“Neighbors With Benefits” is supposed to evoke a certain discomfort among viewers, but the real takeaway is just another reminder that attempts to conjure drama with reality shows often feel pretty pallid next to their scripted counterparts. So although CBS’ summer drama “Swingtown” crashed and burned in 2008, it was infinitely more satisfying (and cast better) than this carefully massaged look at swingers — or couples who are “in the lifestyle,” as they prefer — and the Ohio community they inhabit. The premiere, in fact, doesn’t even do a particularly good job of laying out the rules, such as they are.
Frankly, one suspects this is another one of those shows where the cheeky title came first and the particulars followed. As constructed, the series is initially pushed along by Tony and Diana, who got into the swinging lifestyle and actively recruit new playmates; and Mark and Amy, who remain monogamous and devoted to their religious faith, thus casting them in the role of “Bewitched’s” Gladys Kravitz, peeking out windows to look aghast at the strange doings across the street.
“Neighbors” introduces various couples, each with their own negotiated parameters regarding what’s acceptable and what’s not. Yet if that is supposed to speak to the variety of options, the net effect is to cloud the drama surrounding the central conflict in the premiere, where one young woman creates a stir by sending suggestive pictures that apparently break the rules to one of the guys.
A swingers party ensues that is filled with manufactured drama, to the point where one of the women asks the producer not to film the exchange where she confronts the offending guest. The camera obliges momentarily, then simply finds another angle.
“Neighbors” premieres at an interesting moment in time, with several new reality shows having sought to explore fringe sexual pursuits and titillating frontiers, from VH1’s “Walk of Shame Shuttle” to WE tv’s “Sex Box” to various TLC entries. Still, the underlying message is almost invariably conservative — an embrace of old-fashioned monogamy and fidelity, given the complications unleashed by trying to spice up marriage in one fashion or another.
Moreover, most of the extramarital encounters within the show — despite a discretely placed bra here and some kissing there — are so awkward and stilted that there’s nothing particularly sexy about them, to the point where the viewer-discretion advisory seems wholly unnecessary.
More skeptical viewers will, naturally, have questions, perhaps especially about those couples featured who profess to be either contemplating “the lifestyle” or who already take part, but fret about exposing children or relatives to such exploits. Hopefully, the kids don’t have friends at school or know anybody with an Internet connection.
Yet that’s really giving “Neighbors With Benefits” more thought than the exercise merits. Because even if the audience suspends disbelief, the benefits associated with watching this show are barely worth getting out of — or for that matter, into — bed over.