John Walker's Electronic House

Swingtown – CBS

by on Jun.22, 2008, under Television

I’m really glad it’s not 1974. I like gadgets. And I’m not entirely clear how everyone didn’t live in constant fear that everyone they knew was dead, not having mobile phones or any of the three thousand other methods of instant communication. Nevermind the fashion, and tidalwaves of brown. Swingtown has the fashion, the music, and the brown in abundance, but somehow isn’t a cloying nostalgia-fest. In fact, it’s remarkably sparing with key news events to flag the era.

Bruce and Susan Miller (Jack Davenport struggling with an American accent, and Deadwood’s Molly Parker being endlessly brilliant in every scene) are a couple with teenage kids who move into a wealthier neighbourhood, a few blocks from their previous home. They leave behind Janet and Roger, former best friends of the family, and immediately befriend new neighbours, Tom and Trina. Who immediately introduce them to the world of swinging, something Bruce and Susan, inspired by quaaludes and booze, go along with.

It’s a lot like Pretty/Handsome in that it’s such a well written and performed drama that it’s central premise isn’t the reason to watch. Much more interesting are the conflicts all around it. Janet and Roger are both jealous of Bruce and Susan’s new lives in their own ways, Susan outwardly hostile and Roger inwardly confused. Their son Rick and Bruce and Susan’s son B.J. are best friends, but reaching puberty and with distance between them are trying to work out what shape their friendship will now take. Laurie, the Miller’s teenage daughter, has a crush on her young English teacher, and it looks like it might not only be one way. And there’s something more significant going on in Trina’s life than she’s letting on, as if her open marriage isn’t quite the bliss she suggests.

But of course the sex is key, and if the really engaging and sharply written drama falls down anywhere, it’s that it’s on terrestrial TV. CBS is not the natural home for a show focused around sex, and the awkwardness of trying to depict couples in bed, sometimes more than one couple at a time, in a way that won’t see them have to hand the company over to the regulatory bodies is breaking the programme’s back. The result is that staple of television: the bed sheet constantly pulled up to the woman’s neck, no matter what’s going on. It just ends up looking very silly. Clearly it’s pushing boundaries, and will likely get itself in trouble with every grumbling group of right-wing “save the family” lunatics (or “the FCC” as they’re known), but it really is a show that belongs on HBO where it would be able to relax.

It’s telling that a programme that seems to be going out of its way not to lapse into tiresome “REMEMBER THE 70S? THEY WERE DIFFERENT!!!” nostalgic nonsense, has a title sequence that couldn’t be more the opposite. Thank goodness it’s all concentrated into those 30 seconds, but you can tell there’s executives sniffing around desperate to make it into something they can sell more easily. On-screen captions advertising that you can listen to the programme’s soundtrack again on Last.FM are remarkably incongruous.

Molly Parker is remarkable. Every scene she’s in is stunning, her internal conflict and confused emotions never cloying or cliched. A scene in the third episode, where responding to her belief that Bruce is having an affair she demands a family breakfast and then drags him and the kids to church, could have been hideous. But as out of character as the moment is, you believe in her panic. And unlike every other programme dealing with marital difficulties, Susan quickly confronts the subject with Bruce and the matter is resolved.

The morality of the central subject is handled so well, with the extremely liberal Tom and Trina countered by the deeply conservative Janet and Roger, and then given intelligent balance through Bruce and Susan (who by the beginning of the second episode make a pact to never swing again – clearly a pact that will be revisited, but not one the show is rushing to get to). Hopefully the refusal to be a I Love The 70s fest won’t hinder its ratings (and it does remember to throw in references to fondu sets and Dylan concerts, and has already joined every other hour-long drama ever by having a closing montage to You Can’t Always Get What You Want), and it gets picked up for an in-season run.

1 Comment for this entry

  • km

    I have to say we caught a bit of this show by accident. It didn’t seem horrible, but I can see what you’re saying that it’d definitely be better on HBO.