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“Oh my God—you’re swingers”: 12 surprise TV encounters with the polyamorous

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1. Bob’s Burgers, “It Snakes A Village” (2013)
Across television’s seven-plus decades of existence, TV writers have developed a handful of go-to methods to disrupt the everyday existence of their characters—old friends who’d never been mentioned before, visiting family members, the occasional celebrity who happened to wander afield. But in the ’70s, the sexual revolution and laxer broadcast standards introduced a rarer species to this genus of TV characters: the swinger. Shows generally deploy wife-swapping and key parties to instill comedic fright, but episodes like the Bob’s Burgers installment “It Snakes A Village” reinforce the notion that, hey, swingers are people, too. Then again, the stakes are higher than “Will Linda’s parents indulge in the partner-sharing ways of their ‘active seniors’ community?”: The episode’s ultimate theoretical indignity involves burger-making paterfamilias Bob taking his in-laws in after the condo board gives them the boot. And so begins Bob’s quest to unlock the secret kinks of his wife’s father, a plot that is leavened by the show’s overriding sense of humanity, which affords comedic empathy to two typically marginalized-by-TV communities: the polyamorous and the elderly.

2. Party Down, “Nick DiCintio’s Orgy Night” (2010)
When a TV show’s regulars run into characters whose sexual appetites and voraciousness exceed their own, the disclosure of those peccadilloes ordinarily drags out for a scene or two. The third episode of Party Down’s second season isn’t so coy; hell, it plants the lurid nature of the party Henry Pollard and company are working right in the title. It’s the mirror image of the average swingers episode, with the everyday characters in the know—the eponymous Nick DiCintio (guest star Thomas Lennon in a revealing turn) brashly closes the cold open by telling the Party Down staff to “stay out of the fuck room”—and surrounded by background players who failed to connect an Eyes Wide Shut-themed party with anonymous group sex. Newly divorced Nick’s attempt to celebrate his freedom makes for an exceedingly awkward episode of an exceedingly awkward comedy, one that also presents the series’ most trenchant observations on the Hollywood fame game. After struggling actor Kyle receives a reality check from a former co-star who’s working the party as a topless human statue, he’s built back up by one of his slumming cater-waiter brothers in arms: “Who are you going to believe? Some bitter wannabe who’s pissed from working a shitty, dehumanizing job, or me?” It’s a darkly comedic reminder that the characters are treated like pieces of meat even when they aren’t catering an orgy.

3. The O.C., “The Countdown” (2003)
For four seasons in the mid-2000s, Kirsten and Sandy Cohen provided the ideal of romantic stability among Newport Beach’s cheaters, users, and shallow housewives who dump their husbands at the first sign of insolvency and/or fraudulent investing. Yet they did have a few rough patches—The O.C. was a prime-time soap, after all. One of the earliest temptations the pair faced arrived on New Year’s Eve 2003, when the Cohens find themselves unknowingly diverted to a key party (or watch party, technically) by Kirsten’s wild-child younger sister. Pivoting off concerns that their marriage is in a rut, Kirsten and Sandy flirt their way through the shindig, the tension between the characters building as each watch disappears from the bowl. As if there was any need to worry: When Kirsten’s turn to draw comes and her husband’s the only man left in the room, he lets it slip that his watch has been in his pocket the whole time. Because if there’s one thing you can depend on in Orange County, it’s Sandy going home with Kirsten at the end of the night.

4. Justified, “Money Trap” (2013)
One of the strengths of Justified has always been its ability to reveal layer after layer of the sociological structure of Harlan County and its surrounding areas. Halfway through the most recent season’s search for the elusive Drew Thompson, Boyd Crowder and his fiancée Ava infiltrate the equivalent of Harlan’s one-percenters. This small, concentrated group may not like sharing wealth and power, but they don’t mind sharing partners during private parties. During Boyd’s search for Drew, a cabal of men surround him and offer up a seemingly one-sided proposition. Men of means frequently underestimate Crowder’s cunning and intellect, but “Money Trap” introduces a key cast of characters that not only have an impact on the season—they eventually engage in activities that will influence the show heading into its fifth year. These new entities fit in with the Justified universe not because of their sexual predilections, but rather the power that is implied by them. Introducing them brought issues of class to the forefront of the series, an element that was always there but has only been acutely realized with the introduction of this new facet of the show’s world.


