It’s sort of hard to believe now, but at about this time last year CBS was touting a fall slate full of unconventional shows—a musical drama, a vampire detective show, a soap opera about a Cuban-American family—that explored territory well beyond its typical fare. Cut to a year later, and Viva Laughlin, Moonlight and Cane have all been unceremoniously cancelled, and the network’s recently announced 2008-09 schedule is full of crime procedurals and family-friendly sitcoms that fit seamlessly in with its most popular offerings.
So it’s a little strange to finally see Swingtown (CBS, Thursdays, 10 p.m.), announced last spring as a midseason show and just now making its way to the air for a summer run. The period drama, set in the Chicago suburbs in 1976, is unlike anything else on CBS, and its very premise seems unsuitable for broadcast television: With the sexual revolution in full swing, so to speak, the show’s adventurous suburbanites explore such racy activities as group sex and partner-swapping, while their teenage kids do some experimenting of their own. It’s the kind of thing that cries out for the freedom of HBO or Showtime, or at the very least FX. Here, every time things threaten to get really hot and heavy, there’s a demure cut to another scene or a fade to black. It’s a show about sex that relies almost entirely on implication.
The sex angle could get old rather quickly anyway, though, so at least the content restrictions force the producers to focus on the characters, and there’s the potential for the show to be soapy fun. Grant Show, who has plenty of nighttime-soap experience from his days on Melrose Place (not to mention brief stints on trashy shows like Dirt and Point Pleasant), and Lana Parrilla bring a certain sleazy swagger and appeal to alpha couple Tom and Trina Decker, who seduce anyone and everyone who crosses their paths, and set their sights on innocent new neighbors Bruce and Susan Miller (Jack Davenport and Molly Parker) before they’ve even completely moved in.
It doesn’t take much to get Bruce and Susan to open up to a new lifestyle, and the pilot sets up plenty of potential complications to play out in episodes to come. In that sense, the setting is just window dressing for juicy relationship drama, which is timeless. It’s a bit overdressed, even, with the first episode fairly drowning in clichéd ’70s signifiers—Tab! Quaaludes! 8-tracks!—and heavy-handed references to the U.S. bicentennial and smoking on airplanes. One hopes that once the time period is firmly established, later episodes won’t indulge in such overkill, but anyone who watched That ’70s Show knows that’s far from a safe bet.
At best, Swingtown seems to aspire to be something of a cross between Ang Lee’s depressing ’70s-swingers-in-the-’burbs drama The Ice Storm and Richard Linklater’s sweetly nostalgic ’70s-teens-drink-and-get-laid dramedy Dazed and Confused, but it’s a little too low-rent and cheesy to pull that off. Still, it’s nice to see the sexual revolution not treated as a complete downer, and Show and Parrilla really do carry the show as the sexually ravenous and entirely happy Tom and Trina. From here, Swingtown could easily descend into kitsch or get bogged down in too many soapy relationship twists, but even if it crashes and burns, it’ll be an incongruous bright spot on the otherwise dull and homogeneous CBS slate.
The bottom line: **1/2