Latest posts by Erin Miskell (see all)
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- The Guys With The Guns: Earthworm Jim’s groovy connections to The Evil Dead - 25th April 2017
This past week, I was sitting in a bar with a group of friends I hadn’t seen in a long time. As multiple members were flirting, one turned to me and said, “I can’t believe this whole thing where people are hooking up. Some of them are married.” And then I dropped the bomb: “Dude, you know I have an open marriage, right?” Complete shock, followed, more importantly, by an honest attempt at understanding and acceptance. I have to give him credit: I blew his mind, and his first instinct was curiosity and education. So why am I telling you this? Well, a few years ago, I wouldn’t have readily given up that information; the stigma was too great. Now, it’s becoming more acceptable and not a huge deal. It’s really been a shift in the past few years to where being open isn’t the vast social crime it once was. Even as late as 2008, it was still something people weren’t willing to talk about. Which is about 80% of why the television show Swingtown only lasted one season.
Swingtown began airing in the summer of 2008 on CBS in the U.S. and centered around three different families in 1976. The Millers – Bruce (Jack Davenport), Susan (Molly Parker), Laurie (Shanna Collins), and Bruce Jr. (Aaron Howles) – are able to move into a nicer neighborhood after Bruce gets a promotion. They leave behind lifelong friends and neighbors Roger (Josh Hopkins), Janet (Miriam Shor) and Ricky Thompson (Nick Benson), who live in a neighborhood that is decidedly more upper-middle-class by comparison. While they try to maintain their friendships, Bruce and Susan are drawn to their glamorous new neighbors, pilot Tom (Grant Show) and his wife Trina (Lana Parrilla) Decker. The catch? The Deckers are swingers, and soon induct Bruce and Susan into their world of spouse swapping and partying. As time goes on, all couples begin facing issues of all sorts, ranging from changing gender roles to employment to emotional intimacy to the realities of sharing your partner physically with someone else. In between, there’s incredible fashion and one hell of a soundtrack, with everything from Redbone to David Bowie to The Steve Miller Band and beyond. For heaven’s sake, Liz Phair was one of the composers. It had so much going for it in terms of asthetics.
In terms of writing, this is some of the better stuff you’ll see out there. The characters are fleshed out in a way that makes them human and plausible. As a result, you see them as people as opposed to the roles of good guys and bad guys. Bruce is thrilled to be a financial success, but he struggles with connecting to his wife sometimes, whom he married shortly after impregnating her in high school. As such, Susan is a good wife that struggles at times to really be free, as she’s still in her mid-thirties at best. In fact, socioeconomics plays a huge role in this show: Roger and Janet are hit with hard times and must accept that they have to begin a new chapter with Janet functioning as breadwinner, which was a huge deal back in the 1970s. Then throw in Tom and Trina, a couple that is honest and free, yet terribly loving and non-judgemental, admitting jealousy when it comes up and trying to function as willing ears for people they genuinely see as friends. True, there are some cliched points (did Laurie really need to pursue her hot teacher?), but the good far outweighs everything else in the storytelling department.
In fact, it’s the attention to detail – including the performances – that really makes this show shine. I mentioned briefly earlier that this show has an amazing soundtrack. However, that’s not the only place where it goes for authenticity; after all, any yahoo with a vast collection could throw together this playlist. Nope, there’s a ton of detail in the hair and wardrobe department too, from feathered hair to high-waist jeans to polyester suits. If you can get past some of the goofy fashion, you’ll find that there’s an immense eye for detail, with nary a chest hair out of place. It’s impressive if you step back and take a look at it. Then there’s the matter of the highly skilled cast. Davenport is always a delight to me, whom I remember from Coupling more than anything else; watching him play a guy who’s a bit of a clueless ass was a welcome departure. Parker, who brings a sadness to Susan, went on to do Deadwood and Dexter, which is nothing to sniff at. Show’s Tom is so damn likable that you’re going to want to jump in the sack with him. And Parrilla? She’s enjoying her fifth year on Once Upon a Time, in a role that’s just as enjoyable as her time as the reassuring den mother of 70s swingers. This cast gets you to like the characters, which is more than half the battle with any show. After all, you can’t really get in bed with something if you hate everyone involved. You have to have something to latch onto as an audience.
So if it was so good, why didn’t it last for more than 13 episodes? Simple: Swingtown was way ahead of its time, and tried its best to give us a show as opposed to a shocking concept. Had this show aired on HBO in 2014, it would have picked up multiple Emmy awards. People would be having a greater social dialogue about the changing dynamic of the American family because, let’s face it, it’s becoming apparent that this is more normal than most people realize. When you start getting letters in Dear Prudence about how to make your sister’s boyfriend and husband both feel welcome at Thanksgiving, you know that there’s been a shift. In treating a new situation with respect – including making characters that were actual people and allowing us to get attached to them – it gave a face to something new that some still find unfamiliar. And like most shifts, there’s always pushback, especially when the status quo isn’t ready for that change just yet. Groups like the American Family Association and Parents Television Council had a fit when they heard that there was a chance that any three-year-old kid staying up past 9 PM may possibly watch a show about swingers and get turned on to the lifestyle. As a result of the pressure, some of the advertisers – I’m looking at you, Proctor and Gamble – pulled their advertising. Still, people tuned in to watch… only to discover that it wasn’t a one-hour orgy. That’s right, this show had more going on upstairs; it wasn’t content to be a mere hookup. This show wanted to date you, so it gave you a good storyline and an honest look into that world. For those that wanted the shock value, they walked away disappointed. This led to declining ratings and an early grave.
I’d love to see this one get resurrected on a premium channel. However, its time has come and gone – the cast has now moved on to bigger and better things, and I doubt that a remake could recapture what it had. Sometimes, you have to accept that something is dead. As much as it pains me, this one is in the graveyard. It was too awesome to live. To me, it will always be that trail blazer that wasn’t afraid to go there, with honesty and heart. So let’s pour one out for Swingtown.