HBO reportedly felt that it already had its hands full with its own contemporary sexual-relations series, Tell Me That You Love Me and Big Love.

Kelley and Poul were readying their pitch to Showtime when Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment, reached out with an offer to greenlight the series. That meant significantly reshaping the concept, to strip away the planned nudity and graphic sex scenes. Having given the pilot script a quick overhaul, Kelley (who wrote the first couple of episodes) and Poul (who directed them) assembled a terrific cast, which happened to include a number of actors who had already demonstrated their willingness to perform sexually risky material. In commercial-television terms, the big star on the lot was former Melrose Place regular Grant Show as Tom Decker, a commercial airline pilot who has an open marriage with his retired-stewardess wife, Trina (Lana Parrilla). The audience-identification characters are the Deckers’ new neighbors: Bruce Miller (Jack Davenport), a futures trader who’s doing well enough to finally graduate to the upper-middle class and move his family to the prosperous suburbia of Chicago’s North Side. Davenport had starred in the racy British comedy Coupling; Bruce’s wife, Susan, was played by Molly Parker. Before joining the ranks of the HBO All-Stars with her roles in Deadwood and Six Feet Under, Parker proved her mettle in such movies as The Center Of The World, in which she played a stripper/escort, and Kissed, in which the 24-year-old actress risked career suicide by fearlessly throwing herself into the role of a necrophiliac who works in a funeral home.

Miriam Shor, who had appeared in such John Cameron Mitchell projects as the stage musical and film Hedwig And The Angry Inch and the film Shortbus, played Susan’s prudish best friend and former neighbor, Janet Thompson, who feels left behind when the Millers flee their shabby neighborhood for a more luxuriously feathered nest; she feels doubly left behind when her old friends start to shed their old middle-class inhibitions and wind up literally in bed with the Deckers. (Josh Hopkins played Janet’s whipped-dog husband, Roger.) The cast also included Shanna Collins as the Miller’s teenage daughter, who jumps into an affair with her summer-school teacher (Michael Rady), and the magnetic, 18-year-old Britt Robinson, as a neighborhood girl whose mysteriously troubled affect bewitches and bothers the Millers’ son, Bruce, Jr. (Aaron Howles). Everyone calls Howles’ character “B. J.,” presumably because it got a laugh out of someone whose good opinion meant a lot to the producers.

The show debuted on June 5, 2008, and started racking up mixed notices. The pilot is not perfect. It begins with Show, resplendent in his blond hair and mustache, sitting in the cockpit of a jet, looking every bit a golden god in an era when commercial flying was a profession with some glamor to it. (The episode title, “The Pilot,” is a sly joke.) Then the on-the-nose topical references and the leering start. Show informs his passengers that “it’s time to stub out those cigarettes and finish up your cocktails,” and the camera pulls back to show the back of a woman’s head; she’s kneeling in front of him, at about groin level, making grunting noises. Then we see that—Ha! Ha!—she’s scrubbing away at a stain on his shirt.

There were people who heard that CBS was behind a new show about swapping spouses in the suburbs in the ’70s and immediately thought of elderly Studio 54 fixture Disco Sally—and this was just the kind of thing they’d imagined they might be in for. It didn’t help that CBS’ way of boasting of its own newfound hipness was to point out that Liz Phair, 1993’s self-elected blow job queen, was part of the team hired to work on the music. We’ve all got to eat, and the music—which included an opening theme song on which Phair’s familiar voice could be heard urging listeners to “give it up for love”—was fine. But considering that it had been five years since Phair had heedlessly, some say thrillingly, torched what remained of her indie cred with her self-titled bid for the Avril Lavigne audience, this, too, felt like a Disco Sally move.

Salon’s Heather Havrilesky called it “a less funny, hollowed-out combination of The Wonder Years and Boogie Nights.” The late John Leonard wrote that the show took itself too seriously—which is kind of like having George R. R. Martin complain that you sure are rough on your characters—using the show’s existence as an excuse to list the first hundred random things that it sort of reminded him of. Even mean bloggers made fun of it. Ratings started out fairly strong, then nose-dived. (Some advertisers also pulled out, possibly in reaction to complaints about the show by such groups as the American Family Association and the Parents Television Council.) But did the ratings drop because the show was bad, or because it wasn’t bad enough to hate-watch?

