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Wife Swap, the Early Years

It’s 1976, and CBS’ Swingtown is stoned on Thorazine.

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Illustration by Gluekit  

Of course, you are too young to remember the seventies, so let me explain. After the cruel disappointments of the tambourine-and-tantrum sixties—the death of utopian fantasies about social justice, racial harmony, peaceable kingdoms, and multiple orgasms—America sought instead its inner hound dog. Some, like Elvis, found it in pharmaceuticals. Others boogied till they puked, under the glitter domes of disco. Many more soaked sore feet in the hot tubs of Esalen and est, hypnotism and health foods, acupuncture and biofeedback, tantric yoga and t’ai chi. Although assassination wasn’t nearly as popular as it had been during the previous decade, still an amazing number of people died in spite of being famous—Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, Igor Stravinsky and Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson and Maria Callas, Pablo Picasso and Francisco Franco. And then there was swinging, an erotics of suburban wife-swap first described in John Updike’s lascivious Couples (1968) and then later deplored in Rick Moody’s lugubrious The Ice Storm (1994).

Swinging! Why CBS, of all the geriatric networks, should have thought we needed another look at such programmatic hanky-panky, not to mention the ridiculous clothes they had to take off to do it, remains mysterious. One would have imagined that the subject had been exhausted, if not by Moody’s novel, in which an acquaintance with Masters and Johnson, Milton Friedman, Erich Fromm, Eldridge Cleaver, and I’m Okay, You’re Okay rubbed up Watergate as a metaphor for existential terror, then certainly by Ang Lee’s 1997 movie adaptation, in which Christina Ricci and Elijah Wood played Franny and Zooey at Plato’s Retreat while reading superhero comic books. For that matter, who needs the lakefront Chicago suburbs of Swingtown when we’ve already got gated communities, restrictive covenants, armed response, and Mary-Louise Parker lost in the premium-cable Weeds?

But CBS is obviously hoping its hoary demographic will be nostalgic for power ballads, pet rocks, test-tube babies, WIN buttons, and swine-flu-vaccine booster shots. So we follow comely Susan (Molly Parker) and handsome Bruce (Jack Davenport) as they abandon such safe, straight neighbors as hysterical Janet (Miriam Shor) and sincere Roger (Josh Hopkins) for a well-heeled, hipper part of town, where there always seems to be a party going on in the busy home of slinky Trina (Lana Parrilla) and hydraulic Tom (Grant Show). Never mind the funny-smelling cigarettes, the dog-eared copies of Penthouse, the blonde cokehead with the tinfoil fetish, and the “playroom” in the basement. What we are really talking about, as one swinger tells another, “is a whole other level of intimacy.” And none of this probably would have happened if Bruce had a clue about foreplay.

Since Swingtown isn’t even peekaboo, much less dirty, I wish I could say that it’s played for laughs. But I don’t know what it’s played for. Most of the time, it seems as sincere as Roger. And all of the time these people are, well, gaping at each other. By which I mean they wear rapt looks, as if they were Easter Island monoliths, or stoned on Thorazine. This is especially true of Parker’s Susan. She was a delight in Deadwood. Here, with her fine red hair and freckle scatter, she seems stuck in reaction shots. You want to drag her out on the lawn and remind her that the seventies also consisted of Stephen Sondheim, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Gloria Steinem, and Shaft; of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Billie Jean King, and Robert Altman’s Nashville; of not just Roots but also Jaws. But she is full of dopey wonderment, as if sex were a cult.

Swingtown
CBS. Thursdays at 10 p.m.


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