Can you feel it? I feel it. You know what I’m talking about – that sudden jolt, that shock that has surged through the American consciousness over the past three weeks? It’s not the Democrats nominating a black guy for president…who didn’t see that one coming? It’s not gays getting married in California…though I do distinctly sense my own marriage being undermined.

No, I’m talking about the recent revelation that, back in the ’70s, there were people with loose morals! Don’t take my word for it; the (vaguely titillating) evidence is right there on CBS (CBS?!?) every Thursday night at 10 on Swingtown, a show that’s a veritable smorgasbord of bell bottoms, Playboy Club parties, soft rock, and archetypal placeholders that so far occupy the space where real characters should be.

There’s Grant Show, who already made the ’90s safe for promiscuity on Melrose Place, as an airline pilot intent on bringing the Mile High Club down to earth. There’s Jack Davenport, the onetime backbone of the awesome British sex-romp Coupling who wasn’t much of a swordsman (ahem) in the Pirates of the Caribbean flicks, as a family man struggling with the sexual revolution and his American accent.

There’s Molly Parker, who first gained notice playing a necrophile (necrophiliac?) in the Candian indie film Kissed, as a homemaker straddling ’50s suburban mores and the swingin’ ’70s. (It seems clear she’ll be straddling other things in the coming weeks, but that’s another story.) And then there’s the gorgeous Lana Parrilla, late of 24 and the short-lived Windfall, as Show’s absurdly hot-to-trot wife who takes a practically evangelical approach to the recruitment and seduction of swinger wannabes.

It’s the bicentennial summer of ’76, and Davenport and Parker, thanks to some financial good fortune, have moved “only five minutes away” from their conservative Chicago neighborhood and their dowdy friends into a den of iniquity filled with wife-swappers, slutty divorcees, and perhaps even some nascent teen homosexuality. (Only on TV could changing neighborhoods seem like time travel – but then, Swingtown producers Mike Kelley and Alan Poul told the New York Times that they envisioned the show as the bastard child of Boogie Nights and The Wonder Years, and if that’s possible then I guess anything is.) Here’s a humorous sneak peek:

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Boogie Nights and The Wonder Years…sounds like good, clean (dirty) fun, right? And it might be, too, were it not playing on CBS, the network of denture adhesive and Depends. (Indeed, there was a commercial for Sea Bond Adhesive in the middle of Thursday’s episode.) Swingtown was pitched to HBO and Showtime before the Glaucoma’d Eye gave it a green light last year. I suppose both pay-cable nets already had their indecency-hour timeslots filled; fortunately, CBS entertainment prez Nina Tassler has had a soft spot for swinging ever since distant relatives of hers wrote the book on open marriage (literally – they wrote a scandalicious best-seller called Open Marriage) back in the early ’70s.

Molly Parker and Jack DavenportOnce Tassler gave the go-ahead, a pilot script that once featured a bevy of bared breasts and reams of racy language was bowdlerized for network-audience consumption. The result plays like…well, like a show that oughta be on pay cable. We live in the world of Sex and the City and Entourage, of The L Word and Tell Me You Love Me. If you’re gonna offer us a show about people talking about and having sex, then you’re gonna have to show us a little freakin’ sex! I say this not as a proponent of prurience (though I could say it that way, if you’d like), but as one who revels in realism. Why bother airing a show about a couple learning how to be swingers if you have to cut away before we even see how they respond, emotionally or physically, to doing the deed?

Swingtown clearly is shooting for the stylized nostalgia and period realism of AMC’s vastly superior Mad Men. Unfortunately, it winds up feeling like Steve Martin’s Pink Panther (a once-raunchy flick for grown-ups that was re-edited into a family film) or Ben Stiller’s Night at the Museum (which – though based on a children’s book – was a mediocre kids’ movie that seemed to have an R-rated romp inside it, just dying to get out). The show wears its compromises far too heavily, and delivers its promised titillation in doses sufficient to arouse only those viewers old-fashioned enough to put the Sea Bond to good use.

And then there’s the music. Clearly, Kelley and Poul imagined that music would serve as a central character on the show, and CBS seems to be paying a fortune in salaries and rights fees to fulfill their vision. Chicagoan (and former Kelley classmate) Liz Phair is co-writing the theme and incidental music, which has nothing to do with her own style but does have a satisfyingly sorta-jazzy, sorta-funky vibe appropriate to the time period. (No “Fuck and Run” here, sadly.)

Grant Show and Jack Davenport makin' moviesCBS has partnered with its corporate cousin, Last.fm, to forge some synergy with the music on which so much of Swingtown‘s budget clearly is being lavished. (Every time a hit from the ‘’70s plays on the soundtrack, a popup ad appears directing viewers to Last.fm so they can hear the song again.) I suppose there must be some viewers for whom the series’ ostentatious music usage is welcome – those who are too young to have heard songs like “Love Will Keep Us Together” or “Come and Get Your Love” in their native habitat, or those who haven’t been listening to oldies radio over the last 30 years. For me, though, the songs often are too on-the-nose with the plot point they’re accompanying, and at other times they’re used as emotional bludgeons – or else their ubiquity (and their nostalgic force) overwhelms the poor actors’ ability to communicate on their own.

Just check out the list of songs used in the pilot, in addition to those listed above: “Spirit In The Sky,” “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher And Higher,” “Golden Years,” “Get Closer,” “Let Your Love Flow,” “Saturday in the Park,” “Go Your Own Way,” “Dream Weaver,” “I Can See Clearly Now,” and “Machine Gun.” How could any new and unfamiliar drama cram all these songs into 48 minutes and expect to emerge with its own identity?

Swingtown certainly didn’t. In that sense, its soundtrack is much like Forrest Gump‘s – which nearly drove me out of the theater right about the time it shifted from “Running on Empty” to “Against the Wind” as Forrest jogged cross-country and back. And considering how much attention is being paid to song selection, I find it slightly maddening that a show set in 1976 would name its second episode after (and use prominently) the Pablo Cruise hit “Love Will Find a Way”… from 1978.

I know, I know – how many chart geeks (of a certain age) are going to notice such a blunder? All I can say in my own defense is, if a show is going to hang its narrative hat on verisimilitude, then dammit, it can’t take Pablo Cruise out of context!

Swingtown probably won’t rock the world of anybody hip enough to read Popdose (pat yourself on the back), but it’s watchable enough — and it has one quality that always endears a show to me: the Parents Television Council and the American Family Association hate it. “Swingtown is one of the most sexually indulgent programs we’ve seen on broadcast television in a long time, but it’s par for the course in CBS’ race to the bottom of vile and violent television programming,” says PTC prude-in-chief Brent Bozell.

Oooh, a “race to the bottom”? Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about! Well, at least nobody’s getting cooked on Swingtown – unlike that other great document of the swinging lifestyle, Paul Bartels’ 1982 film Eating Raoul. On the other hand, nobody’s getting eaten on Swingtown, either…in any sense of the word. For that, you’ll have to turn back over to Showtime. Go ahead. We’ll still be here when you get back.

And by the way…speaking of televised indecency: George Carlin, RIP.

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