It’s no trade secret that CBS has long coveted the “silver hair” demographic. But seniors tuning into the Eye Network this week to catch reruns of “NCIS,” “The Ghost Whisperer” or any one of a dozen variations on “CSI” may be shocked to find the sexually promiscuous period drama “Swingtown.” Or not.
If older-skewing CBS seems like timid territory in which to find a weekly series about disco-era wife-swapping, you are correct. Over the course of its first season, AMC’s meticulous “Made Men” has shown basic-cable viewers how to do period recreation in a subtle and realistic way. Over on Showtime, shows like “Weeds” and “Californication” demonstrate how “adult content” can elevate a series. “Swingtown”--welcome as it might be in this somewhat bleak summer season--doesn’t really take either of these lessons to heart.
“Swingtown” evokes the swingin’ ’70s by showcasing as much kitschy detail as possible. Remember shag carpeting? Remember 8-tracks? You will after watching “Swingtown,” which brings the era to life as ham-handedly as a cruise ship theme party.
Sexually speaking, “Swingtown” is a bit more adventurous than your average TV series. The first episode (directed by a guy who got much more mileage out of this sort of edgy material directing episodes of “Rome” and “Big Love” over on HBO) focuses most of its attention on Susan and Bruce Miller (Molly Parker and Jack Davenport), who move to an affluent Chicago suburb on the eve of America’s Bicentennial. America, you see, was on the verge of change--moral, political and cultural. But mostly, people just wanted to swap partners, host key parties, hang out in hot tubs, go to the Playboy Club and have three-way sex with their neighbors. Or so “Swingtown” would have you believe.
There are an awful lot of things implied here. And while gratuitous sex and drugs aren’t necessary for the success of a series, it would be nice to be able to show a little bit of that stuff if you want it to be the primary concentration of your series. While “Swingtown” tries its best to push the envelope under the watchful gaze of CBS’ primetime censors, you can’t help but get the impression that this all would have been so much easier to pull off on cable.
The cast is decent if imperfectly utilized. Davenport (the evil Norrington in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies) struggles to swallow his British accent. Parker is a fine actress, who’s shown interesting sexual energy in HBO’s “Deadwood” and Wayne Wang’s naughty drama The Center of the World. Here, she’s just too drab as a hippie-ish suburban housewife. And her naturalistic acting style too often clashes with her costars Grant Show (“Melrose Place”) and Lana Parrilla (“Boomtown”) as the leering, lascivious, porn-star couple from across the street.
At this point, it’s hard to tell if “Swingtown” is too campy or not campy enough. As the secondary characters (particularly the children) are developed and the actors settle into their roles, it could make for a guilty summertime pleasure. (So to speak.)