The racy new drama peeks in on suburban 70s swingers

CBS, June 5, 10 PM

With a question-mark charm hanging around his neck, and a foxy lady at his side, the man turns to the magazine vendor and asks: ”Would you mind if we took a look in your…private section?”

It’s a cool spring morning on a Van Nuys, Calif., studio lot. Hairdos are feathered. Pants are flared. Carter-Mondale volunteers are rocking the vote. (Before the cameras roll, an extra wonders about his potentially anachronistic plastic coffee-cup lid: ”Did they have that technology in the ’70s?”) On cue, Bruce and his companion Melinda comb through literary delights like Big & Bawdy and Panty Party. This X-rated mission is part of Puzzlerama, a scavenger hunt designed to mix and (mis)match spouses and reveal neighborhood secrets. Soon enough, the pair find what they were looking for: a small puzzle piece marked with a rainbow-colored question mark.

Caught up in the thrill of victory, the pair lock lips passionately. (This might be a good time to point out that Melinda is not Bruce’s wife.) Just then, another team — Tom (Bruce’s neighbor) and Janet (a prim confidante of Bruce’s wife) — arrive at the scene. Spotting his buddy in hot-and-heavy mode, Tom spins Janet away so she won’t witness the action and report back to Susan. Who is Susan and why would she care? She’s Bruce’s wife, and she’s currently across town fighting feelings for Roger (who happens to be Janet’s husband) as they hunt down their own set of question marks. Still with us?

Questions, questions everywhere, but none bigger than the one hanging in the air: Will America embrace Swingtown? A partner-sharing show whose pilot episode features its protagonists doing drugs and engaging in a foursome? A show that’s…on CBS? (Shhh! No one tell Andy Rooney.) But before you whip out a picket sign — or set a TiVo Season Pass starting June 5 at 10 p.m. — Swingtown’s residents have another little secret to share: This series isn’t about how many spouses they can cram into a bed. It’s an intricate serial whose characters grapple with issues of identity, fidelity, morality, and love. It’s also a nostalgic nod to summer 1976, a time when it was cool to be an American, when everything crackled with opportunity, when there was no AIDS. So sure, come for spouse swapping — stay for a daring multigenerational relationship drama! (Picture a foursome involving The Wonder Years, Boogie Nights, The Ice Storm, and Dazed and Confused.) ”There was just more optimism and fun and mischief in the mid-’70s,” says Swingtown creator-exec producer Mike Kelley of his desire to Hustle down memory lane. ”It kind of fell apart in the ’80s, but for a moment there everything seemed very bright and possible, so I wanted to capture that.”

The story revolves around pre-yuppies Bruce and Susan Miller (Jack Davenport and Molly Parker), who relocate to a well-manicured suburban neighborhood and quickly discover that the stylish couple across the street, Tom and Trina Decker (Grant Show, with mustache, and Lana Parrilla), loooove to share. When the Millers sample-swing at a groovy Decker party, Susan’s best friend from the old hood, Janet (Miriam Shor), registers her disapproval, while her husband Roger (Josh Hopkins) tries to contain his curiosity. Oh, there’s also a coked-up, negligeed neighbor with hubby issues of her own.

That’s a lot of risqué activity for the oldest-skewing broadcast network, but Kelley feels comfortable with his randy series’ home: ”We’re ready to live or die by our double-edged sex sword. I feel like we’ve found the right place for us, and I hope that audiences will come to the party — because we’re certainly throwing one.”

Do not walk into Kelley’s office expecting a replica of Plato’s Retreat. The biggest nods to the heady ’70s are shag carpeting and a beanbag chair. But you might want to check out that photo collage on the wall, teeming with images from his childhood in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka: His parents and their friends line-dance. Two couples snuggle on a couch. A woman puts shaving cream on Kelley’s dad and another shirtless man. ”My mom and her friends didn’t really have jobs, so they threw awesome parties, reupholstered couches, and did stained glass,” says Kelley, 40. ”Everything I witnessed was through the eyes of an 8-, 9-year-old kid. I would see a lot of this through the banisters. Once in a while you’d see one husband kissing another’s wife, but it didn’t feel dark. You can tell, there’s just a lot of joy and love here.”

In early 2006, Kelley — then a writer on The O.C., and later on Jericho — began brainstorming a series that captured that carefree spirit of adventure in suburban ’70s life, partially ripped from these scenes. (Puzzlerama? An actual scavenger hunt run by Kelley’s mother. The ’76 Cadillac that the Millers drive? Same one his dad drove. Even childhood friend Liz Phair will be scoring the show.) He shared his idea with old friend and future Swingtown exec producer-director Alan Poul (Six Feet Under); the duo brought the idea — and photo collage — to HBO. The network loved the pitch but already had its share of sex-centric relationship dramas (see: Big Love, Tell Me You Love Me). Kelley and Poul’s next stop was Showtime, but it was focused on developing other dramas at the time.

