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June 5, 2008 |

By Seth Freilich | TV | June 5, 2008 |

“Swingtown” is the last remnant of CBS’ great experiment. A little more than one year ago, the Eye unveiled a 2007 fall schedule which was, of course, chock full of the usual fare that’s become the network’s bread and butter — the “CSI” trilogy and all the procedurals (“NCIS,” “Cold Case,” etc.). But nestled in between all those shows were a few freshmen that were a bit off the network’s beaten path. “Cane,” where the Latino sugar-plantation met “Dynasty,” wasn’t an enormous leap, perhaps, but “Moonlight” and its vampire detective sure was. Not to mention the dis-ass-terous experiment that was the singing casino folk of “Viva Laughlin.” And of course, we now know this was a capital-F failed experiment, as all three shows went off to Cancledtown (shit, “Viva Laughlin” didn’t even make it to Episode Two). Take that success rate of the network’s experiment and add in the fact that “Swingtown” is premiering in the summer — which serves the cable channels well, but hasn’t really been a launching point for the non-Fox networks, excepting reality shows — and it’s safe to say that folks probably have some low expectations.

Which is probably a good thing for a show set in 1976 about a suburban town where the neighbors like to swap sex partners and orgy it up. First things first, if you’re unsure that the show is set in 1976, don’t worry — you’ll be reminded a-plenty. It’s one thing to throw up some dates on screen, and it’s of course wholly appropriate to have the 70’s clothes, hair and costume/stage design. That all gets the job done. But it’s another thing to feel the need to inundate the viewer not just with an orgy of era-appropriate music, but with obvious winks like a can of Tab, an 8-track or a clip from the 70’s edition of “$20,000 Pyramid” (or whatever amount the Pyramid was going for in those days). One hopes that the “hey look, we’re in the 70’s!!!” syndrome will go into remission, because if the rest is done well, you simply don’t need to constantly remind the viewer what era they’re watching.

In fact, you only need look no further than the hair on Jack Davenport’s head or the sweet porn ‘stach on Grant Show’s upper lip to be dead-certain that it’s 1976. Davenport and Show, who are two names I would never think of putting together, play the male leads. Show’s Tom Decker and his wife Trina (Lana Parrilla, who you might remember as the paramedic from the wonderful, but short-lived, “Boomtown”) are residents of Swingtown (if the little suburb has an actual name, I didn’t manage to catch it). They introduce newly arrived Bruce Miller (Davenport) and wife Susan (“Deadwood’s” Molly Parker) to their swinging 70’s way, and the Millers readily jump into the, uhm, swing of things. At first, I was tempted to grumble about how quickly the Millers where willing to go down that road, but on second thought, I was willing to let it go because it’s probably a smart narrative decision — watching them see-saw and hem-haw on the idea for several weeks would have gotten old and, this way, the show will be able to quickly turn to the impact of a swinging lifestyle on the couple (besides, there’s another character who seems to have all the Judgmental negativity about swinging orgies that one needs).

And that’s what the show purports it will be doing, focusing on the Millers (as well as the Deckers and one other couple) and how they handle grown-up issues of identity, love, marriage, etc., with the swinging and the drugs and the orgies simply being a facilitator and catalyst. It’s hard to judge whether the show will be able to succeed with this task from just watching the pilot, but I certainly have my doubts. For example, check out this mother-daughter discussion from about halfway through the episode:

Mom: He’s an older boy.
Daughter: Times have changed mom. Women can decide if and when they want to have sex with someone.
Mom: …So are you? Having sex?
Daughter: You say that it’s the worst thing a person could do.
Mom: That’s not an answer.
Daughter: Look, I get that I’m the same age that you were when dad knocked you up, but you don’t need to worry, cause I’m smarter than that.
Mom: I know you are. *plays with daughter’s hair* I just, I want you kids to have happy, healthy lives. Keeps me up at night.
Daughter: You know, there are better things to do at night.

It’s a bit crude, and if this is what’s going to pass for the characters really getting into the meat of things, well, the show really would’ve been better off on HBO or Showtime (both of which passed) so that there would at least be some “fucks” and tits to distract us.

And speaking of the daughter, there’s a bunch of shit going on with the kids on this show and it’s all kind of, well, shit. For example, said daughter is dating this older meathead type but, get this, she’s also awkwardly crushing on her summer school English teacher. It’s as interesting as it sounds. But at least the actress playing the daughter (I’m writing this on a plane so I can’t IMDB her for you) is decent enough. I’m not sure the same can be said for the other kids, although it’s hard to tell given how bizarre and out of place their scenes felt. For example, there’s the scene where a thirteen-ish boy gets his ass whomped by a chick for telling his “faggot little friends” that he was “doing it” with her. And then there’s the angsty neighbor girl who rebels against her cokehead mom by breaking into homes and then freaking out on the neighbor boy when she leaves something in his room during one of her break-in stints. And she’s maybe running away too. I dunno — I imagine that all these scenes with the kids are intended to set up coming-of-age stories, but they just seemed to carry a different tone than the rest of the show and wound up feeling out of place.

As for the adults, it’s a mixed bag there too. Lana Parrilla and Grant Show are actually great as the swinging Deckers, and the scenes with both of them were quite fun to watch. I’m not sure I’ve seen Show in something since his “Melrose” days, so he’s actually a bit of a surprise here. Jack Davenport and Molly Parker are surprises too — but while Show was a happy surprise, the Davenport and Parker surprises are more because they’re slight disappointments. Neither is terrible, mind you. But while I know Davenport can play an excellent straight-and-sober man (he was tits on “Coupling”), there’s something just off about his performance here. I think it’s tied into him working on his American accent, although it may be something more than that. Parker, meanwhile, was mostly great on “Deadwood” but, here, she seems to be lacking something (except for the scene when she pops a quaalude, as she’s able to slide into the loopy doped-up mode she perfected in “Deadwood”) — her performance just felt kind of light, which I suspect is tied into her attempts to portray her character as bored and stuck in her ways. As she presumably blossoms (for better or worse), I imagine Parker will be able to take over the character a bit more. As I mentioned above, there’s also a third couple involved in the show, the Millers’ friends from the old neighborhood (and parents to the kid who got the “doing it” beat down). Again, actor names are out of reach since I’m in-flight, but the Mrs. was perfectly fine at playing shocked-and-aghast at the orgiastic goings-on at the Decker household. And the Mr., one of “those guy” actors, was equally fine as the guy quietly intrigued by the orgiastic goings-on at the Decker household, particularly as he’s clearly got a thing for Parker’s character.

Overall, I realize this is a mostly negative review, but the show isn’t without some potential. As mentioned, Parrilla and Show are quite entertaining. And if “Swingtown” can avoid being overhanded in reminding us that it’s a 70’s show and, instead, hit some of its intentions of exploring the three couples, it might actually be an entertaining enough show. Since the odds are way against this show getting a renewal, let alone even seeing all 13 episodes hit the air in this summer burn-off, don’t feel obligated to watch. But if you’re looking for a new diversion, this may be able to tide you over for a little while.

(“Swingtown” runs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on CBS, premiering tonight.)

Seth Freilich is Pajiba’s television editor. Although he barely remembers anything of the 70’s (thankfully), the bright orange shag carpet of his childhood bedroom still haunts his memories.

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Seth is a Senior Editor and sometime critic. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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