Swingtown | Don’t Let It Swing by You

state_swingtown_sm.jpgWhat I absolutely love most about Swingtown is its focus on relationships.

 

 

 

 

 

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Bell-bottoms. Quaaludes. Disco balls. And doing the Hustle at the neighborhood discotheque. It might sound like I’ve stepped back in time to some funky 1970s Saturday Night Fever retro dance party. What I’m really describing, however, is the framing of my favorite TV show, Swingtown. It’s quite possibly the best adult drama on television, one that you’ve probably never even heard of. Trust me, though, throughout its 13-episode summerlong run on CBS, it’s been the hippest, hottest party ever to hit the airwaves on Friday nights.

Swingtown is set in Chicago during the summer of 1976. At the outset, the show quickly highlights some cultural changes that were important during that definitive disco era: women’s liberation, Watergate, environmentalism, designer fashion and of course, the ever-present foot-tapping, good old rock and soul and pop music. But a closer look at the show reveals it’s rooted in one particularly deeper issue: the social and sexual changes revolving around the practice of "swinging."

That’s swingers—as in to swing. And no, I’m not talking about learning to do the Lindy Hop. The swinging I’m referring to involves couples engaging in open marriages, enthusiastically inviting outsiders to come "play" with them in the bedroom. Coming on the heels of the "free love" movement of the 1960s, the swingers of the 1970s proved themselves to be more than capable of picking right up where the countercultural hippies left off.

And that’s where Swingtown comes in. This lively and innovative network drama centers on the lives of three married couples: the Millers, the Thompsons and the Deckers. Bruce Miller is a futures trader at the Chicago Board of Trade and his wife, Susan, is a housewife. The show’s premiere finds Bruce and Susan, along with their two kids, moving from their comfortable, middle-class neighborhood to the much more affluent North Shore area. While the Millers are happy about their move, they are sad to leave behind their best friends and neighbors, Roger Thompson, an insurance salesman, and Janet, his rather prudish, strictly by-the-book wife.

The Millers’ adjustment, though, is greatly eased by the warm greeting they receive from their friendly new neighbors, Tom and Trina Decker. Tom, an airline pilot, and Trina, a former stewardess, are thrilled to have an attractive new couple on their street, and they enthusiastically welcome the Millers to the fold by inviting them to a party at their home. Cue the fireworks.

The Millers and the tag along Thompsons show up for the gathering, expecting to find plenty of hors d’oeuvres and polite conversation — standard suburban party fare for the staid 1950s perhaps. But this is the fabulous and free 1970s, and what they encounter instead is a mind blowing wake-up call: the Deckers and their guests are all proud practitioners of no-holds barred open marriage. Yes, the Deckers are swingers, and they’re more than ready to show their new friends how to really live it up in North Shore!

A new insight into the sexual revolution, however, isn’t the only thing the Deckers are eager to share with the Millers and Thompsons. The daring couple also opens their sheltered new friends’ eyes to the finer things in life, such as chic fashion, recreational drugs such as marijuana and the pulsating sounds of popular boogie music. Ultra-chic Trina assists Susan and Janet with fabulous makeovers that they never imagined were within their reach (or their budget), everything from the famous Farrah Fawcett flip hairstyle to designer Halston dresses. And since no one likes to get all dressed up with no place to go, Trina and Tom show the Deckers and the Thompsons exactly how to shake their groove thangs, teaching them the latest dance moves to all the great music of the day, including hits by artists like the Commodores, KC & the Sunshine Band, Donna Summer and David Bowie.

What I absolutely love most about Swingtown is its focus on relationships. Unlike most television shows currently on the air, with Swingtown there’s no big mystery to solve, no medical jargon to decipher, no cops chasing bad guys or do-right lawyers fighting the corrupt system on behalf of the little people. Nope, absolutely none of that. What Swingtown is about is, plain and simple, pure people connections. Relationships on the program are created and destroyed based entirely on the everyday choices that people make: whether or not to be faithful to a friend or a spouse; the conflicting desire to place your wants above your family’s; struggling to keep love alive without losing your own morality in the process.

How incredibly honest and real and refreshing are issues like these! I haven’t seen anything like it on the networks in years, which is exactly why I typically don’t watch much TV anymore. I mean how many more CSIs, Law & Orders, and ERs can our eyes glaze over and your ears tune out? In a world where such formulaic shows can easily get jumbled together, Swingtown is an obvious and rare standout.

And by standing out with smart attention to character development rather than silly, derivative plots, Swingtown has found a fan in me. Unfortunately, the few television shows that I do seem to enjoy usually end up getting cancelled, and it looks like Swingtown is headed down that same washed-up path. I certainly hope that’s not the case, and on the plus side there hasn’t been an official word from CBS yet, but I’m preparing myself.

The fact is since its June debut, the ratings for Swingtown have been far from stellar, and throughout its limited run the show has garnered very little praise or support from television critics. All summer long it’s flown completely under the radar; lucky for me I even found it. Still, though, it’s been a great 13-episode treat, and I’ve absolutely loved watching each one. I can only hope that the recently aired season finale was, indeed, just that: a season finale and not a series finale. Swingtown deserves to keep on swinging. | Retannical D. Russell

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