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Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
ack when “Swingtown” debuted this summer on CBS, there was a mild hoopla surrounding the series. Mike Galanos of Headline News devoted a segment to its supposed rampant amorality on the day of its premiere, boldly proclaiming that network TV had, once again, stepped over the line, that our children should be protected from such filth, and so forth and so on. It goes without saying the Parents Television Council got involved and raised their usual stink as well.
Funny thing is, such criticism quickly waned in the subsequent weeks, as anyone who actually tuned in saw that it was a surprisingly sweet and moral show about being true to yourself and the ones you love – even if that means inflicting the occasional heartbreak. What was most noteworthy about the hypocrisy – which mostly arose from people who hadn’t even watched “Swingtown” – is that its characters were refreshingly honest with one another. If you openly swing with your partner, it’s considered amoral; if you cheat without their knowledge, well, somehow that’s okay to show on television. Well, actually it’s not, as I’m sure the PTC will tell you, but we see it so often that we’ve become all but desensitized to it. And don’t me started on the amount of senseless violence you can find on the networks any given night of the week. Oh crap, I’ve just turned into the very watchdogs I despise.
My point is this: “Swingtown” is a remarkably nice TV show, given that most TV isn’t about being nice anymore.
This is a series that’ll take you back to a time when a cynical retort wasn’t the only answer to a naive question. Set in the Chicago suburbs in 1976, the premise follows three couples and their various offspring, and how these people deal with their relationships and the various social revolutions occurring around them. And, yes, there is swinging, but not nearly as much as you’d expect, and it’s all handled very tastefully. Indeed, it’s almost a shame the series is burdened by its title, because partner swapping is only a jumping-off point for the real drama of the show. The Deckers – Tom (Grant Show) and Trina (Lana Parrilla) – are an experienced swinger couple, but they also have a rock solid relationship built on openness and honesty.
Moving in across the street from the Deckers is the Miller family: Bruce (Jack Davenport), Susan (Molly Parker), Laurie (Shanna Collins) and B.J. (Aaron Christian Howles). The Millers at first appear to be your standard, loving nuclear unit, but all isn’t quite as it seems. They’ve moved into this affluent neighborhood, and the kids are growing perhaps a tad too quickly. All four are on the verge of massive life changes. The third family is the Thompsons: Roger (Josh Hopkins), Janet (Miriam Shor) and Rick (Nick Benson). The Thompsons represent more of an old school, baseball and apple pie sort of America. They mourn the loss of their old neighbors, the Millers, but can’t let go, and so they’re continually coming in and out of their lives as the summer moves forward. Needless to say, when the Deckers meet the Thompsons, all isn’t smooth sailing, and yet the Millers manage to find different ways to bridge the gap between their new friends and old. The action kicks off at a Bicentennial party at the Deckers’ house, when many an eye and bed opened up, never to be shut again.
What’s particularly compelling about this show is the character development that occurs over only 13 episodes. The six core adults go through numerous changes while staying true to their characters at the same time. Rarely does the progression feel false or a betrayal; quite the opposite in fact. But what’s amazing is how differently you’ll view these six people at the end of the season as opposed to the way you saw them at the start. It’s possible “Swingtown” could have benefited from playing on a cable network, but ultimately it’s something of a triumph that the series works as successfully as it does on CBS. The commercial networks need programming like this so they can compete with cable and remain relevant. The show is from the minds of Mike Kelley (“The O.C.”) and Alan Poul (“Six Feet Under”) and it appropriately feels like something of a cross between those two shows’ sensibilities.
Not to imply that “Swingtown” is perfect. For instance, the storylines involving the younger kids (B.J. and Rick) tend to really drag for about the first half of the season. Occasionally, the music choices seem to be too perfectly placed in that there often seems to be a radio blaring the ideal tune for a given moment. The story begins on July 4th weekend and ends on Labor Day weekend, which means the season take place over about an 8-week period. An awful lot seems to happen in 8 weeks. And while I’ve admittedly never been to Lake Michigan, I have a hard time believing its shores even remotely resemble a beach on the Pacific Ocean.
But these criticisms are minor in the grand scheme of the show, and given that it seems to be on the renewal bubble, go forth and purchase this set so as to get the message across to the CBS suits that we demand more “Swingtown.”
Special Features: Two commentary tracks from Kelley and Poul are nicely informative and both speak as if they’re not done telling this story. In addition to a handful of deleted scenes, there’s also a gag reel and two featurettes entitled “The Spirit of ’76: The Making of Swingtown” and “Have a Nice Revolution: Sex and Morality in 1970’s America.”