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'Swingtown'
Molly Parker and Jack Davenport are invited to swap partners with another married couple. (Cliff Lipson/CBS)
Television Review

'Swingtown' takes a chance on sex and the suburbs

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / June 5, 2008

Like a case of cultural reflux, the 1970s found many of the 1960s ideals resurging in an unpleasant, corrosive way. Mod styles evolved into disco bling, soft drugs took a back seat to harder, more addictive substances, triumphant youth icons like Janis Joplin began dying off, and free love came down to a hunger for self-love. And during the era that Tom Wolfe dubbed "The Me Decade," swinging gained momentum as a bit of a suburban vogue. For married adults going through delayed adolescence and quests for self-fulfillment, spouse-swapping was only logical.

CBS's "Swingtown" is an unusual new summer series set in 1976, amid the open marriages in a suburban Chicago neighborhood. The mood is basically sincere and dramatic, in that the two central couples are seeking more than just their jollies. They appear to believe that swinging is truly a way to strengthen marriage. But "Swingtown," at 10 p.m. on Channel 4, is still far from the tragic moralism of "The Ice Storm," the Rick Moody novel set in the 1970s that was filmed by Ang Lee in 1997. The atmosphere is nonjudgmental, and leavened with period kitsch and the Captain & Tennille. As on HBO's "Big Love," the idea is not to dismiss or ridicule unconventional relationships, but to parse out what works and what doesn't work.

Of course, the older-skewing CBS is almost as far as you can get from HBO, which is only one of the cable channels show creator Mike Kelley tried but failed to attract. And so while "Swingtown" is racy by network standards, and includes not just sexual situations but all kinds of drug use, it still doesn't have the freedom to get into the nitty-gritty of a subject that is nothing if not nitty-gritty. We know who's sleeping with whom, through script innuendo, heavy breathing, and images of affectionate contact, and we can generally figure out whether or not that sex was satisfying to one or both participants. But the show is about how specific sexual activity is changing everyone's lives, and yet that sex remains theoretical. The story's prime mover is left too vague.

Kelley's fascinating concept - the personal and sexual politics of an open marriage - is stifled by CBS prime-time superficiality and an inability to intimately explore intimate subject matter. Instead of looking back with the insight and frankness of AMC's fine 1960's ad-men drama "Mad Men," "Swingtown" is more trapped in the shallow retrospect of the cancelled NBC 1960s nostalgia drama "American Dreams."

Susan (Molly Parker) and Bruce (Jack Davenport) Miller have an affectionate but blasé marriage. When they move to a new home, they encounter Tom (Grant Show) and Trina Decker (Lana Parrilla), experienced swingers who lure their new neighbors into their lifestyle. Susan and Bruce are easy to convert, particularly with the help of a Quaalude and some martinis. Susan looks at Trina with fear and reverence as Trina announces, "It's not cheating, it's the opposite, actually."

So beautifully tough and fragile as Alma on "Deadwood," Parker is a real plus on this show, making Susan's newfound liberation seem grounded and not flaky. The other three actors, though, don't quite rise above the merely horny. Show, with his porny mustache, is all about predatory leering.

The subplots involve the reactions of Susan and Bruce's former neighbors, who are more staid, as well as all the couples' children and their friends. While the adults seem to regress with each passing day, the kids are learning how to grow up. As in "American Beauty," the Oscar-winning 1999 suburban family drama, the generations are like passing ships. But all the characters do have one thing in common: sex. Everyone on "Swingtown" seems to think about little else. Too bad the show doesn't have the freedom to go more than skin deep.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

Swingtown

Starring: Grant Show, Molly Parker, Jack Davenport, Miriam Shor, Josh Hopkins, Lana Parrilla

On: CBS, Channel 4

Time: Tonight, 10-11

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