Thursday, June 12, 2008

'Swingtown' and the Challenges of the 1970s

When Dick Cheney called the home stretch of the 1976 presidential campaign "the ten-day orgasm," he might have been referring to the new CBS-TV prime-time soap opera, Swingtown.

He wasn't, of course. Swingtown was 32 years in the future, and few people in October 1976 would have thought that a 21st-century TV drama about wife-swapping would turn out to be a weekly nostalgia trip for the leisure-suit generation.

For those who have not yet seen it, Swingtown may be the raciest show on broadcast television these days -- or ever. (I will admit that I seldom see nighttime soaps -- or even so-called "daytime drama" -- so my ability to judge the relative raciness ratio is limited.)

I expect this show will become a sort of guilty pleasure -- not just for me but for many others who came of age in the 1970s. Yet I hardly expected to like the show; from the promotions CBS ran in advance of the premiere on June 5, I thought I would find it too laughable to be watchable. I was wrong.

The test will be whether, unlike other TV shows that purport to be representative of a particular block of time, Swingtown remains true to its premise.

Both Happy Days and That '70s Show began as focused nostalgia exercises that promised to portray a specific time and place -- Happy Days in 1950s Milwaukee and That '70s Show in a fictional (coincidentally) Wisconsin town two decades later. In both cases, however, the producers lost sight of this sense of setting and devolved into typical sitcoms that could have been set at any time, in any place.

During its first season, Happy Days was meticulous about its setting. Shot with a single camera without a live audience, it had a dramatic feel of verisimilitude without losing its essential humor, which derived from its '50s-era situations. We knew we were in Milwaukee, for instance, because Earl Gillespie could be heard announcing the play-by-play of a Braves baseball game on the radio. Howard and Marion dealt with issues like racial prejudice in a sensitive yet realistic manner.

Yet even before Happy Days jumped the shark -- not the first TV show to do so, but the first to put a name to the phenomenon -- it began to be just another teen-oriented comedy, with less emphasis on the adults and on parent-child relationships and more on the outlandish antics of Richie, Ralph, and Potsie, who relied on Fonzie to rescue them from their predicaments. Any observable sense that this was the 1950s was lost by the third season.

So, too, with That '70s Show, whose first season was steeped in Seventies cultural and topical references. While music and costumes remained true to the premise throughout the show's run, by the third season it became detached from whatever grounding in the cultural milieu of the decade. It even trafficked in anachronisms: In one episode in which the kids visit Marquette University, the college walls are covered with banners for the "Golden Eagles," when everyone knows that the MU teams in the 1970s were named, in glorious political incorrectness, the Marquette Warriors.

Swingtown, therefore, has a challenge before it, which may be easier to meet because it is a drama rather than a comedy (although it has its comedic moments). One signal of its seriousness of purpose may be found in its costume room: A promotional video at the CBS web site says that the show has a collection of 10,000 pieces of period clothing (not counting accessories) ready to be used. (Some of those costumes look like they're straight out of this 1977 J.C. Penney catalog.)

Another challenge the producers face is that, despite the economic dislocation caused by a sudden spike in oil prices, the distrust of government caused by Watergate, and a general sense of malaise, the 1970s were -- in contrast with, say the 1960s -- dull.

Yanek Mieczkowski writes in his book, Gerald Ford and the Challenges of the 1970s:

With the nation's cities and campuses at peace, the political turmoil of the past decade was easy to forget. In an essay simply entitled "Sigh!" columnist Russell Baker wrote, "The nineteen-seventies are boring. The decade is already half over and its chief legacy is an engulfing swamp of boredom." Baker noted that "President Ford is boring, which is his chief political strength." But Baker added, "In the nineteen-sixties, of course, Americans hungered for boredom. A sleepy Government, some peace in the streets.... In all that turbulence, it seemed an unattainable dream of paradise. Now we may have it, and may even be enjoying it."
That is the climate from which Swingtown emerges. Its first episode is set during the weekend of July 2-4, 1976, and has all of the hallmarks of reaction to ennui: beer and bratwurst, Penthouse and pot, unabashed cocaine use, skinnydipping in Lake Michigan, and wife swapping.