Finally, an unlikely suitor came a-knockin’. Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment — which, like Showtime and Swingtown‘s studio, CBS Paramount, is owned by the CBS Corporation — had read the pilot script and was smitten. (Fun fact: A second cousin of Tassler’s mother wrote the seminal 1970s book Open Marriage.) ”It was entertaining, funny, and honest,” Tassler recalls. ”I could not put it down. I called the next day and said we had to do it.” Kelley and Poul’s initial reaction to the news: Is it April Fools’ Day? The duo made a list of story elements they insisted on keeping — the graphic language and nudity obviously had to go — and met with Tassler. ”We said to Nina, ‘We still want the leading lady to take a quaalude and have sex with the neighbors. We still want the underage daughter to smoke pot and flirt with her teacher. We still want the crazy neighbor lady to snort coke. Can we do those things?”’ recalls Poul. ”And she said, ‘Yes, you can.’… Nina was unbelievably persuasive.”

After Kelley tweaked the script to make it broadcast-network-friendly (insert: commercial breaks; delete: F-bombs, boobs), he and Poul began assembling the cast, who had some interesting research to get started on. Once cast as Trina, Parrilla sought out actual swingers: ”I picked their brain a bit and observed how they communicated. There’s something in the eyes, and something in the touch. It’s almost like you’re prey.” Producers had trouble finding that special someone to play Susan and auditioned 100-plus women for the part. (Gretchen Mol was originally offered the part, but couldn’t shoot the pilot because she was pregnant.) In the end, they fell for Deadwood‘s Molly Parker, who was intrigued but needed a little convincing. ”The question was, Where do you go from here? Does this become a show about who are they swinging with this week?” recalls Parker. ”Mike explained that the swing is what’s happening culturally — and particularly for Susan, that’s just the beginning of her world opening up. The idea of playing somebody in self-discovery was really interesting.” If not critical. ”The success of the show was going to hinge on the moment Susan takes that quaalude,” explains Poul. ”If we judge her harshly, the show has failed. That’s why casting somebody emotionally transparent so you would channel her feelings at that moment was essential. Every moment you look at Molly, you know exactly what she’s thinking.”

The producers knew what everyone was thinking as they shot the Swingtown pilot in March 2007: This project was too hot for network TV. ”We spent the entire time waiting for the other shoe to drop,” admits Poul. ”Around town they’d say, ‘CBS is making the pilot to show they’re adventurous, but they’ll never put it on the air.’ We kept listening to those rumors — and kind of believing them.” Says Show: ”First time I saw [the pilot], at Mike’s house, I went, ‘Hey, dude, it’s really f—ing great. It ain’t never going on TV.”’

He was almost right. Although CBS picked up Swingtown last May — and added Jericho‘s Carol Barbee as a third exec producer — it opted to hold the drama until midseason ’08. Then, just days into production last fall, the WGA strike occurred, putting the fate of the show in question. Eventually its debut was delayed until June, even though the track record for network scripted series over the summer is as shaky as a disco dancer’s booty. Argues Tassler, ”You have a little more license to do things that are escapist and fun in the summer.” Truth is, the producers are tickled to hit the air, period. ”Nina went to the mat for us,” says Kelley. ”There’s a lot of fear out there, and she’s been able to swing the tide at CBS that I’m sure was against this.” Tassler demurs: ”I don’t know if it was such a struggle internally to get it made. I think there were people who saw that it was…just different for us.”

So what happens when the series finally hits the air? When it comes to a program of this experimental nature, the forecast usually calls for an 80 percent chance of fuss. (Conservative media watchdog L. Brent Bozell III has already fumed in the press that ”CBS looks to set new records in broadcast debauchery.”) Tassler, though, maintains that the series isn’t salacious. ”It’s taking some risks, but at the same time exploring issues of family and things that are eminently relatable to our audience,” she says. ”We’re certainly pushing the envelope, but in a very responsible way.” (Indeed, one sample of the network notes displayed on a bulletin board at Swingtown HQ reads: ”We trust that this orgy does not include any thrusting, bouncing, moans, groans, etc.”) Davenport hopes that the show’s significance doesn’t get lost in any outcry. ”It’s all very well being a 19-year-old kid, three hits of acid down in a field at Woodstock, but that’s not a revolution,” he says. ”A revolution is when suburbia starts reacting. It’s one thing when the hippies are doing it — it’s a whole different thing when your mom’s doing it.”

So what can we expect to see when the revolution is televised? Referencing a real-life cause célèbre, Trina will host a legal-defense fund-raiser for Deep Throat actor Harry Reems. Also, look for pot brownies and skinny-dipping, as the couples reexamine their marriages — for better and worse. ”It’s going to lead friends and neighbors toward each other,” hints Kelley. ”There will be casualties and victories, and hopefully you’ll be rooting for the right people to land together.” But as you sit down to watch, Shor has a piece of advice — albeit one that would give her buttoned-up character fits. ”Just keep an open mind,” she says. ”It’s okay. It happened a long time ago. You don’t have to worry about it now. Throw the keys in the bowl with your neighbors’, and see what happens.”