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April 25, 2009

'Swingtown'

ParkerBy Kevin P. Taft

When CBS decided to air a summer series about swinging couples in the mid-'70s, many in the television industry were nonplussed. What does a network that usually steers its programming toward the gray-haired set have in common with key parties? It was a risk for sure, until you remember that those older folk were actually in the age group that HAD key parties, so perhaps they’d tune in. That wasn’t necessarily the case, as evidenced by middling ratings and the small turnout at the PaleyFest’s closing-night celebration of the critically acclaimed series "Swingtown." With a core audience of rabid fans, the show struggled to find an audience until it was finally canceled late last year, much to the dismay of the creative team and the viewers who loved it. Said executive producer and director Alan Pool, “This reunion tonight is really very, very special in our hearts. It’s the most fun funeral ever. It’s the chance for us to celebrate something that was an incredibly rewarding and enriching experience in all of our lives.”

"Swingtown" revolved around a genial couple with two children who move to a new neighborhood and meet another couple who open their eyes to the world of “swinging,” or as some call it, “partner swapping.” But what seemed like a lascivious premise was anything but. The swinging was a character in itself and served as a catalyst into the lives of three couples and their families, and how in 1976 the world was going through a massive change, much like it is today. Pool explained, “The swing of 'Swingtown' isn’t just about the idea of ‘swinging’ but also about the swing of the cultural pendulum. And that '76 seemed to be a point where it had swung as far in one direction as it could in terms of people legitimizing their own search for personal liberation. And looking ahead to what was coming in 1980 and beyond we could see it was about to swing back in the other direction and that was one of the things that made this moment so unique and interesting and also have parallels to today.”

In addition to Pool, much of the main cast was present including Molly Parker (Susan Miller), Grant Show (Tom Decker), Lana Parilla (Trina Decker), Miriam Shor (Janet Thompson), Shanna Collins (Laurie Miller), as well as the series creator and head writer Mike Kelley.  Shor, who played uptight and proper Janet, said she had done research for her character by reading periodicals from the time period such as Ladies Home Journal. What she found surprised her. “I was sort of shocked at the lack of cynicism. There was something that happened in the '80s … There was just this shift and like a darkness and a cynicism that kind of infused the culture that I feel like wasn’t there in the magazines that I was reading.” She added that there was an article about how to relax in the bath that prominently featured a naked woman, and she was stunned at how that sort of ad would never be seen today. “You can’t see a naked woman that’s not sexualized in Cosmo right now.”

What became apparent was that despite 30-plus years having passed since the time the show is set, there is a conservative permutation that has stifled the freedom of expression in this country, even in a time when many feel like people in our culture express themselves too openly.

Collins, who played the teenage daughter Susan, also had an awakening in that her character was in a place of not only rebellion but openness and freedom. This afforded an interesting dynamic between her character and her character's mother, because in many ways the roles were reversed. “I was the one who was looking at my mother and saying, ‘How can you let dad treat you like this? How can you not stand up for yourself? How can you want to do something and not go do it?’ ”

To understand her role, she asked family members who came of age in the '70s how things were different then for teenagers. “[They] said that when they were growing up, if they wanted to go across country and wanted to go see a band, they would. If they wanted to go to a party and they met a boy and they liked the way that he looked, they would go and sleep with him. There weren’t the taboos. And I think it was interesting to be able to have the dichotomy … in this way the younger generation … was able to stand up and say, ‘Look at yourself,’ rather than having the adult say, ‘What are you doing?’ ”

The casting process was an interesting challenge. Pool said that actors would come in to read and brought their own baggage to it. “A lot of people read the script and thought that Mike (Kelley) had intended something more arch and more winky-wink about the '70s. And so they thought the Deckers were this predatory couple that was licking their chops and seeing images of roast chicken when they saw the Millers. It was never the intention.”

Originally conceived for a network such as HBO or Showtime, the spec script was written as much more explicit. When CBS stepped up, they were forced to tone it down. However, this afforded the ability to create a show with more depth and meaning than it might have first turned out to be. “In the end, toning it down without betraying any of the ideals of the show,” explained Pool, “made it a more challenging proposition in terms of having to be creative in our storytelling and more ground-breaking.”

This didn’t mean that some of the actor’s families weren’t unsure about what show their loved ones were a part of. Parilla said that her grandmother slapped her, and that one aunt “called me something in Spanish” and another didn’t continue to watch the series. Molly Parker was surprised. “I feel naïve, but I remember at the beginning thinking, ‘This is so tame. What could possibly upset people in this?’ ” Shor agreed. “I find it interesting that people have such a hard time watching consenting adults… “ Walking seductively out of the room to music?” joked Parker.

But Shor made a serious and pointed observation. “But [these people] have no problem with a lot of procedural shows that show an incredible amount of violence and sexual violence. And violence towards women.”

The fixation by some conservative groups regarding the swinging aspect of the show did cause the network to lose advertisers. “That’s why,” said Pool, “for those of you who watched the show in real time, suddenly it was that Peter Fonda Flower Power CD commercial that seemed to go on for seven minutes. That’s because [a major advertiser] was not buying time.” Shor leaned back and smiled. “It was a great album.”

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