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'Swingtown' recap: Sex and the suburbs

On the premiere episode, the upwardly mobile Millers meet their new neighbors the Deckers, who celebrate the Bicentennial by putting the shag in shag carpeting

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Grant Show, Molly Parker, ...

Swingtown

type:
TV Show
Current Status:
In Season
run date:
06/05/08
performer:
Grant Show, Jack Davenport, Molly Parker, Lana Parrilla
broadcaster:
CBS
genre:
Drama

‘Swingtown’ recap: Sex and the suburbs

It’s good, once you can get over the creepy sensation that you’re watching your parents having sex.

That was my first impression, at least, of Swingtown. No, my parents didn’t swing, as far as I know. (Note to Mom and Dad: If I’m wrong about that, please don’t ever tell me.) But that’s how they dressed in 1976, that’s how they wore their hair, those were the cars they drove, that’s the same fake wood paneling and shag carpeting that was in the basement — not just with my parents but with their friends too. And those were the songs we listened to on the radio. (Thankfully, however, the powers that be have avoided using the horrible obvious Steve Miller track as Swingtown‘s theme song.) To the costumers, set designers, and music coordinators of Swingtown, I say, “Right on!” (Yep, we talked pretty much like that in the ’70s too.)

There’s been a lot of talk about how much less explicit the dialogue and sexual content of the show is on CBS than it would have been on, say, Showtime. To which I say thank goodness. Because I really don’t want to see people who look like my folks talking dirty and gettin’ it on. I mean, there’s no mistaking what’s taking place, but I’m happy to let it be left to the imagination.

Of course, there are a lot of other issues in Swingtown besides what happened when the sexual revolution finally hit suburbia a decade late. Judging by the pilot episode, what this show is really about is class. The plot catalyst of the entire series is a suburban Chicago family’s move to a ritzier neighborhood just a few blocks and at least one tax bracket away. The Millers — businessman Bruce (Jack Davenport), homemaker Susan (Molly Parker), high-school-aged daughter Laurie (Shanna Collins), and young teenage son B.J. (Aaron Howles) — still live close enough to their old friends the Thompsons — Janet (Miriam Shor), Roger (Josh Hopkins), and their son (and B.J.’s only friend, apparently), Rick (Nick Benson) — to see them often, but it’s clear that Janet considers the Millers’ move a betrayal. And that’s before she meets the Millers’ new neighbors, the swingin’ Deckers.

Everything you need to know about Tom Decker (Grant Show) you can learn from his perfect ’70s-porn-star mustache. Self-confidence, sleaze, swagger, and swing — it’s all there above his upper lip. He’s a pilot, so he makes good money and has a steady supply of stewardesses to bring home for threesomes with wife Trina (Lana Parrilla). When the Millers move in across the street, the Deckers eye them like veal chops. Can they convert these squares to their cult of concupiscence? Trina says she likes a challenge, but as it turns out, the Millers don’t put up much of a fight.

NEXT: Sex and drugs and soft rock & roll

On the night before the July 4, 1976, Bicentennial celebration, the Deckers throw a pool party and invite the Millers. Bruce and Susan had blown off the Thompsons’ early-evening backyard barbecue, but when Janet and Roger show up at their friends’ new home that night bearing leftovers (and discover, to their dismay, that Bruce and Susan really do have other plans), the Millers drag the reluctant Thompsons over to Casa Decker. Janet is soon appalled by the debauchery (cocaine, a threesome she stumbles upon in a back room) and drags Roger out of there. She wants the Millers to leave, too, and she’s really stung when they decide to stay. Trina tells Susan that swinging is the best thing that’s happened to her and Tom’s marriage, that it’s the opposite of cheating because there’s no lying and sneaking around. Susan’s not sure, but once she agrees to try one of Trina’s Quaaludes, she’s Alice down the rabbit hole. Bruce is a little squeamish, but once he sees that Susan’s game, he joins her and Tom and Trina for some post-party fun. And…fade to black. (Mercifully.)

