Recreating the '70s
It’s July 4, 1976. A small, middle-class neighborhood outside Chicago is celebrating the United States’ Bicentennial with a block party featuring fireworks, a best apple pie contest, burgers and hot dogs grilled to carcinogenic crispness, and wholesome family games.
As this demonstration of proper family values begins to wind down, another party is just beginning, only a few blocks away in a more affluent neighborhood. This party is not for the whole family, as the main attractions are an open bar, drugs, a steamy hot tub, and naughty grown-up games.
These contrasting celebrations of Independence Day represent the two worlds of Swingtown, CBS’ new primetime soap opera. Caught between them are Bruce (Jack Davenport) and Susan Miller (Molly Parker), formerly of the first neighborhood and new residents of the latter. Their transition initiates the series, which excels in recreating the ‘70s, from eight-track tapes to butt-cheek-length jogging shorts.
The pilot episode starts as the Millers are prepping for their big move. After receiving a big promotion, Bruce is gung-ho about the family’s larger and more expensive house. Susan is more hesitant, sentimental over leaving the home where she has raised her now teenaged children and leaving behind best friends Roger (Josh Hopkins) and Janet (Miriam Shor). The long and lustful glance Susan exchanges with Roger as the Millers drive away insinuates another explanation for her reluctance.
As the Millers are busy with the final packing, their soon-to-be new neighbors, the Deckers, are also busy, entertaining in bed a stewardess from pilot Tom’s (Grant Show) latest flight. After the young woman leaves, his wife Trina (Lara Parrilla) appears upset, asking her husband to make sure in the future that the women he brings home are in their age group. Soon, though, Tom and Trina are glued to their den window, glaring at the Millers with the leer of wolves finding fresh kill.
The Millers’ arrive at the Deckers’ “grown-up” with Roger and Janet in tow, but Janet is horrified at the debauchery she witnesses and storms out. By contrast, the Millers are entranced, and by the end of the first episode, the Deckers have seduced them—a process helped when Trina gives Susan a Quaalude and Tom gets Bruce stoned.
Along with these contrasting couples, Swingtown features multiple subplots, ostensibly appealing to younger viewers. Young Laurie Miller (Shanna Collins) is sleeping with bad boy Logan (Kyle Searles), and has a crush on her philosophy teacher (Michael Rady). Her brother B.J. (Aaron Christian Howles) finds a strange girl (Britt Robertson) in his new bedroom, where she used to hang out when the house was empty so she could escape from her paranoid, coke-head mother (Kate Norby), who just happens to be the Millers’ other new neighbor. When the Thompsons’ son Rick (Nicholas J. Benson) about a classmate, she beats him up. And oh yes, Susan is upset that Bruce finishes so fast in the sack, B.J. finds his dad’s Penthouse stash, and Laurie blows her philosophy exam. It’s a lot of exposition for a one-hour episode.
With so much going on, one would expect Swingtown to be exciting, but it’s not. Behavior that was scandalous in the ‘70s isn’t today; while the drugs and free sex they see at the Deckers may surprise the Millers and Thompsons, the rest of us have seen it all before, and on shows aimed at teenagers. Neither do the performances offer surprises: except for Parrilla, who exudes sensuality and dissatisfaction, the cast comes across as one-dimensional. Each character is a type—prude, player, nutcase—and the actors play them as such.
Much of this banal business is arguably the writers’ fault. Swingtown‘s ‘70s is populated by middle-class folks who yearn to transcend their tedious materialism and hide their faults and problems behind façades of happiness, while the upper class engages in lives of excess, rationalizing their behavior as liberating. In fact, the primary and painfully obvious theme throughout the first episode is “liberation,” as the Millers choose the Fourth of July to embrace their own sexual emancipation.
Popular images of the decadent rich emerged in the ‘70s (Dallas in 1978, Rich Man, Poor Man in ‘76), while decent poor folks were prominent during the earlier part of the decade (The Waltons in 1972, Good Times and Little House on the Prairie in 1974). Swingtown‘s revisiting of these reductive oppositions signals a lack of imagination more than any homage to the era. While Swingtown could be set in any time period, it’s probably appropriate that it take sup the ‘70s, a cheesy and boring decade, just like the show it has inspired.