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A Second Look At: Swingtown

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Swingtown’s plot gets, er, twistier. / Eric McCandless/CBS

When CBS’s Swingtown started a few weeks ago, it was one of a handful of summer debuts I was actually looking forward to. Three weeks into its run, I think it’s a very good show. It’s also a bad show. And I’m not sure which side of the show will get the upper hand.

As was widely reported, the drama—in the pilot of which the married protagonists hook up with their neighbors at a swingers’ party—was originally pitched to pay cable, and it was natural to wonder if it would have been better off there. But the danger in taking this show to a broadcast network was not just about how much sex it could show—it was about subtlety. Would this end up being a nuanced picture of how people’s relationships develop at a time of social change, or would it be a heavy-handed nostalgia show, pushing “Hey, remember that” buttons endlessly? Would it be a believable character drama or a caricatured morality play?

So far, it’s both, on all counts.

The credits sequence it debuted in its first episode after the pilot was a sign of trouble, with quick flashes of every imaginable mid-’70s touchstone from disco balls to Carter buttons to Farrah Fawcett posters. The look and art direction of the show, on the other hand, shows more thought: the sets look like the Midwest in 1976, which is to say, there are elements of the last decade or so before 1976 all through it. You see this too in the excellent sets for Freaks and Geeks, which I’ve been re-watching, and I remember that the key to that show’s period sensibility lay in something Paul Feig told me when I did a feature on the show: “We have to remember that the early ’80s in Michigan were basically the 1970s.” (Having lived in small-town Michigan at the time, I can vouch for that.)

Likewise, on the level of the characters’ stories, the show swings from the subtle and surprising to the obvious and awful. The battle for Susan’s soul between Trina and Janet is at times unwatchable, with her new and old friend reduced to a devil and an angel on either shoulder—Trina the conniving slut and Janet the judgmental nun. When the Parkers are by themselves, however, their issues make sense. The changes they’re going through aren’t just about sex, though their uneasiness about swinging represents and brings them out. It’s also about the fact that their lives are changing—they suddenly have much more money, their kids are getting older—and after a surprise pregnancy and an early marriage, they’re in the terrifying, but also exciting, position of finding out who they are. (One of the things I like best—and am most surprised to see on a network show—is that their swinging is not treated as a horrible mistake nor are its emotional implications written off.)

The camp elements are not all bad. I love how all-in Grant Show is with his lascivious character—he could read the phone book dirty. But if the show decides that it’s mainly about campy, soapy nostalgia, it will look as dated as a lava lamp, and fast. And if the supporting characters aren’t allowed to develop believably—well, there are only so many ways you can have Trina and Janet invited to the same awkward party involving an uncomfortably suggestive game. The previews for this week’s episode show the three couples on a weekend getaway. There is Twister involved. I’m nervous.

The kids’ stories, meanwhile, are really well-handled, and I wish we saw more of them. The sweet, yet mildly creepy, relationship between B.J. and the neighbor girl is one of the most cable-ish elements of the show, reminding me of something from Big Love or Six Feet Under; on the other hand (again), I don’t like the predictable route that Laurie’s attraction to her teacher is taking.

But as long as we’re making the comparison, Big Love and Six Feet Under are/were both shows that could also swing—as it were—between being predictably soapy and surprisingly complex, and that itself is enough to keep me with Swingtown for the summer. Is anyone else still watching?