Last May, CBS announced a slate of new shows that were going to change the way the Tiffany Network did business. "Cane" was going to break ethnic barriers, "Viva Laughlin" was going to transcend genre expectations and "Swingtown" going to erase the artificial content boundaries between broadcast and cable.
So, um, how's that working out for you, CBS?
"Viva Laughlin" lasted two episodes, "Cane" never returned from the writers strike and "Swingtown" premieres Thursday (June 5) in a summer slot where its chances of success are mighty slim. And that, kids, is why CBS' 2008-09 lineup focuses on new procedurals like "The Mentalist" and "The Eleventh Hour."
If AMC's acclaimed "Mad Men" offers a primer on how to handle a period setting with a minimal amount of dramatic irony and winking at the audience, "Swingtown" goes the opposite direction, much to its detriment. The 44-minute stream of cultural references and attention-drawing '70s kitsch details manages to make "Swingtown" feel unbearably cheesy rather than impressively accurate.
Set in the Chicago suburbs in 1976 on the eve of the Bicentennial, Mike Kelley's pilot script uses broad strokes to establish three sets of couples. Bruce and Susan Miller (Jack Davenport, Molly Parker) are only moving a few blocks away, but the actual gulf is illustrated in their very different sets of neighbors. They're transitioning from the Thompsons (Miriam Shor and Josh Hopkins), who wouldn't seem out of place living next to the Cleavers, to Tom and Trina Decker (Grant Show, Lana Parrilla), for whom life is just a partner-swapping bacchanal.
There's every reason to hope that subsequent episodes will expose that none of these couples are as simplistically one-dimensional as they seem to be in the pilot, but everything in the Alan Poul-directed first hour is told in ridiculously broad strokes. Accompanied by a soundtrack of the most predictable '70s tunes possible -- yes, they're great songs, but they seem to have just been picked off of the master playlist from your local Classic Rock radio station -- "Swingtown" makes every effort to push how groovy 1976 was -- 8-Tracks! Shag carpeting! Porn star moustaches! -- with no effort to explain why an audience in 2008 would care. The costuming and production design suffer from a similar problem. Everything screams "Seventies Chic" so very loudly that you feel like you're watching a well-appointed theme party rather than people living their lives.
If "Swingtown" is going to find its footing in upcoming episodes, the strong cast will probably be responsible, though at some point the actors will need to decide that they're acting in the same show. Molly Parker is a marvelous actress, but her intense naturalism clashes with Grant Show's put-on corniness. Making Shor play the buttoned-down housewife is an utter waste of her talents and Parrilla, an actress I've liked since "Boomtown," ought to be capable of being more than just sensual and mysterious. As for Jack Davenport, he just becomes the latest Brit whose American accent is unnecessary and distractingly bad. It would be easier to explain why the character is British than to explain why he sounds different in every scene.
I should note that the two of the couples have children and that the subplots involving the younger generation have seemingly just been lifted from other shows and never connect to the main narrative.
There's something discordantly salacious about the way the swinging aspect of the plot is pushed forward versus what you can actually show on network television. It's not as if "Swingtown" should require nudity, graphic language or on-screen drug use to tell its stories, but Kelley and Poul want us to be scandalized without showing us anything even vaguely scandalous. An alternative approach to partner-swapping that was done without an iota of camp or raunch would be Ang Lee's "Ice Storm," but that's not a comparison that's going to do "Swingtown" any favors. Here, it's like watching censored "Sopranos" repeats on A&E.
TV Review: 'Swingtown'
A strong cast is overwhelmed by the camp-tastic '70s backdrop and PG-rated adult content
The cast of 'Swingtown'
We've upgraded our reader commenting system. Learn more about the new features.
Los Angeles Times welcomes civil dialogue about our stories; you must register with the site to participate. We filter comments for language and adherence to our Terms of Service, but not for factual accuracy. By commenting, you agree to these legal terms. Please flag inappropriate comments.
Having technical problems? Check here for guidance.