Sex and the Suburb: '70s Lust on CBS's 'Swingtown'

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 5, 2008

Pop an eight-track cartridge into the tape player, snap open a can of Tab cola, fire up the gas-greedy Cadillac convertible and head on down to "Swingtown," which is the title of a new CBS drama series and the nickname for the Chicago suburb where all kinds of changes are taking place.

It's tempting to compare the series to ABC's continuing if confounding serial "Desperate Housewives," but this isn't about desperate housewives -- it's more like "Desperate Everybody." As the series begins tonight, it's July 2, 1976, and the folks of Swingtown are celebrating the Bicentennial in their own pleasure-seeking, mildly patriotic and semi-perverse ways.

Like many small towns, this one is situated in the Valley of the Voyeurs, and everybody is terribly interested in what the neighbors are doing and with whom they are doing it. The '60s have shattered old values and inhibitions, so a neighborhood party includes the smoking of pot, the snorting of cocaine and, apparently, the swapping of spouses. When two couples become very chummy in the living room, one wife asks the rhetorical question "Why don't the four of us go somewhere a little quieter?" Ooh-la-la!

The very first scene in the show, in fact, is a fake-out involving what appears to be an act of oral sex, and the hour is punctuated with horseplay, bi-play and foreplay. Once or twice, the drama achieves the kind of intimacy and even eroticism that is common on HBO, but still fairly rare on broadcast networks such as CBS.

It's conceivable that "Swingtown" will prompt complaints to the FCC about its relatively explicit sexual depictions. But there's no nudity, and that seems to be the thing that gets those FCC commissioners' panties in a bunch. Perhaps soon, the bureaucratic busybodies will steal away into the night and television will be relieved of what has been an ineffective and hypocritical anti-smut crusade.

Meanwhile, back in Sin City, the atmosphere is thick with local color from the decade in question: Tony Randall trying to identify "things that are spread" on the game show "The $10,000 Pyramid"; teenage boys ogling amplified body parts in Penthouse magazine, then sliding it quickly under the bed when they hear Dad approaching; and ground beef going for 89 cents a pound down at the A&P. (Mom's making sloppy Joes for dinner tonight.)

Everywhere, the music of the time rings forth -- from "Spirit in the Sky" to "Come and Get Your Love" to "Love Will Keep Us Together." In the '70s, the clothes were godawful but the music was terrific. Social upheaval made it even into the suburbs, with one liberated young woman asserting her newfound identity, kicking and beating somebody's little brother until he is reduced to tears. A late-night party ends with a teenage girl running into Lake Michigan in only her panties, and not causing much of a panic.

The tone of the program is, like so much current scripted television, on the melancholy side. Mistreated wives find themselves huddled together, sharing a good cry. One wife repeatedly and obsessively cleans her house, rejecting her husband's advances with "Don't [pause] touch me." A moment later, their beaten-up little boy arrives home, weeping and bleeding. On the soundtrack, you will soon hear the once-ubiquitous strains of "I Can See Clearly Now."

The creators of the show, writer Mike Kelley and director Alan Poul, sent an open letter to critics, hailing their own program as "fun and sexy . . . a high-energy, convention-busting awakening of the senses, all set to the incredible music of the era -- a soundtrack that shaped and expanded the consciousness of an entire generation." Gee, all that and hanky-panky as well.

Among those gathered for the ensemble, Molly Parker and Jack Davenport stand out as Susan and Bruce, new arrivals in the suburbs who have to adapt to the drugs and sex and don't seem to have much trouble. Grant Show, who has been appearing in one prime-time soap after another since "Melrose Place," is a familiar face -- probably too familiar, functioning as a kind of ghost of flops past. Lana Parrilla does a good job as his troubled wife; however, like other characters, she sees the dark cloud that hides its own silver lining all too well.

"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.

Swingtown (one hour) debuts tonight at 10 on Channel 9.

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