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‘Swingtown’ isn’t just ‘That ’70s Partner-Swap’

"Swingtown"is less"That '70s Partner-Swapping Show," and more like "thirtysomething" in an earlier era. It's an entertaining drama populated by likable, relatable people sharing modern life experiences, few of which require taking off their clothes.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Relax, everybody. Despite its racy come-on, the new CBS drama "Swingtown" isn't pushing recreational drugs and mate swapping, any more than it endorses smoking on airplanes or drinking Harvey Wallbangers, which are also part of the 1970s world it inhabits.

Granted, one of the show's three married couples are swingers, a sexy husband and wife always looking for attractive new playmates.

"Opening up our relationship was the best thing that ever happened to me and Tom," Trina tells Susan, who, with husband Bruce and their two kids, has just moved across the street in this upscale Chicago suburb.

It's July 1976 — the nation's much-awaited bicentennial — and the party Tom and Trina are throwing is heating up.

In their open marriage they have reached "this whole other level of intimacy," Trina explains, washing down a pill with a sip of champagne, then offering one to Susan. "Quaalude? It will take the edge off."

You can probably guess where this is headed, even as you wonder how the heck "Swingtown" landed on CBS and not, say, HBO.

Simple. "Swingtown" (which premieres Thursday at 10 p.m. EDT) turns out not to be "That '70s Partner-Swapping Show." Instead, it's much more like "thirtysomething" in an earlier era. Call it "nineteen-seventies-something." It's an entertaining drama populated by likable, relatable people sharing modern life experiences, few of which require taking off their clothes.

Tom (played by Grant Show, one-time hunk on "Melrose Place") is a dashing airline pilot whose wife (Lana Parrilla), a former stewardess, is among the many stewardesses he's been with. But she's the only one he loves — and the only one to whom he brings other stewardesses for the occasional menage a trois.

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Susan (played by Molly Parker, who on HBO's "Deadwood" was the upright young widow Alma Garret) is married to Bruce (Jack Davenport), a commodities trader on the rise. With his latest promotion, he has moved the family to a bigger house in a fancier area.

Susan is a full-time mom to two teenagers, one of whom, overbright daughter Laurie, often says more than she should — as when Susan gently asks if she is sleeping with her boyfriend.

"I get that I'm the same age that you were, when Dad knocked you up," Laurie answers. "But you don't need to worry, cause I'm smarter than that."

"I know," smiles Susan, no more wounded than pleased by her daughter's reply.

As with a lot of what she deals with, Susan has mixed feelings about her family's upgraded status. She feels like she's betraying her best friend, Janet, whom she left behind in her old, squarely middle-class neighborhood.

"To be honest, change is good," Susan rationalizes. "I feel like I'm ready for the next thing."

But all Janet can see is more of the same thing as wife of milquetoast Roger (Josh Hopkins) and mother of a teenage son who wants his own distance.

"Why is it, no matter how hard I try," says Janet bitterly, "everything seems to be falling apart around me?"

Played with tragicomic flair by Miriam Shor, she's a desperate housewife with a martyr complex.

What will be the impact of the '70s on Janet and the other characters?

"Swingtown" joins them there in the so-called Me Decade. It's the gap between the Vietnam War's end and President Nixon's resignation, and, at the other side, revolutions sparked by Reaganism and the personal computer. It's a time for saying goodbye to the '60s with relief, while trying to keep the experiment going. When people still believe they can have it both ways.

Open marriage?

"It's not cheating," Trina maintains. "It's the opposite, actually."

Of course, other ideas that seemed right at the time include soda cans with pull-off tabs that littered the landscape. A beyond-tacky style sense that makes us cringe today. Scratchy-sounding eight-track tapes of terrible music.

"Swingtown" makes use of all these cultural cues, not for derision, but with pleasure and affection.

Period music, by the way, is heard almost nonstop, telegraphing each twist in the narrative: "Spirit in the Sky" from one-hit wonder Norman Greenbaum introduces Tom, the pilot; David Bowie's "Golden Years" accompanies the kids in high school.

And in the party scene where Trina and Tom begin to get cozy with Susan and Bruce — all still fully clothed, just touching hands — the tune is a cheesy yet ear-caressing classic: Gary Wright's "Dream Weaver."

It sets the mood for this foursome to go further. Then the scene fades out.

What you see on "Swingtown" isn't risque behavior but the issues underlying the choices made, along with their consequences. Assuming you weren't there for real, "Swingtown" opens you up so you might ask yourself: What would I have done?

That's always a good question for drama to inspire.