TV on DVD: Swingtown -- The First Season

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CBS viewers-- do not be alarmed or try to adjust your television set. For instead of a test of the emergency broadcast system, another horrible reality show, or gory crime scene analysis program-- over the summer of 2008 CBS and more precisely its visionary President Nina Tassler (one of the most powerful female executives working in television today)-- made the bold decision to air Mike Kelley's underrated gem Swingtown.

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Described as a cross between filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson's New Line Cinema film Boogie Nights, ABC's successful nostalgic series The Wonder Years, and as "a perfect companion for AMC's 'Mad Men,'" the former Jericho, O.C., and One Tree Hill scribe and producer Mike Kelley decided to follow the old writerly adage to "write what you know" and craft a series that hearkened back to his youth in the Midwest.

Although Kelley was roughly eight years old when the events of his series set in the scorching, humid summer of a wealthy Chicago suburb in 1976 took place, to prepare the show originally for cable, he consulted his own family or more precisely his photo album. In doing so, as he shares in the twenty-two minute DVD making-of extra, he employed numerous photos to develop the visual scheme of the entire series which he and his co-executive producer Alan Poul (Six Feet Under) wanted to give a Kodachrome filmic feel to in an attempt to produce a more desaturated, realistic color palette of the way life really was lived at the time in stark contrast to the overly bright disco colors we see in most '70s work today. Of course, the exteriors are one thing-- as a writer, the main challenge was in creating characters that didn't seem like one-dimensional cliched '70s stereotypes.

This was all the more important when the decision was made not to just offer a glimpse at the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-feminist, sexual and social revolution but also focus on three distinctly different married couples who were adapting to the changing times in various ways.

In the wonderfully constructed pilot, the series heroine Susan (played by acclaimed Canadian actress and Deadwood star Molly Parker) and her husband Bruce Miller (Coupling's Jack Davenport) leave their humble home and dearest friends, Janet (Miriam Shor) and Roger Thompson (Josh Hopkins) for a much larger residence a few blocks away.

As Bruce's career as a stock trader is taking off and he begins putting pressure on Susan to become the perfect corporate wife, she struggles to decide just what she wants out of life, given the new opportunities, freedoms, and power of choice she sees embodied in her worldly seventeen year old brainy, feminist daughter Laurie (Shanna Collins) as well as in the startlingly sexual lifestyle of her new neighbors Trina (Lana Parrilla) and Tom Decker (Grant Show).

Although the audience is clued in within the opening segment of the series as we see the dashing, '70s mustache-sporting airline pilot Tom bring a young, clumsy stewardess back to his home to share with his wife that the two are active swingers, Susan and Bruce don't catch on until they attend a party at the Deckers' and after the sensual buzz of a Quaalude turns Susan on, the episode ends with the four wandering off together into the bedroom.

Yet, while the subject matter is decidedly taboo, perhaps because it is on CBS (the same network that brought us I Love Lucy and Murder, She Wrote) and also because the creator got the initial coupling out of the way in the first episode to take away the sleaze factor and make room instead for fully developed characters and plot points, it never feels tawdry or overly shocking. Instead, surprisingly you find yourself mesmerized by the sharp portrayals of its charismatic cast, including the frequent scene stealer, Lana Parrilla who also starred on an unfairly canceled drama called Boomtown (note to pilot writers-- don't use the word "town" in your title).

While on the surface, the show's most frequent thesis is the sexual revolution and the changing of gender roles in the '70s-- Kelley and his talented writers produce a forward thinking exploration of relationships that still rings true today as Susan begins to find herself gaining an interest in freedom of speech and civil rights, her friend Janet (who seems the most traditional and stuck in the '50s) struggles to accept Trina and Susan's evolving attitudes, and her husband Roger realizes that he's been blind to his underlying love for Susan for years.

Of course, while it's the sexy "Tao of Tom" as the producers joked in the behind-the-scenes extra featurette that made Grant Show the easiest one to cast for the role, we soon realize that the characters are far more complicated than they first appear as we see different sides to each when the natural den-mother Trina starts wondering if her lifestyle is what she really wanted, Bruce reveals his true colors when faced with the cold-blooded nature of business, and the way that these fast confusing times are passed onto the next generation.

Equally interested in presenting us with fascinating younger characters, including Laurie Miller who develops an intense attraction to her summer school Bob Dylan quoting philosophy teacher, their son B.J. (Aaron Christian Howles) who tries to gain the confidence of the lost girl on the block, Samantha Saxton (Brittany Robertson) whose floozy mother is snorting coke and bringing home strangers on a nightly basis, and Janet and Roger's son Rick (Nick Benson) who is developing quite a major attitude problem.

Gorgeously photographed and with an impressive pop soundtrack which fills nearly every second of each episode with more than one hundred amazing songs in its thirteen part first season run (that begs for a soundtrack of its own), Paramount Home Entertainment and CBS have spared no expense on serving up a luxurious four disc box set of the season with crystal clear picture and sound which make it seem even more cinematic in its widescreen glory and 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround.

Although unfortunately due to the dwindling ratings and Christian right groups working hard to boycott and pull advertisers, the show's creator thankfully left the finale with a few excellent twists but with the absence of any series wrecking cliffhangers so it's completely satisfying as it stands, there's so much more that was begging to be explored with the richly developed characters and multiple plot-lines that had my writer's brain thinking overtime.

And while Wikipedia has reported that the show is finished, I can't help but think it's the type of intellectual soap audiences are craving right now in a sea of a creative drought on TV which has brought us "Mama's Boys" and "Wipeout."

While you may be tempted to avoid it on the concept alone, I assure you that while it's titillating and indeed provocative, it's never exploitative and always believable, managing to put human relationships first. Is there a future for Swingtown? I know there's a slew of online petitions and while cable may be the ideal place for it (although HBO already has Big Love and Showtime has Californication), Variety was right in noting it'd be ideal for an AMC Mad Men period show double date but I also couldn't help thinking that now with the rash amount of cancellations on ABC of Pushing Daisies, Dirty Sexy Money and others, they might be just the right network to take a chance on it as Desperate Housewives jumped the shark years ago.

However, the bottom line is, whatever its fate-- we can at least be thankful for Kelley, Poul, the entire cast and especially Nina Tassler for green-lighting the series and extremely grateful that-- just in time to swing in the holidays-- CBS and Paramount have "opened up" the series for viewers at home.