Apropos of that holiday weekend, Mieczkowski continues:

The serenity, which was a welcome relief, was evident again the following summer during celebrations commemorating the nation's bicentennial. Douglas Bennett recalled that in 1976, while campaigning for Ford, he reminded audiences that less than two years earlier Americans "were angry ... we trusted nobody, and in the course of two years this president has restored a confidence. And this past Fourth of July was the bicentennial, hundreds and hundreds of people gathered at places around this nation, without incident -- and I think that is a direct tribute to the leadership of President Ford and the restoration of confidence, tranquility, and trust in our nation." Ford himself spoke of "a new spirit" in America that he observed during bicentennial celebrations.
That "new spirit" certainly manifests itself in Swingtown, but undoubtedly with details that would have made President Ford -- though maybe not his First Lady -- blush. In many ways, the "retrograde" Swingtown may be an antidote to two decades of puritanism that has predominated in American culture. Swingtown, perhaps, is a backlash against the backlash.

Put another way, Swingtown may be representing (in a carnal and vivid fashion) what Ford expressed during the Bicentennial celebrations and the political campaign that year. Mieczkowski again:
During the nation's bicentennial year, Ford often urged consecrating America's next hundred years to the individual, shifting focus away from government: "Now we are on the threshold of our third century. I see this as the century of individual freedom.... [That] means liberty from oppressive, heavy-handed bureaucratic government.... That is a goal we must achieve in our third century."
(We're still working on that. A warning label on that speech might have stated: "Some backsliding may occur.")

In terms of plot and character development on Swingtown, I am less interested in the interactions of the featured couples (Molly Parker and Jack Davenport as Susan and Bruce Miller; an often shirtless Grant Show and Lana Parrilla as Tom and Trina Decker; and Josh Hopkins and Miriam Shor as Roger and Janet Thompson) than I am in the subplot involving Susan and Bruce's son B.J. and his friend, Roger and Janet's son Ricky.

A viewer would have to be blind to miss the proto-gay relationship between these two teenagers. Watching the show with a friend of mine, we both reacted the same way to the body language and yearning looks that characterize the B.J./Ricky friendship. (It actually looks like B.J. might be abandoning his friend to explore his heterosexual side, but -- given the quality of the pilot's writing and direction -- I expect this to be a multifaceted plot development, with complications ensuing week by week.) The tableau of the Thompson family at the end of the pilot episode speaks volumes about the repressed emotional volcanism waiting to spew.

It was not until after watching the June 5 broadcast of Swingtown that I found this interview with the show's creator, Alan Poul, on the web site of The Advocate. Poul, who is openly gay, is asked by interviewer Kyle Buchanan:

I'm curious whether any of the characters in Swingtown will be exploring their queer sides as the series progresses.
Poul replies:
There are certainly hints that there is a certain amount of sexual fluidity within the group dynamics -- in particular, that the Deckers[played by Parrilla and Grant Show] get involved in. If you've studied open-marriage tracts of the time, it was true that within the early days of open marriage, girl-on-girl contact was tolerated to a much higher degree than boy-on-boy contact, which was strictly prohibited -- sort of like the straight male porn aesthetic, right? On our show, I would say that the relationship that develops between Trina and Susan is certainly a deep, enduring friendship, but that doesn't mean that it's a friendship that has to be devoid of physical content.

You know, I'm surprised you didn't bring up any of the younger characters.
Then Buchanan follows up, and Poul responds:
You mean the friendship between young boys B.J. (Aaron Christian Howles) and Rick (Nick Benson)?
That's the ringer. So far, we haven't explored it except in subtextual terms because we're depicting them as presexual. But it's clear in the pilot that little Rick, B.J.'s best friend, has a boy crush.

How so?
Just the way that Rick is attached to B.J. and is constantly jealous of him. Actually, there was originally a scene that we never shot that made the subtext a little bit more overt in terms of Rick's boyish attachment to B.J. We screened the pilot for test audiences, and they just jumped to the assumption: "Yeah, I liked the friendship between the two boys, one of which is gay." You can interpret it as you like. These are feelings that the people having those feelings were not even aware of.
Having been a gay kid named Rick growing up in the '70s, I instantly recognized Rick's (and, by extension, B.J.'s) predicament.

Now I would like to do a bit of compare-and-contrast. First, take a look at Swingtown's portrayal of a "Bicentennial Block Party." (Be sure to check out the parting glances between B.J. and Ricky.) Then, as an added treat, watch a video of an actual family picnic on the Fourth of July 1976. (No secrets here: it's my family, my backyard, at 1503 N. 70th Street in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin.) That archival footage ends with the Bicentennial Fireworks as seen that night from Tosa's Hart Park; the CBS footage begins with a commercial.


I plan to watch the second episode of Swingtown tonight on CBS at 10:00 o'clock. I expect millions of others who enjoy guilty pleasures will be joining me. Will you?

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