I feel like I may have been the only TV critic who really liked Swingtown, or close to it anyway.
A running theme in several of the reviews was comparing it to fellow TV period piece Mad Men, unfavorably. (Alessandra Stanley’s review in the New York Times, weirdly, seemed to be reviewing the 1970s themselves more than reviewing Swingtown: “Just because an era is amusingly kitsch does not mean it is ripe for dramatic exploration.” Oooh, 1976, you just got served!)
A lot of the criticism, somewhat valid, was that the show hits too heavily on obvious period cues and props, which it does. But I think some of the critics conveniently forget—with the exception of Alan Sepinwall—that the first few episodes of Mad Men themselves hammered the hell out of the look-how-different-1960-was nudges: not just the smoking and the rocket-cone bras, but scenes like Betty blithely letting her kids play with a drycleaning bag. (It was hilarious, but practically came with a neon arrow attached.)
What made Mad Men more than nostalgia was that it was about more than nostalgia as an end in itself. And while I wouldn’t put Swingtown in Mad Men’s league, it too is about more than its high-concept hook: the pilot, at least, was all about the thrilling and terrifying aspects of change—personal change, social change and economic change. Just as Mad Men goes inside a man’s world, the ensemble Swingtown focuses especially on Susan (Molly Parker), who came of age in that pre-feminist era (we’re told she got knocked up pretty much exactly at the time Don Draper was knocking back martinis) and is now the mother of a teenager vaguely looking for a change in her life, both excited by the liberation of the ’70s and nervous about its implications for her daughter.
As she and Bruce meet the swingers in their new neighborhood, they’re pushed apart from their old-neighborhood friends, not just morally but economically. (As anybody knows who’s been following the Democratic primary knows, the culture gap among voter groups—”values voters,” “elites,” “hardworking Americans,” “Starbucks vs. Dunkin Donuts voters,” etc.—is as much economic as it is moral, which is an unusual point for a network drama to pick up on.)
I do hope Swingtown gets a little less broad and obvious in handling the period and the themes, but that’s what pilots do: they start broad, then the series becomes narrow as it becomes less about the concept and more about the characters. I’m intrigued enough to stick around and see, anyway. What did everyone else think?