Offering an absorbing glimpse into a not-so-long-ago period, “Swingtown” would be a perfect companion for AMC’s “Mad Men” and, alas, will probably draw about that many viewers. Although part of CBS’ push-the-boundaries initiative last year, the summer premiere date and fast crap-out by “Viva Laughlin” suggests the show is in a go-nowhere relationship with a network that isn’t completely hot for it. Even so, this series about suburban angst circa 1976 exhibits rare depth for the procedural-packed web, and includes plenty of nifty touches, from the pop-song score and “Boogie Nights” fashions to the first-rate cast.
Perhaps foremost, “Swingtown” manages to be about sex without showing much of it, reclaiming the notion that eroticism and explicitness don’t automatically go hand in hand. Like “Mad Men,” the timeframe also proves extremely relevant, holding a mirror against current social mores, including casual use of drugs rarely seen on network television these days.
As is so often true with unusual domestic worlds, the arrival of an ordinary couple provides the window into it. In this case, it’s Susan Miller (Molly Parker) and her husband Bruce (Jack Davenport), who married right out of high school, have enjoyed some success and are now moving to a bigger lakeside house in Chicago. They’re still hot for each other, but her face reveals considerable regret, and not just about leaving old friends behind.
The new neighbors, meanwhile, watch the moving truck pull up with almost predatory zeal. Tom (Grant Show), the airline pilot, and his wife Trina (Lana Parrilla) have an open marriage, introduced via a romp with a young flight attendant. To the strains of “Come and Get Your Love” and “Golden Years,” the Millers are invited to a welcome-to-the-neighborhood party at Tom and Trina’s house and meet with more than they bargained for — from the open coke snorting to the lurid doings in the play room.
Trina approaches Susan about swapping, saying that far from cheating, it has invigorated her marriage. There’s “no sneaking around, no lies,” she purrs.
The adults, however, are only part of the story, which incorporates their teenage and pubescent kids — all in the pre-AIDS, Studio 54 days, when the freedoms of the ’60s counterculture movement were still being absorbed by and drifting into suburbia. Parker initially emerges as the linchpin here, but as constructed by series creator Mike Kelley, several characters exhibit promise, in a soap made all the more intriguing by the fact it feels just a little bit dirty.
The shame is that the show didn’t find a home elsewhere, since CBS’ level of commitment to shaking up its formula remains suspect. “Swingtown” thus has the makings of a series that will earn a small but loyal following, only to leave them disappointed.
Then again, the network-series mating ritual can often be like that — exciting when still in that mysterious, anything’s-possible phase, but a little nerve-wracking when the time finally comes for executives to either let it all hang out or retreat to their comfort zone.