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PRIME-TIME TV

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

"The show is very much about the journey of these women, and women do watch network television," said Tassler, 50. "I think its ideas about experimentation and exploration will feel relevant today as well." The network executive, however, faced two equally challenging tasks to get the swingers' show on CBS' prime-time lineup: She not only had to quell a vigorous internal debate about the program's suitability, she had to convince Kelley and Poul that the network was the best place for it. She triumphed on both counts.

"Nina was just so convincing about her conviction for the show," said Kelley, 40, whose childhood friend Liz Phair is scoring the music for the series. "She made a promise to me that CBS wouldn't unravel what was so personal and important for me."

Kelley and Poul immediately set about retrofitting the show to network standards, which meant toning down the original script's cruder, cable-friendly language, eliminating the nudity and converting very explicit adult situations into merely semi-explicit ones. Even so, the show's more sanitized version ran into immediate trouble securing a programming slot.

"It's not a big secret there was a lot of controversy over our lead couple sleeping with another couple in the first episode," said Kelley, who wrote for and produced "The O.C." and "Jericho." "But it was essential that we deliver on the promise of the pilot for our audience. If we sort of dipped our toe into the water, it wouldn't have satisfied the people who came to the party."

Strike's surprising benefit

When THE writers strike began in November, "Swingtown" had just three completed episodes -- far short of what it would need to launch the show. Had the strike continued for several weeks more, said Kelley, the show would probably have been permanently shelved.

But the strike brought relief from the grinding production schedule and yielded unintended benefits, the executive producers said. "It really gave us a chance to rethink the show," said Kelley. "It was like running a marathon and then someone says, 'OK, you can sit down for an hour.' "

The break allowed for many shifts in the story's direction, but perhaps the most significant was the decision to concentrate more on each of the three married women. "The changes the women went through during the mid-'70s were just more dramatic," said Poul, 53, who was a producer on HBO's "Six Feet Under." "Of course, the men are very important characters, but we knew it would be the women's journey that would make the backbone of our narrative even stronger."

As much a character as any person on "Swingtown" are the sets, fashions and period details. There are the obvious touches -- polyester shirts, eight-track tapes and extra-long telephone cords on the kitchen phones.

And then there are the subtleties. Each couple's home was created to quietly reflect the character of its occupants. The free-spirited Deckers enjoy a modern, mostly glass and open lake-view home, while the more rigid Thompsons feel comfortable living surrounded by decorating styles from earlier decades.

No matter how evocative the period piece is, however, Kelley realizes some won't be able to look past the show's sexual themes -- a fact that still frustrates him.

"I don't understand why this show is so threatening," said Kelley. "But I don't understand why gay marriage is so threatening either. I understand there's going to be a portion of the available audience that will just say, 'I can't do this, I can't go there.' Too bad, because there is so much to embrace in this show. I think people who reject it have a problem with fear in general in their lives."

But, he added: "I hope that people will give it a chance. It's not any scarier than your family photo album from the 1970s."

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martin.miller@latimes.com

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