Saturday, July 20, 2013


Several requests later, I am finally blogging about Swingtown, CBS's summer drama about sex and the '70s. As I've written a book on American television and sex in the '70s, some friends seem to think I must have lots to say about the show. I kind of don't, but I do like the show and so thought I'd say a bit about it here.

I'm a sucker for all things '70s, so I'm surely an easy target, but I've enjoyed the show from the get-go. The pilot laid on the cutesy nostalgia a bit thick--pilots, bah!--but since the series has been a bit more subtle in its efforts to evoke a different time and the possibilities it contained. The show is a bit too much in love with what it sees as the sexual freedom and openness of the '70s. My own sense is that this spirit of liberation was certainly there, but not nearly as widespread as the series makes it out to be, nor as good for men and women alike as it makes it out to be.

That said, the last episode aired, "Go Your Own Way," began to nuance the show's portrait of the times in ways I found interesting. Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman," playing over the final moments was NOT one such nuance. No, it pretty much smacked you over the head with its announcement of Susan's growing awareness of herself as an autonomous being. But who doesn't like that song? So even though it was way unsubtle as the closure to the episode, I enjoyed it anyway (kind of my story about the series as a whole--not all that impressive, but I enjoy it anyway).

My favorite part about this episode was that Trina and Sylvia were throwing a benefit party for Harry Reems, the Deep Throat actor that was threatened with legal reprisals for his participation in the film. Harry was portrayed as a nice guy, a bit geeky even (or maybe that's just my 2008 interpretation of the mustache), who found himself in a circumstance much bigger than he had ever imagined. While I somehow doubt that Reems was as innocent a figure as he seemed here, I loved that the porn actor seemed one of the least sexually threatening men on screen.

The episode was most centered on Molly Parker's Susan. (upper left corner; I love Parker and am eager to see her other work. She's an amazingly likable actor.) She defies her husband, Bruce, in attending the Reems benefit, and is thrilled not so much by the porny titillation but by her newfound sense of social justice in participating in this anti-censorship action, as well as by her circulation in the public sphere without a man at her side. Susan's teenage daughter, Laurie (bottom row, center; with period-perfect Laurie Partridge hair) is an extremely self-possessed young woman, and she cheers on her mother's efforts at independence. I'm totally rooting for those two.

I think I liked this episode most of all so far for several reasons: 1) it showed some glimmers of awareness of women's liberation alongside the gender-neutral sexual liberation that most other episodes have considered. I'm hoping this means this will be a continuing arc. 2) It referenced the media world of the '70s--porn film, not the PG-rated "porn" of TV--but '70s media nonetheless. And 3) it really began to pay off my viewing investment. This deserves a bit more explication, so here goes.

One of the things I love about series television is the way it can pay off your viewing investment. You give it enough time, enough attention, you open yourself to it, and you can get big rewards. What are these rewards? Seeing characters you've come to "know" act in expected--and unexpected--ways. Having knowledge you've acquired about characters inform something those characters do, and thus allowing you to see multiple levels of meaning in their actions or words. And the way that, when done well, you don't really have to work all that hard for those meanings, those levels, they are laid out for you in aesthetically pleasing but relatively straightforward ways. Anyone can "get" it, anyone, that is, who has put in the time and the attention, something not everyone is willing to do for their TV. That TV rewards time and attention, commitment and patience, is one of the things I love about it. And it's a reward I felt I got in Swingtown's "Go Your Own Way."

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