I really liked Swingtown. I’m not particularly nostalgic for the 70s, especially not the chemically created clothing fabrics, but I enjoyed the characters and their interactions, and for a show that included wife-swapping, the messages were surprisingly positive.
But before I get to those, the basics: Swingtown ran from June through September 2008 on CBS. It featured three couples in the summer of 1976:
- The Millers, played by Molly Parker and Jack Davenport. They married young, just out of high school (with the later implication that it was because of an unexpected pregnancy), and as the show opens, they’re moving into a new, more upscale neighborhood. They have two children, a boy and a girl. Laurie, the older, is finishing up high school.
- The Deckers, played by Lana Parrilla and Grant Show. The Millers’ new neighbors, a pilot and his former stewardess, have an open marriage and tend to throw parties where various combinations of people wind up making out in the pool or the basement “rec room”.
- The Thompsons, played by Miriam Shor and Josh Hopkins. The Millers’ former neighbors are somewhat resentful of being left behind, and their more conservative take on life brings them into conflict with the Deckers.
The situations feature the expected period locations and events — a disco, the Playboy club, a family lake cabin, a fondue party, pot brownies, visiting a therapist — and some impressive set dressing and costuming to capture the feel of the era. The soundtrack was pretty nifty, too, guaranteed to evoke memories from anyone who lived through the period.
The point of the show, though, was a bit deeper. The Deckers were shown as happy not because they slept around (joining the Millers in the pilot) but because they valued communication. Their lifestyle only worked because they put each other first and were honest about what they were feeling and what they wanted. When they made assumptions or forgot to check with each other, that’s when trouble occurred.
The Millers, on the other hand, were fascinated by the idea of another option. They’d done what they were supposed to all these years, and the question, “are you happy?” was something they’d ignored to make it work. They still loved each other, and choosing each other from more options reiterated that.
I was attracted to the idea that it’s ok to try different things, safely, if it made you happy and you were honest with your loved ones. The time period was one where previously outrageous ideas and changing times were working their way into the mainstream, as shown by the solid family suburbanites considering jobs for the wives. When the world around you is changing, it makes sense to reconsider what you’ve always taken for granted. The result is a greater sense of personal freedom and making the decisions that are right for you regardless of what others are doing.
That doesn’t necessarily have to be sexual. Janet Thompson, the perfect housewife, found herself supporting free speech at a fundraiser for Deep Throat‘s Harry Reems and impressing a high-powered women’s group before starting her own career as an advice columnist. Later, she had to consider how her burgeoning career might conflict with her husband’s.
It wasn’t all sunbeams and nostalgia, either. The Millers’ son made friends with the new girl next door, a troubled child due to her mother overdoing all the classics: too many drugs, too much drink, and too many meaningless flings. Some may not like the idea shown that, for example, drug use on its own isn’t bad — it’s how you manage it that matters. Not everyone handles freedom responsibly, and making these kinds of choices maturely is more difficult than it looks.
I liked how the show was driven by the female characters, talking with each other about their wants and desires and fears. And I haven’t mentioned Laurie yet. It’s rare to see such a smart young woman on TV pursuing her own wants. She’s never told she needs to be prettier or more typical, and she finds a way to make a non-traditional relationship work out. She’s intense and driven but still enjoyable to watch.
This New York Times review also makes some great points.
The first season DVD set (what optimistic labeling!) contains 13 episodes on four discs, plus these special features:
- Commentary by Mike Kelley (Creator/Writer/Executive Producer) and Alan Poul (Director/Executive Producer) on the first and last episodes
- Deleted scenes from four episodes
- The Spirit of ’76: The Making of Swingtown (23 min.), which explores the origin of the show, including how they dealt with the subject matter on network TV (since the show was originally intended for pay cable)
- Have a Nice Revolution: Sex & Morality in 1970s America (12 min.)
- Gag reel (5 min.)
I would love to see more of this series, but a continuation seems unlikely at this point. However, while the last episode did raise some open-ended questions — will one of the couples move for a job? how will another handle a new child? is the third cheating on each other? — I was satisfied with the amount of story we got and I consider this set pretty complete. I highly recommend it for some great storytelling set in a fascinating time period. (A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the studio.)