Swingtown is a new nighttime soap that promises to fulfill our need for adult television in these dry summer months. The show makes big promises: It has extramarital sex! And cheesy '70s references! And drugs! And it's on, uh, CBS? Yes, the network for geriatric curmudgeons and the game show hosts that love them is getting hip. This series follows the Millers (Jack Davenport and Molly Parker) as they move into an upper-middle-class neighborhood in the suburbs of Chicago. They quickly come into contact with a swinging couple (Grant Show and Lana Parrilla) much to the chagrin of their conservative best friends from their old neighborhood (Josh Hopkins and Miriam Shor). It sounds like things could get saucy, but naked flesh and sex scenes are decidedly absent. Instead: '70s references and a soundtrack curated by Liz Phair. Is it worth tuning in? The reviews, after the jump.
Great sex, like a good deed, never goes unpunished, and there is a melancholy undertone to the series's playfulness. Swingtown pokes at the invisible rifts and emotional costs that come with unfettered liberty; in other words, all the consequences that were ignored by self-affirming manifestos that became best sellers in the '70s, like I'm OK - You're OK and Fear of Flying.
Since Swingtown isn't even peekaboo, much less dirty, I wish I could say that it's played for laughs. But I don't know what it's played for. Most of the time, it seems as sincere as Roger. And all of the time these people are, well, gaping at each other. By which I mean they wear rapt looks, as if they were Easter Island monoliths, or stoned on Thorazine. This is especially true of Parker's Susan. She was a delight in Deadwood. Here, with her fine red hair and freckle scatter, she seems stuck in reaction shots. You want to drag her out on the lawn and remind her that the seventies also consisted of Stephen Sondheim, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Gloria Steinem, and Shaft; of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Billie Jean King, and Robert Altman's Nashville; of not just Roots but also Jaws. But she is full of dopey wonderment, as if sex were a cult.
Swingtown recalls any number of movies and TV shows, from Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice to The Ice Storm, with its parents and teen-agers living parallel lives and a smart, odd teen-age girl riding around alone on a bicycle… Swingtown, as part of its fetish for authenticity, has impeccably and precisely horrible costumes and sets, but, to a serious fault, it makes use of the most overplayed music of the period. "Dream Weaver," "Dancing in the Moonlight," "Come and Get Your Love," and other such beige tunes are thrown one after another onto the soundtrack, until your ears are crying.
Swingtown obviously belongs to the tabloid tradition that has given us many other fabricated communities, going back at least to that lively little hot spot Peyton Place. The formula is almost foolproof: Pull back the drapes and reveal the lustiness going on in private little homes protected by electronic security systems. It's rather a bold, retro step for CBS to attempt this kind of show in the era of reality television and domestic fights that appear to be actual and spontaneous rather than cooked up by a writer. But the airwaves are so choked with reality that a return to fantasy seems strangely refreshing and, ironically, even more realistic.
But there's a complicated, darker undercurrent to the show, which could use a bit more dramatic tension in the early going but is still thoughtful and intriguing. One of the local kids spends a lot of time in the woods because of her mother's drug problem and erratic behavior.
Perhaps foremost, Swingtown manages to be about sex without showing much of it, reclaiming the notion that eroticism and explicitness don't automatically go hand in hand.
One of the interesting dynamics of Swingtown is how women's lib plays out against a backdrop of male domination. AMC's Mad Men is also exploring this same ground but is set 15 years earlier and has a whole different mood (unlike this show, there are no teenagers in the cast). Swingtown suggests that the '70s were more like the '50s than unlike. The airline that employs Tom is run completely by guys who wink at stories of his roving eye, not unlike the skirt-chasers on Mad Men.
'Swingtown' premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on CBS.