In fact, the show got a lot better. The topical references started to feel less like a well-aimed rock thrown upside the viewer’s head, the actors got their teeth deep into their roles, and the show’s study of the evolving dynamics of marital love became nuanced and complex. It also yielded some surprising results, especially in its treatment of the swinging Deckers. Tom may look like a stud from the era of “porno chic,” and Trina may look like Vargas pin-up come to life, but they’re devoted to each other, and work hard on their marriage. As Trina explains it to Susan—who’s made the mistake of telling her how she envies her for how easy everything is for her—their brand of extra-marital promiscuity is the opposite of adultery, custom-designed to make emotional monogamy possible for two people who are too attractive and hedonistic to settle for the physical kind. “Everything’s already on the table. There’s no sneaking around. No lies. Ever since Tom and I got into it, we’ve reached a whole new level of intimacy.” When she’s feeling especially direct, after Tom has bedded down with a blonde co-worker without discussing it with his wife first, Trina reminds him: “Open and honest at all times: That’s how it works. That’s why it works!” 

By contrast, Bruce is titillated by the thought of an affair with Melinda, his new—and only—female co-worker, but he doesn’t clear it with Susan, even though he doesn’t seem sure that Melinda is worth his time until after Susan meets her and informs him that she finds her impressive. In the course of the show, Susan and Roger, both of whom are plainly unhappy in their marriages, fall in love, though things don’t get farther than a kiss and some erotic rock-skipping. But Roger also tells Susan that he’s been laid off from his job long before he can muster up the courage to tell Janet. Janet, who never consciously suspects that Roger might think of straying, let alone with her best friend, is terribly upset when she finds out that he can tell Susan things that he prefers to keep secret from her. She can’t bring herself to refer to this as adultery, but she understands that, on some level, their marital bond has been violated.

The show doesn’t argue for a return to open marriage and key parties as a general societal cure for what ails you; it depicts the Deckers as creatures of their time, and if you listen closely, you can hear the gate of time creaking shut. (In the final episode, Trina discovers that she’s pregnant.) Swingtown is set not just in the last years when “normal” Americans thought about getting a piece of the sexual revolution for themselves, but in the last years when single-breadwinner households were feasible, much less when they were the norm. In a few years, when the airline industry starts tightening its belt, Trina may not have the option of staying at home to watch over the baby, let alone her current occupation of lounging around the pool and fielding offers from horny couples. 

Certainly, after Bruce and Susan (who married Bruce because she was pregnant and who, by the end of the series, has begun referring to her love for him in the past tense) get divorced, she’s not going to be able to hang around the house and the neighbor’s pool all day, finding herself. Tellingly, the first of the women to get a job is Janet, who only does it because Roger has been unemployed for a while and is starting to gather moss. She takes a temp job at a newspaper, is bumped up to a regular staff position inside of about a minute, and by the end of her first week has been selected to take over the advice column. Janet, who tells Bruce that she’ll only work until he gets a job, at which point everything will go back to being exactly as it was, is best poised to land on her feet when it becomes clear that the world will not go back to being exactly the way it was, but it won’t stay exactly like this, either.

Unlikely as this may be, it fits in with the strength that Shor brings to a character who could easily have been played as a tight-faced, bug-up-the-rear-end joke. She makes Trina likable even when she’s reaming out her sad sack husband or mistaking Tom’s courtly friendliness for a sexual advance. By the end of the 12 episodes, she’s gone from seeming like a neurotic bitch with a sex-hating cleanliness fetish to a beacon of homespun common sense, albeit one who invites people to her home for dinner before 6 p.m. and presents them with the world’s largest cheese ball. The show observes all this with a clear but compassionate eye, sometimes gently teasing its characters, but—once it’s gotten going—never harshly judging them. It doesn’t have the cool, arty polish of a show like Mad Men, but it also doesn’t play the game that Mad Men sometimes plays, of seeming to express scorn for its characters, because they didn’t have the sense to wait to be born into our era. Shor and Parrilla may be the standouts in this cast, but all the actors are good, with the exception of Davenport, who turns out to be the odd man out of his generation: The one British actor to cross the shores in order to prove, to a national TV audience, that he cannot begin to pass for American.

The show, which was set in the waning days of a cultural moment that was pretty brief itself, probably had a limited lifespan built into it from the get-go, but it would have been nice to have spent another brief season with these characters. Kelley has since gone on to create Revenge. Parker went on to other jobs, including the current season of House Of Cards; Shor has appeared on Todd Haynes’ Mildred Pierce, GCB, and The Good Wife; Parrilla stars as the Evil Queen on Once Upon A Time; Hopkins plays Courtney Cox’s husband on Cougar Town; and Davenport was on Smash, because, apparently, that guy is just cursed. But the show is still available on DVD, and is worth seeking out if you’ve never seen it. There are a few rough patches at the beginning, but once past them, this show really does swing.

Wonder, Weirdo, or Wannabe? Wonder.

Next time: Stephen Bowie boards the wild anthology merry-go-round of The Richard Boone Show.


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