I have a dirty little secret: I’ve been watching “Swingtown”--every episode. That’s right, the nasty show about 1970s suburban swingers, the one with Grant Show (yes, from “Melrose Place”) in full mustachioed smarminess. Now, this shouldn’t be a shameful confession; it only is because you people aren’t watching it, and the low ratings make me feel just a little embarrassed. But here’s the thing: You should be watching “Swingtown.” Why? Because it's a gripping morality play about the wholly believable struggle of a family grappling with a new dawn in America. Plus: the characters gobble down an ungodly number of Quaaludes and engage in some kitschy ménage-a-trois action, too.
But “Swingtown” isn’t really about swingers; it’s about what happens when the counterculture of the 1960s finally seeped into the suburbs, permeating the well-manicured lawns of Middle America in all kinds of strange and unexpected ways. Suddenly, when the last vestiges of a tumultuous national acid trip have dried up, housewives start to wake up to all this newfound liberation, husbands feel emasculated, and the Game Boy–free kids watch it all go down through their perches at the top of the banister. As Entertainment Weekly wrote about “Swingtown”:
"This series isn't about how many spouses they can cram into a bed. It's an intricate serial whose characters grapple with issues of identity, fidelity, morality, and love. It's also a nostalgic nod to summer 1976, a time when it was cool to be an American, when everything crackled with opportunity, when there was no AIDS."
The Me Generation slice of life is rich in nostalgia--from the kids watching Nadia Comaneci at the summer Olympics to the adults giggling about the sensation that was Deep Throat. It is also a beautifully acted exploration of the roles we all play in a family. And, yes, that includes Grant Show’s performance, which oozes enough insouciant sleaze to be a little comic and a little sexy. Just as the neighborhood prude can’t help fantasizing about him (to her horror!), the audience might find him irresistible--as when he sidles up to his wife, winks at the man hitting on her, and purrs, “We’re a package deal.”
The true glory of “Swingtown,” though, is the ethereal and captivating Molly Parker. Best-known as Alma Garret, the society wife turned prospector on “Deadwood,” Parker's Susan Miller here is a housewife and mother of two who is fiercely intelligent, unfailingly sweet, and in the midst of a psychological struggle to make sense of her place in a culture that suddenly seems to be about a lot more than the perfect casserole. Intimidated by the aggressive and outspoken career woman in her group, intrigued by the open marriage of the friendly neighbors with the pool, and awed by her teenage daughter’s staggering sense of self, Parker plays Susan with such nuance, you can see a full range of emotions--from guilt to disdain--pass over her face when her husband asks her something as deceptively simple as “Where’s dinner?” Parker’s grace is (almost) matched by a cast that includes Jack Davenport (who fans of Britain’s “Coupling” will know as Steve Taylor) playing Susan’s stymied husband, Bruce. Bruce is struggling, too; he’s the kind of guy who treats the women he works with as equals, but can’t understand why his wife suddenly has so many opinions. He is an easy character to like and, along with Parker, creates one of the most vibrant marriages on television.
So, why isn’t “Swingtown” catching on with viewers? Well, for one thing, it's on CBS. The Eye network isn’t exactly known for racy, serialized fare, and its core audience is not responding well to this new foray into emotional and character-driven territory. (I mean, hello? They could be watching “CSI: New York.”) In fact, “Swingtown”’s producers originally imagined the show as a vehicle for HBO or Showtime, but CBS’s president of entertainment, Nina Tassler, jumped on it because, as she told The New York Times, “That’s right in my sweet spot, in terms of my nostalgia.” And then the story gets juicier: It turns out Tassler’s second cousin, Nena O’Neill, co-wrote Open Marriage, the 1972 best-seller about swinging that sold nearly four million copies. Unfortunately, however progressive Tassler wants to make CBS, “Swingtown” has been way too big a leap for the Eye’s core audience. Meanwhile, without the imprimatur of an HBO or a Showtime behind the show, the kind of audience who might love “Swingtown” isn’t finding it--or thinks it’s a gimmicky play for ratings by CBS, and not a “real” show.
That brings us to now: “Swingtown” received some good reviews, but is barely sputtering along in the ratings and has not yet been renewed. Luckily, it’s not too late to hop into bed with the show, which launches into its Act II tonight at 10 p.m. EST. (If you want to start at the beginning, catch up on episode recaps over on CBS.com--or just break down and get OnDemand cable.) Think of it as a foxy summer fling--except, you know, without the real-life burden of gut-wrenching heartbreak and the clap.
Discuss! Entertainment Weekly called “Swingtown” “a foursome involving 'The Wonder Years,' Boogie Nights, The Ice Storm, and Dazed and Confused.” What are your favorite nostalgia films and TV shows? I’ll nominate “Freaks and Geeks” as an excellent portrayal of mid-1980s suburban restlessness.
Sacha Zimmerman is the Special Online Projects Manager for The New Republic.