Fiction – particularly serial fiction – inherently trends toward the conservative. Fiction tends to be driven by people doing something interesting, and that interesting thing causes complications and consequences. Even if you set up a new TV show wanting to show the good side of the unusual aspect – of becoming a detective in your spare time, of having two dads, of your mother being a car – ultimately, the need for plots will come around to the situation being destructive.
So when serial drama television takes on a topic like the swinging lifestyle, which goes enough against traditional morality that it gets few visible vocal supporters. In fiction, or at least that which isn’t overdubbed with bad needle-drop jazz riffs, it’ll be shown as an ultimately destructive path for those who are desperate and empty (see The Ice Storm, Eyes Wide Shut). And when, as in the new series Swingtown, you throw it into a decade for which the talking points are “shallow, empty, and destructive,” it’s clearly inviting a specific portrait.
But playing just to the negative would be a mistake, making things purely predictable and depressing. Swingtown is at least smarter than that. The series is built around a confident if shallow swinging couple, who have a life and a relationship that seem to work for them. Two more couples are introduced into their world, one couple with a healthy relationship, one less so. The pilot is all set-up, but at least at the beginning, coming in range of the swinging couple seems to work out well for the already-healthy couple. The presumption is that this series will be about their slow destruction, but that’s just presuming from the general pattern of fiction.
If I seem to be responding more to what the series is than to how good it is, well, the pilot was largely set-up. They do a good job keeping some things separate (there are drugs involved in the swinging seen, but no one drug is shown as an inherent part of it), less so at other things (“open marriage” seems to be equated with “involved in big pile-on orgies”.) I can’t help but see this as the equivalent of a location of gay acceptance having been written by an outsider.
Besides, I couldn’t watch the pilot quite properly. Every once in a while, our ReplayTV has a real problem with a show; I don’t know if it’s a problematic signal coming in, or a bad space on the disc, but the image will stop, will break up, will go all digitally. And in this case, I was reminded of the old days of cable, trying to watch the shaky, un-synched discolored feed of the pay channel we didn’t subscribe to, hoping for that moment of coincidental clarity that would show the nudity I knew I was missing. (Of course, most of the time the image cleared, I’d discovered that I’d been strainging my eyes at something that turned out to be not the least salacious.)
The show does spend a lot of effort Setting Its Era. Lots of polyester, references to America’s bicentennial, a lingering shot of someone opening a can of tab by pulling the pull tab off. They don’t have anyone coming out and saying “boy, it’s good living in the era between the development of the pill and the discovery of AIDS”, and as a middle-age fogey, I wonder if they young’uns will appreciate that context.
As for appreciating the show… I’ll need another, less-scrambled sample to be sure.
(Just in case the tone of some of this item leaves anyone who doesn’t actually know me wondering: no, me and the missuz are not a couple of swingers. We’re much more boring than that.)