5-6. Life On Mars (U.K.), “Series 2, Episode 4” (2007) / Life On Mars (U.S.), “Coffee, Tea, Or Annie” (2009)
Both the original, Greater Manchester-set Life On Mars and the New York City-based American adaptation center on a police detective who’s hit by a car in the present day, lapses into a coma, and wakes up in the year 1973. Is he dreaming, time-traveling, or in the afterlife? While he tries to figure out the answer to that question, he has to get on with his life and work, without tipping his hand by screaming, “Jesus Christ, how much does it suck waiting for someone to invent photocopying and DNA profiling!?” Both series were very big on the use of characters and plot details that served as subtle reminders that the action was unfolding in 1973, along with all the unsubtle reminders in the hair and fashion choices, so it was only a matter of time before swingers showed up. In these episodes, the hero, the female cop he’s sweet on, and their boss infiltrate wife-swapping parties to sniff out information about murdered girls. (Piling one period stereotype of sexual liberation on the other, in the American version, the cop poses as an airline stewardess.) In the process, they all have to learn to overcome prejudices based on traditional morality when they threaten to interfere with their detective work (lesson learned: The most obviously pervy guy in the room is not automatically a serial murderer), and reconsider the perimeters of what’s acceptable during an undercover assignment. (Is it unethical to beat information out of a suspect if the suspect enjoys being beaten?)

7. All In The Family, “The Bunkers And The Swingers” (1972)
Based on what was portrayed onscreen, Archie and Edith Bunker didn’t have the most progressive of relationships. Sure, she had some opinions, and the politics of the ’70s mixed some things up and brought some new types of characters to the show; but then Archie yelled, Edith tittered, and all was well by the end of the day. Still, in the episode “The Bunkers And The Swingers,” Edith accidentally shakes things up after contacting a “mature” and “affectionate” couple she read about in the “swap” section of the local paper. Assuming they just want to be friends, the Bunkers meet said swingers, Curtis and Ruth Rempley (played by Vincent Gardenia and Rue McClanahan), and all manner of awkward hell breaks loose. Louise Jefferson helps Edith realize what’s up, but not until the “weird-o, creep-o, sex-o” Rempleys egregiously (for ’70s TV, anyway) threaten to spice things up in the Bunker bedroom. Ultimately, the Bunkers kick the Rempleys out, and Archie wags his finger in Edith’s face, warning her not to read “no more magazines,” returning to All In The Family-style status quo—until the next week, when son-in-law Mike Stivic donates $200 to the McGovern campaign and Archie gets riled up once again.


8. Mad Men, “To Have And To Hold” (2013)
Navigating the tricky historical period that pop culture has rendered into a flower-power cartoon, Mad Men’s ongoing sixth season has been more brazen than usual with its acknowledgement of the unrest and upheaval unfolding outside the windows of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. The season’s fourth episode, “To Have And To Hold,” goes full That ’60s Show, with a trip to The Electric Circus, a Joe Namath namecheck, and a conversation about censorship and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. (There’s also the implication that, hey, New York City in 1968 may not have been the most racially progressive environment.) Segueing from Dick and Tommy and their turn toward the countercultural, Don Draper and second wife Megan are nearly sucked into a free-love vortex, not-so-subtly propositioned by the star of the fictional soap To Have And To Hold and her head-writer husband. Played by a nearly unrecognizable Ted McGinley, the Drapers’ dining companion invites the couple home to “smoke some grass and see what happens,” tiptoeing around the obvious: He and his wife want to fuck the brains out of Madison Avenue’s most statuesque husband and wife. Don and Megan decline—they’re not the first to do so, McGinley notes—having a laugh at the strange scenario in the car ride home. The Drapers are the type of upstanding, post-Camelot pair that has the good sense to keep their promiscuity in the dark, after all.


