Thursday, September 8, 2011

Swingtown: How A TV Series About Wife Swapping Can Be So Good...And So Relatable

Swingtown, the TV series, aired in the Summer of 2008, with a total of 13 episodes. Swingtown was ostensibly about changing sexual mores of the American middle class during the mid 1970's as observed by two families in the Chicago suburbs in 1976, the Millers and the Thompsons. The primary plot device to illustrate this was open marriage. While never fully embraced by them, the Millers (Bruce and Melinda) were far more open to the concept when introduced by their socially sophisticated and wealthy new neighbors the Deckers (Tom and Trina) than their old friends the Thompsons (Roger and Janet) were.

While the open marriage concept is what drew all the headlines -- i.e. the review headlined "Take My Wife. Please. I’ll Take Yours" --, or the review "My, What Strange Bedfellows" -- this show was about something so much more. It was about the pressures that arise as couples, families and even friends grow and change their attitudes. When we change our vectors in life, are those who found us when we were on another trajectory willing to "stick with us"? The sexual mores issue, however, was just one device. Another was the concept of the recognition that women could have a role as equal partners economically with their husbands or, in some cases could actually achieve greater success than their husbands. This occured as Janet Thompson achieved some rather notable success as an advice columnist at a major metropolitan newspaper after starting out (reluctantly) in the "temp" pool to make money when her husband Roger was laid off.

Roger also came to the realization that he wanted to do something "extraordinary" with his professional life and not simply get another job doing what he had been doing, though it was somewhat uncovential and disrutptive. He was willing to uproot his family to do it. In a prior life, Janet might simply have "gone along", but she had created a more independent life for herself and wasn't willing to give that up.

The changing economic fortunes of the two different couples was another key illustrator of the conflict of growth and the gains and losses it can bring. The Millers and Thompsons were the closest of friends when they lived next door to each other. However, with greater economic success, the Millers moved "across the tracks" and it was this very move which introduced the Millers to new ideas and people that drove a wedge between the Millers and Thompsons who had been so inseparable for so long.

Another such illustration involved the plotline of the two teenage sons of the Millers and Thompsons who had been incredibly close as well. Young BJ developed his first romance with one of his new neighbors which then created a rift with his old friend Rick. The choice of his friend BJ to spend more time with the girl was a source of frustration and bewilderment for Rick. The youngest characters on the show seemed to have an easier time adapting to change than their older models though. In fact, more than any other characters, Rick and BJ seem to illustrate what many of us learn the hard way in our real lives -- that in relationships, sometimes the best way to continue to maintain a level of closeness and intimacy with a friend or partner is to support their desire to grow in new directions.

Some have said Swingtown appeared to be a "cheap shot" on many levels. It was a "rip off" of the time change plot device that was driving so much success for Madmen. Additionally, it used suggestive and outright salacious sexual content gratuitously, in order to drive audience. But I disagree. Unfortunately, the plot devices "buried the lead". I think this was really a show about relationships and a great one at that. While other shows certainly touched on some of these themes such as HBO's Tell Me You Love Me, Swingtown was one of the few shows to ever have so effectively devoted itself to the concept of relationships in a dramatic way .

On a final note, in a sense, this show had the deck stacked against it.  It was the antithesis of a "bankable" show in syndication, which is arguably the biggest driver behind TV business right now:  it was a serialized drama skewing female.  Even with 4-5 seasons of success, this show would not likely have found a home on a major cable network willing to pay a multi-million dollar license fee. 

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