With any luck, this show will also focus on how social experimentation and class mobility are affecting the kids as well as the parents. The first episode is already off to an interesting start with the teens. Laurie has a boyfriend named Logan, with whom she’s already having sex, but she tells Susan not to worry, that she’s too smart to get knocked up in high school, as Susan did. (Susan’s reaction is priceless, a mix of pride, shame, umbrage, and relief.) In fact, Laurie really is smart — too smart to put up much longer with lunkhead Logan. (This is a girl who reads Kierkegaard in bed and is apparently taking a summer school philosophy class just for fun.) She seems ready to move on to someone more intellectual — like, say, her teacher. So far, her very mild flirtation with him isn’t going anywhere, but give it time. Meanwhile, she comes up with the most intriguing question I’ve heard any TV character ask in a long time when she asks Bruce to name the last book he read. (His response: Do the shark parts of Jaws count?) Really, when was the last time, aside from Oprah or Gilmore Girls, that you got the sense of people on TV actually reading books and having a life of the mind?

The unfortunately named B.J. is just discovering sex, mostly through Bruce’s stash of Penthouse issues, which B.J. discovered while packing for the move and then smuggled over to the Thompsons’ to share with Rick. (When Roger catches the boys with the magazines, he doesn’t punish them; he just tells Rick not to let his mother catch him with them because she’ll freak.) Real-life girls, however, are still a mystery to these boys. A girl Rick claims to have gone some of the way with beats the crap out of him for lying about her, with said beating witnessed by another girl and B.J. Normally, such a humiliating incident would be grounds for years of therapy, but since Rick’s folks are unlikely to spring for that, he’ll surely be acting out, in possibly self-destructive ways, in episodes to come. Meanwhile, a shirtless B.J. discovers an actual girl — pretty, furtive new neighbor Samantha (Britt Robertson) — hiding in his bedroom, and she almost beats him as well over a ring she left behind when she was casing the house before the Millers moved in. She tells him that the ring belonged to her dad, and that she keeps it to remind herself never to get married. She seems to be running away from home, but why? Her absent dad and her slatternly, inattentive, coke-loving mom are apparently meant to represent the bleaker consequences of the swinging lifestyle, but let’s hope there’s more to the mystery than something that simple and reductive.

NEXT: After the party

At least the adults’ lives don’t seem overly simple, thanks to some subtle acting by the women. (The men aren’t there yet — so far, Davenport’s Bruce is kind of a clown, Hopkins’ Roger is fairly passive, and Show is letting his mustache do all the work.) Particularly good is Shor, in Swingtown‘s most thankless role. Poor, uptight Janet, scrubbing the oven so furiously late at night after the Deckers’ party; she seems to have wandered in from Wisteria Lane, but all that sublimation in her kitchen is going to have to find another outlet pretty soon. If Trina wants a real challenge, there it is. Speaking of Trina, I like the hint of unease in Lana Parrilla’s voice even when she’s touting the virtues of open marriage to Susan. I think she’s still trying to sell herself on the concept. She was less than thrilled when Tom brought home a much younger stewardess, and she made him promise to find playmates more their own age. (Enter Bruce and Susan.) Tom seemed fine with that, but I smell trouble ahead as he tests the boundaries of how open their marriage really is. And finally, there’s the translucent Parker as Susan, a woman incapable of hiding her emotions well. Loved that final shot of the episode, where a postcoital Susan has that anxious “What have we gotten ourselves into?” look on her face.

What do you think? Will the Deckers be able to lure the Thompsons over to the dark side of the Force? Which will drive a bigger wedge between the Millers and the Thompsons: money or sex? Are prim Janet and laid-back Roger headed for a split? What’s going to happen with the kids, and will the parents be too oblivious to notice? Finally, will you keep watching Swingtown, and would you like to read recaps of the show every Friday morning here at TV Watch?