9. That ’70s Show, “The Good Son” (1999)
That ’70s Show’s early episodes piled on period signifiers like shag carpeting, and “The Good Son” plays the once-topical premise of “The Bunkers And The Swingers” for extra laughs. See, stranding the show’s Midwestern Bunkers—square husband and wife Red and Kitty Forman—at a key party is funny because of 1) the Formans’ traditional values, and 2) the 27 years that rendered the notion of a key party practically quaint. After reconnecting with Red’s old army buddy, Bull (Mitch Pileggi, on loan from The X-Files, hence the applause upon his first entrance), the Formans make the farcical, time-delayed discovery that Bull’s picked up some decadent habits to go with the hot tub in his backyard and the Corvette in his driveway. The plot may originate from the show’s central gimmick, but its big laugh stems from Red’s fundamental inferiority complex. When Bull tells Red he doesn’t just want to swap wives with him—any of the ladies at the party will do—Smith leans into his character’s defining trait, storming out partially because he perceives his wife isn’t “good enough” for their fancy-pants host.

10. Louie, “New Jersey/Airport” (2011)
Louie is fundamentally a show about an exhausted man trying to understand a surreal world that never stops confounding him or leading him down dark, bizarre paths. So when Louie ends up going home with a sexually voracious woman at the imploring of Steven Wright, a night of carnal bliss seems less likely than a very Louie orgy of discomfort. Sure enough, when the perpetually luckless protagonist finally arrives at the woman’s house for what he imagines is a conventional one-night stand, he discovers he’s to be a third party in a sexual scenario involving an angry older sensualist played by Academy Award winner F. Murray Abraham. Louie attempts to respectfully decline the offer and finds himself stranded in New Jersey, once again the victim of the poor decision-making and questionable judgment—especially where love and sex are concerned—that mold his stumbling through an existence that often feels like one unending dark night of the soul.

11. Portlandia, “Motorcycle” (2012)
Most appearances featuring Portlandia’s adorably awkward Peter and Nance (played by series creators Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein) involve the characters attempting to spice up their domestic life, and “Motorcycle” is no exception. After purchasing motorcycles to seem young and hip, the couple mistakenly propositions some married swingers who invite them over for “Pinot Gris.” Peter and Nance are at first taken aback by the sexual aggression of their hosts, but are eventually seduced after a rather quotidian discussion of September 11. (Peter can’t seem to remember where he was, or other salient details of that day.) The swingers themselves aren’t particularly out of the ordinary for Portlandia’s gallery of kooks, but they do highlight Peter and Nance’s sexual issues. While Nance helps instigate the hookup, the closing scene shows her sitting in bed, expressionless and, presumably, unfulfilled (an issue she typically has on their adventures). Peter, on the other hand, seems to spend the entire foursome trying to remember 9/11 instead of actually enjoying himself. “Motorcycle” shows that Peter and Nance's complete lack of self-awareness extends even to their most carnal desires.

12. It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, “Mac And Charlie Die (Part 1)” (2008)
Objecting to an orgy is a common reaction among television’s more civilized characters, but common and civilized are not adjectives to describe the gang of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Rather than balking out of some moral obligation, chief narcissist Dennis Reynolds objects to the masked orgy his father Frank brings him to simply because it’s not up to snuff. To be fair to the attendees, Dennis’ standards are a little high—he’s on a quest for carnal enlightenment, which for him just means casual, anonymous sex with beautiful women—but that’s no excuse to take one’s mask off, even if it is to scarf down some free grub. Full of the disfigured oddballs that typically populate the It’s Always Sunny universe, and accurately described as a “bad acid trip,” Dennis and Frank’s Lynchian descent into depravity (well, more depraved than usual) isn’t even the focus of “Mac And Charlie Die”’s first part—Mac’s presumably homicidal father is. But it’s among the episode’s most memorable scenes—if not for the rarity of Dennis turning down sex, then for the orgy’s password. (“Oooorrrgy.”)