Wednesday, June 11, 2008

“Swingtown” Adds Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n Roll to Staid CBS

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

When you think of CBS, you would be forgiven for thinking of old people watching “NCIS.” While it’s true that the Tiffany Network does offer enough police procedurals to fill a precinct house and features viewers with an average age qualifying them for AARP membership, if you look deeper, you will note that from time to time, CBS takes a chance, like with the innovative sitcom “How I Met Your Mother.” But with the debut of “Swingtown” (Thursday, 10 p.m. Eastern), the network has gone further out on a limb than it has ever climbed before. And based on the premiere episode, CBS just might be onto something.

The debut begins with what you are supposed to believe is a woman performing oral sex on a wife-beater-clad pilot. As I said, this is not your grandmother’s CBS. Soon it is revealed that the woman is a flight attendant cleaning spilled coffee off of the pilot’s shirt. It’s not long, though, before “Swingtown” offers scenes every bit as titillating as the opening pretends to be.

“Swingtown” follows several couples and their children in a Chicago suburb during the stereotypically swinging year of 1976, pre-AIDS, pre-Betty Ford Center and pre-Ronald Reagan (and his Meese Report on pornography). At the hub of the group is the pilot, Tom Decker (Grant Show of “Melrose Place”), a Matthew McConaughey-like slacker charmer, and his wife Trina (Lana Parrilla, “24”), who spends most of the episode in revealing outfits and more revealing bathing suits. The hapless flight attendant in the first scene of the premiere ends up going back to Tom’s house for a three-way with Tom and Trina. Trina is a bit jealous, not because Tom has brought another woman into their lives. No, she is an advocate of their open marriage. The problem with the stewardess is her age. “Try to keep it in our age bracket,” she tells him when he asks if she’s jealous.

Our entree to the decadent world of the Deckers is through Bruce and Susan Miller (Jack Davenport of the English “Coupling” and Molly Parker of “Deadwood”), who are riding Bruce’s newfound financial success to a move to the more posh environs inhabited by the Deckers, a few minutes from where they live now. Early on we see that Jack is clueless about Susan’s dissatisfaction with him, sexually and otherwise, so it’s not a surprise when things unfold later. Susan can also be caught looking dewy-eyed at Roger Thompson (Josh Hopkins, “Ally McBeal”), the husband of her best friend/clinging stalker Janet (Miriam Shor, “Big Day”), a judgmental prude. The less-monied Janet is none too happy about her best friend leaving the neighborhood, so much so that she makes her a scrapbook as a parting gift, which I guess in the eight-track era is akin to a mix tape.

The kids inhabit a universe of their own. The Millers’ daughter, Laurie (Shanna Collins), is a confident high school AP student who knows her boy-toy boyfriend is a moron (the kid is like a younger McConaughey, making me think he was going to turn out to be Tom’s son, but he isn’t) and is equally adept at charming her young summer school teacher as she is convincing her mother that she’s not sexually active (even though we find out later that she is), and their son B.J. (newcomer Aaron Christian Howles) is smack in the middle of puberty, ogling Penthouse magazines with his best friend, the Thompsons’ son Rick (Nick Benson, “Summerland”), an awkward nerd who lies about fooling around with a girl in his class, who later beats the living daylights out of him. B.J. eventually becomes infatuated with Samantha Saxton (Brittany Robertson of “Dan in Real Life”), who often takes refuge from her coke-addled mother Gail (Kate Norby, “Boston Public”) in the vacant house the Millers are about to move into.

After ogling their new neighbors like starving people looking at a barbecue filled with steaks, the Deckers invite the Millers over for a party. When the Thompsons show up just before the Millers are about to leave, Susan, feeling guilty for the pathetic Janet, invites them to come along. The party is the centerpiece of the premiere, as Trina and Tom expertly lure and seduce Susan and Bruce, all while debauchery goes on around them. In a great moment, Janet, frantically looking for Susan, is instead directed by Trina to the basement, where we’ve learned earlier the “playroom” is located. Janet’s reaction upon seeing the group sex is to stalk outside and demand that the Millers leave with her that instant.

