Let me begin by saying that I was a child of the 1970’s, which tends to make me approach these era shows with some caution. After such shows as That 70’s Show, to name the likely most popular, I find myself not recognizing the setting as the same 70’s I remember living. Granted I was pretty young, so the subject of swingers and sexual revolution were not exactly part of my everyday culture. So, I might be a little more forgiving if Swingtown doesn’t exactly hit on all of my memory circuits. I was 15 in 1976, living near Philadelphia, where we were all pretty much obsessed with that whole Bicentennial thing. The last thing on my mind was whether the neighbors, or, God forbid, my parents, were doing the bump and tickle with rotating partners. I’m pretty sure I’ll leave that question unanswered. Even with all of that said, about the only solid piece of nostalgia I got from Swingtown was the often sweet 70’s soundtrack. To the credit of whoever picked the music, all aspects of the 70’s music scene are represented. You get a good dose of folk, rock, summer pop, and even disco, which any self respecting child of the 70’s considers the death of what was otherwise a fine decade of music. Props to the music guy for not falling into the disco all of the time trap that these shows so often do. One minor complaint, however. Fleetwood Mac didn’t release their famous Rumors LP until Feb of 1977…Ooops. Outside of the music, it really could have been any time, any place.
It’s July 4th weekend, 1976 and Bruce Miller (Davenport) and his family are movin’ on up. Money’s been good at his options trading job, so he’s packing up his wife Susan (Parker), teen daughter Laurie (Collins) and young son BJ (Howles) and moving a few blocks over to a bigger house in a better neighborhood. For Susan, it’s a bittersweet time because she’s leaving her friend of 10 years, Janet (Shor) and her husband Roger (Hopkins) and their son for a new neighborhood. Friends, it turns out, won’t be a problem. The first night they are introduced to new neighbors Trina (Parrilla) and Tom Decker (Snow). They’re invited to a party that turns out to be a swinger’s event. The two end up swapping spouses for the night. It’s an exciting, somewhat dangerous thrill for the Millers. From then on they try to balance their new lives and friends with their old. Janet is good for most of the laughs as this super conservative girl is exposed to her old friend’s new friends. As if that wasn’t enough, Laurie Miller is in love with her 24 year old high school teacher, and BJ’s hung up on a cute little girl with a drugged out lush for a single mom. Every week’s episode features a new party. You’ll get everything from a surprise birthday party for Janet, to a night out at the Playboy Club. There’s even a Tupperware party. I do remember my Mom had those. Before it’s done everybody’s spouse is falling for somebody else, and you never know who’s going to end up with who. It all ends in a cliffhanger that is not likely to ever be resolved. The jury’s still out on next summer, but ratings are marginal, so I wouldn’t hold my breath for a second Summer Of Love.
Swingtown was a first run Summer series in 2008. It never really broke out in the ratings. After watching this first, and likely final, season I think I can understand why. First of all I never found any of these characters believable. The whole thing from the show’s theme song to its title sequence to the characters themselves were merely 70’s clichés. The fatal flaw, however, was that I couldn’t root for anybody here. Every time something bad happened to anyone, I thought they had it coming. These characters deserve whatever misery has come into their lives. The final question comes down to why should I even care what these people do and what consequences their actions may bring? Some of the actors do show fair performance chops, but they are sabotaged at almost every turn by writing that pretends to take chances, all the while taking the easy road every time. Still, there are moments the performers rose above the muddled mess that is the script. I don’t know why, but I couldn’t help but feel like I did know Laurie Miller. Shanna Collins certainly sells the role. That makes her more interesting, but not any more redeemable.
Each episode of Swingtown is presented in its original broadcast widescreen 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Why is it that every filmmaker thinks that everything looked so much softer, almost hazy, in the 70’s? Could it be it actually looked that way if you were on drugs most of the time? Swingtown makes the same mistake. They attempt to capture the era with a very soft, almost desaturated image. Colors are almost all earth tones and hideous avocado. I like green as much as the next guy (if the next guy happens to be the Jolly Green Giant), but these kitchens look like they were decorated by Linda Blair in The Exorcist. Black levels are fair, if again a bit too soft. The print is clean, and I saw no real compression artifact to speak of. The episodes that came three to a disk did look marginally better, scoring a full 2.5 mbps higher in the bit rate.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is a bit of a waste here. All of that great music, and most of it sounded muffled and pretty lame. I guess someone wanted you to feel like you were listening through a period 8-track player. Please, even my portable 8-track player sounded better than that, particularly when I was listening to Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album. Dialog’s clear, so it’s not a total wash. Best use of surrounds was a woodpecker in the rears on the cabin episode.
I was annoyed that there was no chapter break to allow you to easily navigate beyond the “previously on” segments. When you’re watching 2-3 episodes at a time over just a handful of days, I don’t need to be reminded of what came before. I’ve always liked those releases that offered you a choice to view them or not.
Deleted Scenes: Most of these are on the first disc. There’s one on the last of this 4 disc set. Nothing important that couldn’t have stayed gone.
The Spirit Of 76 – The Making Of Swingtown: If you’re getting tired of that stupid theme song, this won’t help. It will come as no shock to learn the show was originally conceived as a cable show. The 23 minute piece talks about the boundaries and limitations of putting it on CBS.
Have A Nice Revolution – Sex And Morality In The 1970’s: This 13 minute feature uses too much of the same material from the previous feature. Cast and crew talk about sexual morality in the 1970’s as if they were psychology professors. Wouldn’t it have been nice to reinforce the piece with something from someone with…I don’t know… a degree in this sort of thing?
Gag Reel: This 4 minute piece is pretty funny in spots actually. It might be the best part of the release.
One of the show’s own runners said it best. To paraphrase, he tells us that if we don’t get on a particular character’s side, you have no show. Well, boys and girls, I couldn’t have said it any better myself. I mean, did people really act like this? From an entertainment point of view it runs out of steam pretty early. Each episode begins with Susan and Bruce trying to connect with each other and resist the wild Decker world. Then some obvious plot device throws everyone back together for a “party of the week”. Did anyone ever tell these people that “Sex has consequences”?