Spirit of '76

Swingtown takes a hit of Tab
By MIKE MILIARD  |  May 27, 2008

FREE LOVE Can the show’s erotic charge blow away the period details?

What a difference 16 years makes. The stylish, justly celebrated Mad Men (AMC, returning for its second season next month) begins in 1960, as Eisenhower gives way to Kennedy. It’s an era that’s re-created — as far as this Gen-Xer can tell — with exacting verisimilitude. The suits are sharp, the shirts are starched stiff, and each hair is lacquered tight with shiny Brylcreem.

By 1976, however, when Swingtown (CBS, Thursdays, 10 pm) takes place, a lot has changed. And those brownish-yellow years of Ford/Carter malaise are conjured just as faithfully — right down to the pull-tab Tab and FM dials full of MOR schmaltz (Rita Coolidge, Seals & Crofts). The polyester is chintzy. The men are shaggy and hirsute. Things, in other words, are a little less buttoned down. In fact, “unbuttoned” is probably the mot juste.

Because Swingtown, as its Steve Miller Band–derived title suggests, is about swingers. Spouse swapping. Consensual infidelity. And one can only wonder how different it might be were it on HBO (or AMC) instead of safe and staid CBS.

We find ourselves in a leafy cul de sac somewhere outside Chicago, where commercial jet pilot Tom Decker (Grant Show) has returned home to his amorous sparkplug of wife, Trina (Lana Parrilla) — bringing with him a stewardess, like a souvenir from another city. As he attends to her in the bedroom, Trina is in the living room, gazing lovingly at his photograph.

Not long after, Bruce and Susan Miller (Jack Davenport and Molly Parker), two yearning suburbanites with a couple of kids, move in across the street. And when the Deckers stop by with a bottle of Dom Pérignon to invite them to their Fourth of July party — “we’ll light some fireworks, you can make some new friends, whatever you’re into” — there’s no mistaking what Trina means when she suggests, “You might wanna get a sitter. This party will go late.” Cue Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love.” Bomp-chicka-wow-wow.

“We were busy raising our kids when the Woodstock counterculture began,” demurs Susan when Trina broaches the subject of a foursome (after giving Susan her first Quaalude, natch). “I’m happy to tell you,” Trina replies, “that the train is still boarding.” And so, tremulously, one attractive couple are introduced by another attractive couple to the illicit thrills of extramarital canoodling. Tom rubs Susan’s shoulders as Bruce watches with a mix of trepidation and arousal. Trina takes Bruce’s hand. And away we go.

It’s tough to judge a series on just the first episode, but Swingtown is promising. The performances are good, the soundtrack is evocative, and the scripts seem poised to cover a lot of ground: subplots are already in motion focusing on the travails of the Millers’ kids, and on the stick-in-the-mud neighbors (Miriam Shor and Josh Hopkins) the Millers leave behind. Sooner or later, I presume, the show will get around to showing the downside to all this shag-carpet shagging. If the first foursome are charged with a certain erotic energy — shocking enough for the network of Angela Lansbury and Dick Van Dyke — they’re also pretty creepy.

It’ll be worth checking out subsequent episodes just to see what the producers and writers do with all the rich ground they’ve turned in the debut. In the meantime, however, the producers should be reminded that there’s a fine line between capturing period detail and codifying it as cliché — as when Tom approaches his party guests with a wide, mustachio’d grin and a “Who’s up for a Harvey Wallbanger?!”

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