Like Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, Will Ferrell’s Semi-Pro, and the first season of That ‘70s Show, Swingtown (Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET), the CBS drama about middle-aged men and the Tab-sipping wives they swap, is set in 1976. Judging by the pilot, the new show easily beats its forerunners in matters of time-capsulizing: The costumers unearth the hot shorts and the cool pants; the cinematographers catch that Super-8 home-movie haze with affection; the lawyers got clearances for all the most tedious disco hits squared away.
The verisimilitude is necessary—or the nostalgia-mongering is, at least—as Swingtown is also one of those historical fictions that’s about the present. The chief swingers are Tom, a commercial airline pilot with no personal thrust reverser, and his wife, Trina, the same Quaalude-gobbling minx he met when she was a stewardess. They live in Surburbia, which here goes by the name Chicago. Tom and Trina represent the youth of today with their tight jeans, loose morals, and Charlotte Simmons debauchery. They’re the kids who make you worry about their physical and emotional health and also about the fact that they go to much better parties than you ever will.
New to the couple’s block are Bruce and Susan, former high-school sweethearts. The actor playing Bruce (Jack Davenport) indeed takes his face through the full range of Will Ferrell contortions, suggesting maybe that he’s made a bold choice to play farce and that he furthered his research into the period with close study of Ron Burgundy. Either way, it’s Me Decade burlesque, and his Me is You: Bruce and Susan are the naifs, the wallflowers at the orgy. Their old pals Roger and Janet are the squares, and they’re Us, too—surrogates for our confusion in the face of changing sexual values and for our titillation as well.
The titillation is mostly conceptual, of course. Though Swingtown does hustle to look racy—an early shot involves Tom’s lap, his cockpit, and a faceless woman with a blond up-do—it offers nothing that you haven’t seen in prime time before. The Bachelor delivers more skin and innuendo; Three’s Company was more arousing. The relative tameness of Swingtown makes the unease it provokes more inviting: You tune in to see the bodies and stick around for the minds.
Those minds are thinking the same thing, to various degrees, with Tom all appetite, Susan half-philosophical, and Janet such a goody-two-shoes that there must be something strange going on up there—which is why I’ll be back next week. They seem to be thinking—to rework Winston Churchill’s line—that monogamy is the worst form of sexual relationship except all the others that have been tried. The outsize hype accorded polygamists everywhere from HBO to the Texas compound feeds not just on animal lust or emotional curiosity. The panics about apocryphal “lipstick parties” and whatever else kids these days are supposedly up to are not just about moral indignation and, its impish sibling, voyeuristic pleasure. The big lovers and the alleged blow job queens present questions about desire and how to reconcile its demands with those of stability. Swingtown, being as cheesy as a shag rug, does not offer any answers, but it must signify something that its original music is by Liz Phair, of Winnetka, Ill., whose 1993 masterpiece, Exile in Guyville, turned on a song titled “Fuck and Run.”