Swaggering Swingtown

Marriage is a necessary cornerstone of a civilized society. Crumble that building block and the waves of instability can be felt like tremors foreshadowing an earthquake. Sift through the wreckage of the collapsed marriage and all too often, you'll find the broken bodies of children. It never fails to be heartbreaking.

So hey, let's go Hollywood! It's so much more fun there! Tinseltown thinks that subverting marriage and nuking the nuclear family is all good fun, and a savvy profit strategy, to boot. HBO subjected viewers to a whole series glorifying polygamy (Big Love). ABC just had a banner week for gay activists with a gay “wedding” on Brothers and Sisters.


Now CBS, still mocked by avant garde-adoring TV critics as the home of Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury solving murders for the Geritol set, is trying to build its own marriage-mangling brand with a new summer series called Swingtown, scheduled to debut on June 5. Set in a suburban neighborhood in 1976, the show will explore the polyester joys of infidelity and drug abuse, choreographed to a disco beat.


Smack dab in the Thursday-night time slot of Without a Trace, the series which dug deep for the ratings gold with a teen orgy scene a few years ago, CBS looks to set new records in broadcast debauchery. Jacques Steinberg of The New York Times reported the first episode is stacked with a sexual threesome; a high school junior smoking marijuana and then flirting with her English teacher; the glorified enjoyment of Quaaludes and cocaine; and the sight of the “neighborhood scold” stumbling upon a basement orgy, only to hear some mutton-chopped participant say with a smirk “Why don't you kick off your shoes, Mom, and join the party?”


CBS is so proud of itself. “We wanted to give people something fun and fresh in the summer,” declared Nina Tassler, the president of CBS who approved the series. “The summer gives you a kind of different license.” Underline that word “license.” When Tassler, whose second cousin had written the swinging Seventies best-seller Open Marriage, heard of the Swingtown premise, she recalled “I said, 'Oh my God, that's right in my sweet spot, in terms of my nostalgia.”


But in that oppressive, nagging place called “reality,” the practice of “open marriage” often becomes a prelude to divorce. Marriage is defined by exclusivity, the pledge to spend one's life devoted to one spouse, one love. If you consistently consider that some other partner might be groovier, it won't be surprising if soon, one half of a marriage – or both – decide to opt out. Where is the romance in “I love you – or maybe her? Or him?”


Series creator Mike Kelley says he has based the series in part on his own suburban neighborhood in Winnetka, Illinois, where one summer, the “neighborhood kind of switched partners,” and surprise, “Eventually most of those marriages broke up.” Ironically, and perhaps pathetically, his own mother is trotted out as a fan of the series, even if she's hesitant to admit to the behavior depicted. Her son “embellished” the swinging a bit, since he saw it through “young eyes.” Kelley professed to the Times that he was thrilled for his parents when they broke up.


Kelley claims the “crazy second adolescence” of his parents “inspired me to be as brave and honest as I can be in my own adult relationships and not worry so much about what other people think or say about them.” He told the Times “the jury is still out for me on marriage and monogamy.” Asked if he's presently involved in a relationship, he declared he's had a handful of “primary” relationships over the years, “none of which society would probably deem conventional.”

Hollywood sweetens its own selfishness in a sugar-coated notion of bravery and honesty. “I'm brave enough and honest enough to say I've enjoyed using you and then tossing you aside.”   

Kelley began with a series obviously aimed at pay cable, but he's now delighted to be on a broadcast network, even if it means toning down the nudity and graphic depiction of sex acts. “I think we're able to be more groundbreaking and more culturally subversive by putting this on a network, where more people will be exposed to it and where we'll have to deal with these adult issues in an oblique way.”


Notice that Hollywood producers openly proclaim they're “culturally subversive” with a smile, that each new frontier of taste they shatter is “groundbreaking.” But the ground that's being broken here is the family – a foundation of hope and love that proves itself in devoted daily consistency and self-sacrifice. That formula doesn't make for sassy programming in the plastic world of television, I know, but it works in the real world.

L. Brent Bozell III is President of the Media Research Center.