Struck Out

Swingtown doesn't score much beyond a few boring dates

The e-mailed letters to the editor came rolling in with the orderliness of lemmings in parade formation:

Dear Metro Pulse:

I am offended by the content of the CBS program Swingtown. The offensive content clearly violates our local community standards and does not reflect your license obligation "to serve the public interest."

I urge you to refuse to air future episodes of Swingtown.

I also ask you to place a copy of my complaint in your files according to FCC regulations.

Sincerely,

I. A. Tool*

(*not real name)

Couple things wrong here: If you want to publicly express your moral outrage over a TV show, then sending in the exact same letter as 50 other people will not get your missive into print. It tends to make us think that you didn't actually write it yourself. Also, if you're going to copy and paste a letter to the editor, the very least you could do is make sure that it actually applies to our business. For instance, we are not a TV station—therefore it would be very difficult for us to actually stop airing Swingtown. (Same thing applies to those FCC regulations—we flaunt them on a weekly basis. Let them take our license!)

That said, such a concerted effort to protect our nation's values does raise an important issue: This Swingtown show must be hot!!!

Alas, much to the chagrin of 12-year-old boys and prematurely indignant moral guardians everywhere, Swingtown really isn't all that steamy. In fact, it's as boring a take on drug-drenched orgies in '70s suburban America as one could avoid imagining. While it's an earnest effort to shake up CBS' geriatric primetime lineup of 30 different variations on CSI plus Greatest American Dog, Swingtown nevertheless fails at being the edgy cable-style drama on broadcast television that its producers were aiming for, though it tries oh so hard.

You can see how the show's premise worked the copy-and-paste brigade into a froth even before the series debuted: Stock trader Bruce (Jack Davenport) and his wife Susan (Molly Parker) have just moved into the upper-class North Shore suburb of Chicago, circa 1976. They soon meet their hot, new neighbors, airline pilot Tom (Grant Show) and former stewardess Trina (Lana Parrilla), who lure them into the swinging lifestyle with their built-in pool and open marriage. Let's party!

Well, there may be parties and some implied extra-marital sex, but Swingtown's producers have loftier goals in mind than just depicting '70s-era excess; they intend to explore the internal conflicts of their characters as they face changing social mores, and examine how this affects their family dynamics. It's a shame that they don't quite know how to do this, despite their obvious inspirations of Mad Men and Boogie Nights. Although the writers provide surface details aplenty, they never quite plunge into the deep end of the party pool.

First, none of the characters are particularly interesting—they all seem to be fairly well-adjusted, good-intentioned sorts. Neither of the couples are all that troubled or concerned over their relationships. Bruce and Susan's teenage kids face budding affairs of their own, but seem awfully calm about them. Even the swinging pilot and his stewardess wife appear free of any guilt or second thoughts (though Trina does furrow her brow at times). The only hint of a conflict to cast a shadow over the good times is when former neighbor Janet shows up to voice her prudish disapproval of wife-swapping while her husband Roger purses his lips and looks tired.

So: How can you create an involving drama—or even a soap opera—without any real conflicts? You can't, which leaves the actors drifting along without much to do except deliver lots of meaningful looks that don't amount to much.

Second, Swingtown ladles on so much '70s stuff that it becomes a distraction. While the clothes and the haircuts and the sets are all spot-on, it's clear that the show's creators spent much more time on production design than on the storyline. (Honestly, was anyone excited over episode 11's plot synopsis? "Tom and Trina teach the Millers how to line dance...") And then there's the music, a never-ending jukebox selection of '70s tunes. Yes, every scene has its own pop song. Sure, we may recall certain episodes of our lives with pop music in the background, but must every single moment have a Top 40 hit attached? It turns this would-be drama into a music-video montage.

In the end, it's difficult to get all that angry over Swingtown—either for its moral turpitude or its lack of a satisfying story. Nice try, CBS. But if you really want to deliver a serious, controversial one-hour drama, you're going to have to commit.