Premieres Thursday on CBS
Well, this is just another Peyton Place and you're all Harper Valley hypocrites ...
"Swingtown" desperately wants to seem as if it's about ideas and a changing culture. Beginning just before July 4, 1776, it is packed with period detail, from the hideous shirts to the corded phones and the 8-track player in the outsized car. It is also looking at a society where the sexual revolution has begun, where swingers may be across the street, but the consequences of this seeming liberation are looming gloomily.
But as hard as the movie tries, it ends up being about not much, a wan variation on "The Ice Storm," say, a period adaptation of "American Beauty," another view of the "Boogie Nights" era, only in this case the main characters aren't porn stars -- they just look like ones.
I bring up the "Boogie Nights" comparison in part because it could deal with sex in a much blunter way than "Swingtown" does; this would have done far better as an HBO or FX show, where it could be clearer about who's doing what to whom than "Swingtown" does. This becomes especially important in between a couple of scenes: one that indicates a young couple is about to get involved in group sex, and a later one where the same couple is seen to be turned on, presumably by having had the group sex -- but since we don't even get a glimmer of what has happened in between, we have no idea how far the couple has pushed its limits: is it swapping of partners or something far more complicated?
Besides the issues of broadcast standards, and I suspect "Swingtown" could have pushed limits somewhat farther than it did, the lack of clarity seems coy in a show that is, in one respect, about the end of coyness. That's especially key when you consider a third couple in the show.
But I should back up. The central couple is Susan and Bruce Miller (Molly Parker, Jack Davenport), who as the show begins are moving into a big house in an upscale neighborhood. They are not the first couple we get to know; that's Tom and Trina Decker (Grant Show, Lana Parrilla), whose sexual appetites are unbounded -- and whose curiosity quickly drawns them toward their new neighbors. While Tom and Trina hold out the promise of a new life and new awakenings for the somewhat staid Millers, the more traditional counterpoint is provided by the Millers' friends from their old home, Roger and Janet Thompson (Josh Hopkins and Miriam Shor). It is their job -- well, Janet's anyway -- to be shocked by the Deckers and what the Millers are being lured into. History will prove them right, but in the context of this show's premiere, Janet is shrill and panicky, with the often likable Shor badly miscast.
And that's a surprising miscue in a cast where the other women are quite good. I liked Parker on "Deadwood," and she does a good job in the "Swingtown" premiere, flirty, adventurous, not stupid but still not entirely aware of what she's getting into. Parrilla -- who has gone the dumped-into-summer-series route before, in "Windfall" -- was even better the second time I watched the premiere (half-paying attention the first time, then giving it a serious look). At first she seemed all barracuda, with Trina as eager for games as her husband, but she gave Trina a lot of detail -- not uncertainty as much as the sense that she had an agenda that went beyond physical satisfaction.
The men, in contrast, are not all that interesting. And there are some subplots involving young people which also deal with sexuality but too often feel like ways to fill the time between parties at the Deckers, and shopping with Janet and Susan.
In short, I was bored a lot -- and a show called "Swingtown" should never bore. The ideas weren't all that intriguing. The characters were too thoroughly designed to represent different points of view -- instead of being fully drawn people -- to keep me wondering about them.