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My, what strange bedfellows

Dirtying up its somewhat conservative image, CBS goes inside bedrooms and out on a limb with a summertime gamble: 'Swingtown,' a 1970s sex-swap saga.

June 01, 2008|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

It's NOT every day you see a unicorn, especially one dancing in a fuchsia dress, smack in the middle of a television network's living room. But there she is trying to lure a married man to any conveniently located lair in Episode 9 of CBS' unbuttoned new series "Swingtown."

Obviously, this mythical creature is not of the single-horned breed that adorns the saccharin posters of childhood walls. This particular animal -- a slang term within swinging circles -- is a female bisexual hot to bed down with an established heterosexual couple.

Unicorns, wife swapping and a host of other titillating story lines are all part of the "Swingtown" world where three Midwestern couples wade into the rising waters of sexual freedom that swept the nation during the mid-1970s. The fact that a show with such strong sexual themes landed not on a freewheeling cable channel but on a once-genteel network astounded nearly everyone -- including the show's creative team.

"When we got a call from our agent that CBS wanted to buy our show, we thought it was a joke," said Alan Poul, one of the show's executive producers, who also directed the pilot episode. "On cable, this show would have been a novel approach to an interesting subject matter and a fun look at the '70s, but it wouldn't have necessarily pushed any boundaries. Whereas on a network, you can say the show is groundbreaking."

The show, which premieres at 10 p.m. Thursday, is set on Chicago's affluent North Shore where its creator, Mike Kelley, grew up. Primarily a drama but with comic elements, the series is driven by its triumvirate of couples -- the swinging Deckers, the in-between Millers and the disapproving Thompsons -- and their embrace of, and resistance to, the changing mores of the day. "Swingtown" isn't going to flash its audience -- as, say, "NYPD Blue" did by baring the bottoms of various cast members -- so much as challenge them with adult situations that have rarely been examined on network television.

"I'm just happy we don't have to show full-frontal nudity," joked Lana Parrilla, who plays Trina Decker, the series siren who is eager to share the love. "But it does force our writers and producers to be more creative because we can't rely on just showing skin."

It was hard to imagine any network with such a program before spring 2007, when CBS executives surprised the industry by announcing a slate of provocative new programming. The traditionally conservative network wanted to raise its buzz factor and bring balance to its prime-time schedule that was, and remains, heavily reliant upon sometimes gruesomely violent crime procedurals such as "Criminal Minds," "NCIS" and its trio of aging "CSI" shows.

But the network's gamble from last year has largely failed -- and "Swingtown," the riskiest of the bunch, is its last chance to salvage a victory. Its other chancy ventures from last spring have all wilted -- reality series "Kid Nation" was torpedoed by accusations of its exploitation of children, while its Latino ensemble drama "Cane" performed disappointingly, despite big stars such as Jimmy Smits. Still, both fared better than the musical casino series "Viva Laughlin," which was silenced after two episodes.

This week's launch of "Swingtown," which was originally intended as a midseason replacement, has led to questions about the network's dedication to it. Television audiences typically shrink in the summer, a time when networks experiment with programming and roll out new reality series and other light fare.

"CBS got burned with those other shows, and I think their thinking on 'Swingtown' is 'Let's run it in the summer where we can minimize the damage," said Brad Adgate, research director for Horizon Media, which buys television time. "I think CBS feels like they strayed from their core business."

But the summer may not necessarily mean oblivion for "Swingtown's" 13 episodes in the ever-fragmenting television universe. Cable dramas such as last summer's "Mad Men" from AMC and "Damages" from FX proved audiences are increasingly willing to latch on to smart new shows any time of year.

Indeed, CBS' President of Entertainment Nina Tassler contends that the one-hour adult drama has its best chance of success during the summer months, when audiences might be more accepting of its risque nature than in the fall. "Ironically, the show is better suited for the summer when there's just a different expectation," said Tassler. "It's escapist, it's fun and there's a lot of humor in it."

A female focus

Tassler aggressively pursued "Swingtown" last year after HBO passed on the project and Showtime said it would have to wait several months before it could commit to it. Despite the show's obvious contrast with the CBS brand, Tassler felt it seemed right for the network, whose audience ranks among the oldest of the major networks'.

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