What says July of 1976 to you? A hot pink Tab can with a pull tab? Stone fireplaces, shag carpeting and rounded TVs on posts? Feathered hair and shaggy moustaches? Slimline phones, Chicago 8-tracks, The Omen and late night jogging sessions? The "disco gold" font? Or perhaps a studly pilot having a threesome with his wife and a stewardess?
CBS' long-shelved series Swingtown is part nostalgia trip, part inquiry into values, and while the nostalgia part often feels forced, the inquiry has some resonance. Being stuck on a network that seems to go out of its way to kill its most offbeat shows probably means that Swingtown's full 13-episode order won't see the light of day (unless the producers are willing to pony up for a DVD release). And to be honest, I have some qualms about whether the premise of this series can sustain even a limited run. But there's enough promise in the pilot to hope Swingtown gets a chance to develop–for good or for ill.
The first episode opens with a corny trompe-l'oeil, as the aforementioned studly pilot Grant Show appears to be getting a spit-shine on his rudder (if you know what I mean), when in fact a matronly stewardess is dabbing a hot coffee stain off his undershirt. Show comforts the younger stew who spilled the coffee, then brings her to his luxurious suburban Chicago home as a present for his wife Lana Parrilla. Come morning, their overcrowded domestic scene is disrupted by the arrival of Show and Parrilla's new neighbors Jack Davenport and Molly Parker, who are moving to the tony suburb from a more solidly middle-class one, and leaving behind their square friends Josh Hopkins and Miriam Shor. Most of the episode takes place on moving day, July 3rd, as Davenport and Parker duck out of the hamburgers-and-apple-pie barbecue on their old block in order to attend the Quaaludes-and-wife-swapping soiree being thrown by Show and Parrilla.
One of the problems with Swingtown's pilot is there's not much of a story here–or at least not enough to suggest compelling story ideas for future episodes. There's a slight self-contained arc to the first installment, as the show's creator Mike Kelley (a former staffer at Jericho and The O.C.) guides Davenport and Parker from suburban repression to a literal and figurative Independence Day. But it's such a broadly symbolic journey–and packed with so many on-the-nose conversations about the frightening, confusing world of sexual liberation–that it's easy to feel that Kelley and company are planning to take us somewhere we've already been, to show us things we've already seen.
But Swingtown does have a few interesting wrinkles. About a third of the first episode is focused on the swinger generation's children, who range from a self-possessed teenage girl contemplating a fling with her hot young philosophy teacher to two 12-year-old boys smuggling Penthouse magazines out of dad's secret stash. Yes, The Ice Storm covered this ground before, showing how the excesses of '70s parents impacted the latchkey generation they spawned, but that doesn't make it any less moving when one preteen girl pedals off to do the grocery shopping for her cokehead mother, while mom, gradually going nuts, lines her bedroom with aluminum foil.
Swingtown has a nice look too, provided by director Alan Poul (a veteran of Six Feet Under, Big Love and Rome), who makes good use of elliptical dissolves. Poul coaxes nuanced performances out of his cast, who find ways to make Kelley's "Hey, it's a new era and I'm ready to try something wild!"/"What! No! These people are perverts!" dialogue exchanges almost viable. There's a moment late in the first episode when Hopkins and Shor drop in on Davenport and Parker at their new home, and realize that their friends are ready to leave them and their middle American complacency behind, and Shor gets a look on her face not unlike that of a junior high bookworm who's just learned that her best friend since kindergarten has decided to join the popular crowd. It's a heartbreaker.
In the end, Swingtown works best not when it's trying to titillate and amuse the audience with standard-issue "Wasn't that a crazy time?" business, but instead when it focuses on more universal things: How neighbors get to know each other; the complications of sexual attraction; how to raise kids without losing your identity; and so on. Swingtown has its themes, its style, and its performances in solid shape. Now it just needs a plot.
-Here's one of the more clunky exchanges on the show, between Parker's hot-to-trot teenage daughter and her Matthew-McConaughey-in-Dazed & Confused boyfriend:
Him: "You act like you're too cool to hang."
Her: "Too bored is more like it You don't know anything about me."
Him: "Know enough to get into your pants every night."
-Alan Sepinwall and some other critics of note have complained that the problem with Swingtown is that it's a pay cable show on a broadcast network, and thus is too timid about its own subject matter. I'm not sure I agree. While I worry about network meddling making a show like this too blunt and obvious, I think the adult-but-not-explicit example of Mad Men–or heck, the first season of Desperate Housewives–has shown that TV can stay on the good side of Standards & Practices and still be fairly sophisticated and mature. The problems with Swingtown aren't inherent to CBS; they're the product of a writer with good ideas and no clear sense yet of how to convey them. I'm willing to give the show a few episodes to see if it finds a voice and a purpose. Will CBS will do the same?