A&E’s “Neighbors With Benefits,” a series that debuted Sunday night, opens with a truly hilarious scene. The camera reveals a sunny, idyllic neighborhood with a couple holding hands. There’s a shot of an American flag, a church and then a bunch of crosses. Someone actually yells, “Hidey ho, neighbor!” It’s suburban bliss. Inside one of the beautiful homes, a sweet middle-aged real estate agent shows a young married couple around the rooms, pointing out the large master bedroom.
The wife turns to the agent: “Have you heard about the rumors of this neighborhood?” she giggles. “That there’s wild neighborhood parties all the time?”
The agent looks aghast. “No,” she says. “This is a great family neighborhood. We’ve got lots of kids. I haven’t heard anything about that.”
OH REALLY? Well, the real estate agent is extremely out of the loop. Because as we learn as the soft music in the background suddenly stops, this unnamed neighborhood (which you can learn with a quick Google search is outside of Cincinnati) is famous for being chock-full of swingers. Yes, those married couples that seem like just your average suburban moms and dads — until you learn that in their free time, they enjoy hosting parties where they all get drunk and swap partners for the night.
That’s the introduction, painfully scripted but at least amusingly self-aware. Hey, if you’re about to go on a rant about the state of television, it’s rough out there in reality show land, especially for A&E. “Duck Dynasty” isn’t doing so well, and “Storage Wars” has seen better days. So we don’t blame the network for airing “Neighbors With Benefits,” even though it may seem crazy to some people.
And no, we’re not talking about the actual swinging. The crazy part is that for a “controversial” show about swinging and sex, it goes an incredibly tame route. Instead of delving into scandalous topics, it chooses to focus much of its first episode on swinger etiquette. Because that’s what viewers really want to know when they tune in to this kind of show, right? Rules and regulations.
Not that A&E could show much, of course, but it doesn’t really even allude to anything. Instead, the drama is about rules. For example, did you know that in the swinger world (the technical term, viewers learn, is “in the lifestyle”) it’s inappropriate for swingers to communicate outside of a group? So even though married couple Mike and Maria can hook up with married couple Brittany and Cody, it’s considered very wrong for Brittany to send Mike flirty lingerie selfies with captions such as “Happy naughty nurse day!”
We learn most of these rules through Tony and Diana, the lead swingers of the neighborhood, who take pride in introducing people to their lifestyle. “I’m just your everyday typical suburban housewife,” Diana explains to the camera. “I go to work, pick up kids from school, do homework, cook dinner. I’m really no different than anyone else except that I happen to be a swinger on the side.”
Tony insists that even though he tries to convert as many people as possible to the lifestyle as possible, it’s not like he’s a cult leader or anything. Still, he admits, “we hunt and we recruit young, physically attractive couples.”
Anyway, Tony is the person Mike frantically calls when he starts receiving racy texts from Brittany. Tony explains that that’s not allowed in swinger-ville. Because there’s a difference between cheating and swinging. Really! Swinging is something that you agree on with your spouse; cheating is when two people who aren’t married to each other have an interaction outside the group. So Tony urges Mike to tell his wife, Maria, about the texts, and tell Brittany she needs to stop.
Tony is very strict about this. “If you don’t put in structure and rules, [swinging] is dangerous,” he says. “This is not a healthy thing to do for a relationship that isn’t ready. This is not an easy thing to do for a relationship that is.”
From there, it’s all kinds of typical reality show drama. Both couples show up to Tony and Diana’s Friday night swinger party and Maria, Mike’s wife, confronts Brittany about the texts. There are lots of tears. Cod is very hurt that his wife was secretly texting another man.
It’s actually kind of a fascinating dynamic, especially when the show digs deeper about why couples do this anyway. (For the record: boredom, fear of aging, just can’t commit.) But the majority of people who tune into a show about swingers doesn’t actually want to know about why: They want to get the more sordid stuff. And it’s just not going to happen. Sorry — aside from one swingers’ double-date makeout session, the pilot doesn’t offer much.
The rest is all a mystery, including who goes into what rooms with whom at Tony and Diana’s party. Which, incidentally, boasts both beer pong and a big box of condoms. Another swinging rule is that everyone must use protection, although some couples prefer the “soft swap,” which means they can do anything with another person except actually have sex.
While facts like those are at least somewhat informative, that’s the ultimate problems with these kind of shows, particularly ones about sex on cable TV: The network can’t show or talk about anything too scandalous, so it’s destined to be boring. It’s actually admirable that the producers want to focus on the emotional impact of swinging, but that’s not the titillating premise the show promises — and as a result, viewers are likely to tune out.