Swingtown

CBS has a new television series out, Swingtown. It is billed as a show about swingers set in 1976, but it is really more about relationships and marriage in the 70’s, with a strong emphasis on open relationships. It started in June, and is running the first thirteen episodes this summer, ten so far. In a very cool move, CBS has been posting the full episodes online (here), which is probably the only reason I am seeing them, since I don’t watch TV. They insert commercials into the online versions to recoup their cost, and unfortunately they are only posting the most recent three or four episodes, so you’ll have to go elsewhere (reruns? torrent?) if you want to find episodes one through six.

The show centers around three marriages. Susan and Bruce are at the center, a fairly stereotypical housewife-and-stockbroker pair who become exploratory during the series. They jump into swinging at the end of the pilot, and then retreat from it in the second episode. Their old friends Janet and Roger initially represent a kind of backwater 50’s marriage, full of tension and lacking sex, but they start growing as well during these first episodes. Tom and Trina are swingers, and represent a well-off vanguard of social change. They have a pool, and their basement is given over to group sex. There is a younger generation of teenagers that play a large role as well, though we haven’t seen enough of them in the last couple episodes. Susan and Bruce’s daughter, Laurie, is getting involved with her summer school philosophy professor. Their son, BJ, is getting to know the largely abandoned daughter of the neighborhood slut-slash-sex-worker. This last character is unfortunate, since she’s the only bad sexualized stereotype in the series.

We like to think of the 70’s as an era of confusion, and that confusion is all over this series. Staid housewives experiment with drugs (so far, quaaludes and pot brownies). 70’s-era feminism clashes with strongly gendered marriages and workplaces. Sexual puritanism lives right alongside swinging, pornography, and dirty magazines. The younger generation (teenagers in the movie) is growing up and often outpacing their parents. Looking back, it was a wacky time, and that wackiness is front and center in this show.

I kind of appreciate the 70’s-themed apparel and decor as well. There’s an abundance of bathing suits with hideous patterns, and wallpaper that matches. Only one main character has a mustache, which I am deeply thankful for.

Tom and Trina’s marriage is a classic example of an open relationship, or what I call “license to play” relationships. While they are nominally swingers and sometimes get with others as a couple, they also sometimes hook up individually. They also run into those issues and problems that should be very familiar to poly folks: they set boundaries around their nonmonogamy, sometimes those boundaries get broken, and then they must be repaired. As of episode nine, they have decided to take a breather and be exclusive for a while to work on their relationship. In the pilot, Trina gives Susan a “actually, Tom and I have an open relationship” talk that could be lifted straight from a poly manual. In the most recent episode (ten), there’s a “swinging isn’t cheating” discussion. Similar poly-style conversations are peppered throughout the series, qualifying this show as nonmonogamy propaganda.

In particular, I am fascinated with Trina’s character. She is the swinger woman, and she’s the only person in the series who seems to have solid integrity. (So far at least – this is television after all.) In Friends With Benefits, an old flame of hers shows up and tries to make a move on her. “Tom doesn’t have to know”, he says. “Yes, he does”, she responds. They follow up with a MFM (!) threesome with Tom, the hottest sex scene of the series so far. Trina also refuses to get into tit-for-tat cheating after Tom’s dalliance with a stewardess. Instead, she takes the high road, stating that it wouldn’t help anything. She portrays a woman who really knows what she is doing when it comes to open relationships. Her one character drawback is a tendency to stir shit up, but again this is television.

Also, so far the show has actually portrayed swinging as a complex and positive phenomenon, which is pretty much revolutionary. While not really laying out the full complexity of modern swinging (on-premise versus off, soft versus hard, utopian, etc), Swingtown does not fall for any of the two-dimensional stereotypes out there, like the mustachioed creep or the reluctant woman dragged in by her boyfriend. Instead, both Tom and Trina are shown as getting things out of it, and we mostly deal with swingers outside of the playroom: their friendships and jobs, their politics, and their personalities. This show has the potential to normalize swinging, in the sort of leap forward that hasn’t been seen since … the 70’s.

One problem I have with this series is that there’s (oddly enough) not enough swinging. The glimpses we get into the conflicts in open relationships are fascinating to a nonmonogamy geek like myself, but unfortunately are relatively brief and infrequent. The two non-swinger main couples spend the series (so far) with closed relationships, and even Tom and Trina decide to close their relationship in episode seven. In short, the series seems to be more about exploration than long-term nonmonogamy. While I appreciate that this makes the show more accessible to the monogamous mainstream, I’m still a bit disappointed.

Also, there’s a glaring lack of queer content. The 70’s was ground zero for the lesbian and gay revolutions, and bisexuality was getting moving in that era as well. There’s plenty of talk of feminism, but somehow lesbian-feminism is left out. The swinging context presents the possibility of same-gender sexual contact (MFM threesome, right?) but so far, there’s nothing on that score. I keep waiting for one of the characters to come out with an admission of same-gender desire, but no dice. Maybe we’ll see it in season two, assuming there is a season two.

While we’re on the subject, Swingtown seems to have opted out of many of the bigger political earthquakes that were active in the 70’s. Roe v. Wade was only three years old in 1976. Also, while the civil rights movement had settled down quite a bit, racism was still on people’s minds, but you would not know it from this series. There’s not a single person of color in the cast, which may well be true to the Chicago suburban life and upper-class swing scene in ’76, but combined with the silence on racial politics is disheartening. Remember, this is a series that has no problems bringing up politics (episode ten is full of references to the presidential election) but yet is silent on certain political issues, presumably those that are still unpalatable to a mainstream audience thirty years later.

The primary thematic tension in the series so far seems to be around openness versus secrecy. Openness in this case meaning not just sexual openness but also honesty in relationships, and openness to new ideas and change. Secrecy meaning hiding things from one’s spouse, but also leading a closed sheltered life, and sleepwalking through relationships and work.

Susan and Bruce spend much of the first ten episodes deciding they need to be “open” with each other following their initial swinging adventure, and this has all sorts of implications for Susan, who turns increasingly to feminism and attends the porn star fundraiser in defiance of Bruce, and briefly refuses to join his work’s ladies auxiliary. Tom and Trina utter the phrase “open and honest” so often that I’m starting to get tired of it. Apparently it is the watchword for their relationship. The Puzzlerama episode ends with Tom saying “open and honest doesn’t mean easy”. Anything in there sound familiar?

Janet and Roger tend to represent the secrecy side of things. Roger lies to Janet about losing his job, and then Susan covers for him. Janet is portrayed as repressed and a little backward. However, most of the characters have secrets in the form of non-approved extramarital dalliances: Bruce fails to let on about his dalliance with Melinda from work, Susan harbors secret feelings for Roger, and Tom gets it on with a stewardess in Tokyo after telling Trina he won’t.

This open and exploratory versus closed and secret thread runs through every episode. Opennes is so far the positive force, associated with honesty and growth. Openness is also associated with sexual growth and renewal: Susan and Bruce start having sex again after swinging with Tom and Trina, and Janet and Roger get it on after watching Deep Throat at the porn fundraiser. Because openness also refers to open relationships, this series is a powerful and unabashed argument for nonmonogamy. Which is probably why I’m totally addicted to it, and why various right-wing organizations are having a serious shit fit.

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