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My, what strange bedfellows

Times Staff Writer

It’s NOT every day you see a unicorn, especially one dancing in a fuchsia dress, smack in the middle of a television network’s living room. But there she is trying to lure a married man to any conveniently located lair in Episode 9 of CBS’ unbuttoned new series “Swingtown.”

Obviously, this mythical creature is not of the single-horned breed that adorns the saccharin posters of childhood walls. This particular animal -- a slang term within swinging circles -- is a female bisexual hot to bed down with an established heterosexual couple.

Unicorns, wife swapping and a host of other titillating story lines are all part of the “Swingtown” world where three Midwestern couples wade into the rising waters of sexual freedom that swept the nation during the mid-1970s. The fact that a show with such strong sexual themes landed not on a freewheeling cable channel but on a once-genteel network astounded nearly everyone -- including the show’s creative team.

“When we got a call from our agent that CBS wanted to buy our show, we thought it was a joke,” said Alan Poul, one of the show’s executive producers, who also directed the pilot episode. “On cable, this show would have been a novel approach to an interesting subject matter and a fun look at the ‘70s, but it wouldn’t have necessarily pushed any boundaries. Whereas on a network, you can say the show is groundbreaking.”

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The show, which premieres at 10 p.m. Thursday, is set on Chicago’s affluent North Shore where its creator, Mike Kelley, grew up. Primarily a drama but with comic elements, the series is driven by its triumvirate of couples -- the swinging Deckers, the in-between Millers and the disapproving Thompsons -- and their embrace of, and resistance to, the changing mores of the day. “Swingtown” isn’t going to flash its audience -- as, say, “NYPD Blue” did by baring the bottoms of various cast members -- so much as challenge them with adult situations that have rarely been examined on network television.

“I’m just happy we don’t have to show full-frontal nudity,” joked Lana Parrilla, who plays Trina Decker, the series siren who is eager to share the love. “But it does force our writers and producers to be more creative because we can’t rely on just showing skin.”

It was hard to imagine any network with such a program before spring 2007, when CBS executives surprised the industry by announcing a slate of provocative new programming. The traditionally conservative network wanted to raise its buzz factor and bring balance to its prime-time schedule that was, and remains, heavily reliant upon sometimes gruesomely violent crime procedurals such as “Criminal Minds,” “NCIS” and its trio of aging “CSI” shows.

But the network’s gamble from last year has largely failed -- and “Swingtown,” the riskiest of the bunch, is its last chance to salvage a victory. Its other chancy ventures from last spring have all wilted -- reality series “Kid Nation” was torpedoed by accusations of its exploitation of children, while its Latino ensemble drama “Cane” performed disappointingly, despite big stars such as Jimmy Smits. Still, both fared better than the musical casino series “Viva Laughlin,” which was silenced after two episodes.

This week’s launch of “Swingtown,” which was originally intended as a midseason replacement, has led to questions about the network’s dedication to it. Television audiences typically shrink in the summer, a time when networks experiment with programming and roll out new reality series and other light fare.

“CBS got burned with those other shows, and I think their thinking on ‘Swingtown’ is ‘Let’s run it in the summer where we can minimize the damage,” said Brad Adgate, research director for Horizon Media, which buys television time. “I think CBS feels like they strayed from their core business.”

But the summer may not necessarily mean oblivion for “Swingtown’s” 13 episodes in the ever-fragmenting television universe. Cable dramas such as last summer’s “Mad Men” from AMC and “Damages” from FX proved audiences are increasingly willing to latch on to smart new shows any time of year.

Indeed, CBS’ President of Entertainment Nina Tassler contends that the one-hour adult drama has its best chance of success during the summer months, when audiences might be more accepting of its risque nature than in the fall. “Ironically, the show is better suited for the summer when there’s just a different expectation,” said Tassler. “It’s escapist, it’s fun and there’s a lot of humor in it.”

A female focus

Tassler aggressively pursued “Swingtown” last year after HBO passed on the project and Showtime said it would have to wait several months before it could commit to it. Despite the show’s obvious contrast with the CBS brand, Tassler felt it seemed right for the network, whose audience ranks among the oldest of the major networks’.

“The show is very much about the journey of these women, and women do watch network television,” said Tassler, 50. “I think its ideas about experimentation and exploration will feel relevant today as well.” The network executive, however, faced two equally challenging tasks to get the swingers’ show on CBS’ prime-time lineup: She not only had to quell a vigorous internal debate about the program’s suitability, she had to convince Kelley and Poul that the network was the best place for it. She triumphed on both counts.

“Nina was just so convincing about her conviction for the show,” said Kelley, 40, whose childhood friend Liz Phair is scoring the music for the series. “She made a promise to me that CBS wouldn’t unravel what was so personal and important for me.”

Kelley and Poul immediately set about retrofitting the show to network standards, which meant toning down the original script’s cruder, cable-friendly language, eliminating the nudity and converting very explicit adult situations into merely semi-explicit ones. Even so, the show’s more sanitized version ran into immediate trouble securing a programming slot.

“It’s not a big secret there was a lot of controversy over our lead couple sleeping with another couple in the first episode,” said Kelley, who wrote for and produced “The O.C.” and “Jericho.” “But it was essential that we deliver on the promise of the pilot for our audience. If we sort of dipped our toe into the water, it wouldn’t have satisfied the people who came to the party.”

Strike’s surprising benefit

When THE writers strike began in November, “Swingtown” had just three completed episodes -- far short of what it would need to launch the show. Had the strike continued for several weeks more, said Kelley, the show would probably have been permanently shelved.

But the strike brought relief from the grinding production schedule and yielded unintended benefits, the executive producers said. “It really gave us a chance to rethink the show,” said Kelley. “It was like running a marathon and then someone says, ‘OK, you can sit down for an hour.’ ”

The break allowed for many shifts in the story’s direction, but perhaps the most significant was the decision to concentrate more on each of the three married women. “The changes the women went through during the mid-'70s were just more dramatic,” said Poul, 53, who was a producer on HBO’s “Six Feet Under.” “Of course, the men are very important characters, but we knew it would be the women’s journey that would make the backbone of our narrative even stronger.”

As much a character as any person on “Swingtown” are the sets, fashions and period details. There are the obvious touches -- polyester shirts, eight-track tapes and extra-long telephone cords on the kitchen phones.

And then there are the subtleties. Each couple’s home was created to quietly reflect the character of its occupants. The free-spirited Deckers enjoy a modern, mostly glass and open lake-view home, while the more rigid Thompsons feel comfortable living surrounded by decorating styles from earlier decades.

No matter how evocative the period piece is, however, Kelley realizes some won’t be able to look past the show’s sexual themes -- a fact that still frustrates him.

“I don’t understand why this show is so threatening,” said Kelley. “But I don’t understand why gay marriage is so threatening either. I understand there’s going to be a portion of the available audience that will just say, ‘I can’t do this, I can’t go there.’ Too bad, because there is so much to embrace in this show. I think people who reject it have a problem with fear in general in their lives.”

But, he added: “I hope that people will give it a chance. It’s not any scarier than your family photo album from the 1970s.”

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martin.miller@latimes.com


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