Only, the Millers like it there, and you get the feeling it’s for a lot more reasons than the Quaalude Trina gives Susan. Bruce says they're staying, and Susan smiles in approval. Janet, flummoxed beyond repair, stomps off, only to let out her rage (or is it sexual energy?) with a frantic scrubbing of the inside of her oven (no, that’s not a euphemism).

It might seem like picking on Janet is mean-spirited, but Janet is such a shrew, you want to cheer when Trina directs her to the playroom. Janet is short and dismissive with her ever-suffering and seemingly kind husband, apparently for no other reason than that he doesn’t make enough money. He’s a good enough lug and is patient with her, but she treats him with disdain. You can understand why Susan would have a crush on him.

“Swingtown” reminded me of my experience watching “Mad Men” for the first time, in that both shows took much pleasure in evoking the era in which the shows are set. “Mad Men” delighted in laying out situations that were normal for 1960, but which would be unfathomable today, from the rampant smoking and sexual harassment in the office, to kids being allowed to roam freely inside a large car without a seat belt in sight.

“Swingtown” is more interested in just showing off the wackiness of 1976, jamming in as many period references as it can, like a passenger smoking on a plane, a woman removing the pop top from a can of Tab, the celebrations of the Bicentennial, and Janet complaining about how expensive 88 cents was for a pound of ground beef. Nowhere is the 1976 giddiness more apparent than in the soundtrack, a wall-to-fall offering of music from the era. It makes the use of pop songs in most 1980s teen movies look subtle by comparison. (It didn’t help that there were frequent on-screen ads telling us we could listen to the soundtrack on, which, shock of all shocks, is a sister company to CBS.)

In my review of “Mad Men” last year, I wondered if the show would be able to sustain its interest after the shock value of its 1960s anachronisms wore off. Turns out, the show only got better with time, blossoming into one of the best one-hour dramas on television.

I have the same concern about “Swingtown.” The episode, written by series creator Mike Kelley (“Jericho”), is smart, with more than a few sharp lines and characters you want to see more of (literally and figuratively). And the locations, wardrobe and cinematography are visually striking, looking more like an HBO show than a network drama starring a guy from “Melrose Place.” So I’m inclined to think that “Swingtown” is more than just a product of its quirky period details and copious amounts of broadcast network-challenging sex and drug use, and has a chance to develop into a worthy series.

But I can’t help asking if the sex and drugs -- more accurately, seeing scenes on broadcast television that you are not used to seeing in that context -- are clouding my vision. Laurie strips to her panties and skinny dips in the ocean after giving her himbo boyfriend the heave-ho. The sexual tension between Laurie and her teacher is palpable. Gale scrapes the last bits of her cocaine onto a mirror, and then proceeds to respond to an introduction to Susan by saying, “You got any coke?” By the time we see Susan and Bruce, naked under a sheet, enjoying the last seconds of coupling the morning after their first swinging experience, it’s not even shocking, coming on the heels of the three-way and orgy we’ve already witnessed. Hell, when Trina goes for a morning dip in a bikini near the end of the episode, it almost feels like she’s over-dressed. Throw in the pot smoking and the teenage girl beating Rick until he’s bloody, and you have a ton of sensory overload to deal with.

But I think I have a good idea of why “Swingtown” will be just fine, even as the shock value of the debauchery wears off. After Gale meets Susan and leaves the room, determined to find more coke, Trina casually tells Susan that Gale is “harmless, miserable but harmless. I keep saying they should open up their marriage like everyone else, but her husband is a little uptight.” The smartest element of the show is that the viewer’s knowledge of what happened in the years after 1976 forms an essential piece of the program’s emotional impact. We know now that cocaine isn’t “harmless,” and that while there are still couples who enjoy swinging, the practice no longer has a kind of idealistic, post-Woodstock appeal as a way to save a marriage.

Which why watching “Swingtown” does not feel voyeuristic (at least not completely). Everything is viewed with the hindsight of history, so you’re not watching peers, but relics from an earlier, perhaps more innocent, time.

If you think about it, CBS’s older viewers are the ones who actually remember the “Swingtown” era. For them, the show is nostalgia. So maybe it’s not such a bad fit for the network, after all.

In any event, “Swingtown” is certainly worth a try, certainly on its own merits, but also to encourage CBS to take more chances in the future. The world has enough police procedurals.