CBS pushes envelope, gets into 'Swingtown' of things

The Baltimore Sun

Mike Kelley said he didn't set out to cause a fuss with Swing- town, the provocative CBS drama that premieres at 9 p.m. Thursday.

Kelley drew on his "wonder years" in Winnetka, Ill., to create the show, which has its characters doing everything from popping pills to swapping wives. But the town seen on the show "exists only in my imagination," the 1985 New Trier High School graduate said.

"Nobody should be indicted," he added with a laugh.

Wait a minute - a provocative drama on CBS? In the summer?

Here's the weirdest part: Not only did CBS snap up Swingtown, an edgy series that was originally pitched to cable networks such as HBO and Showtime, the network didn't ask Kelley to radically alter its content.

There's Quaalude use and pot smoking in the first episode of the show, which is set in 1976. At one party, Harvey Wallbangers are the cocktails of choice, but cocaine is also discreetly available. Airline pilot Tom Decker (Grant Show) thinks nothing of bringing a comely young flight attendant home for a three-way romp with his spouse, Trina (Lana Parrilla). And then there's that whole wife-swapping thing.

Though there are "bits and pieces" of the Winnetka he knew growing up, the world of Swingtown is fictional, Kelley said.

His goal in creating Swingtown was not to cause controversy but to come up with a story that would be "mine and mine alone," Kelley said in a recent phone interview. Having enjoyed success as a writer for shows such as The O.C. and Jericho, Kelley wanted to create something deeply personal. So he asked his mother, who now lives in Northbrook, Ill., to send him family photos.

He made a collage of the pictures, most of which had been taken by Kelley at the parties his parents hosted. After hours of staring at this mosaic of the North Shore in the '70s, Kelley came up with Swingtown.

"I realized the best way to 'explore this world' was from the angle of very different families that were put together at a moment in time that was really volatile and full of hope and options. And we sprinkled a little bit of sex and scandal on that," he added with a laugh.

This well-acted character study follows the journeys of Bruce and Susan Miller (Jack Davenport and Molly Parker), who move with their two teens to a more upscale suburban neighborhood, where their neighbors, the Deckers, introduce them to hedonistic pursuits.

The Deckers have embraced everything the '70s have to offer - not just the luxurious mustaches, the satin halter tops and the terrycloth jogging ensembles. This attractive couple has an open marriage, and at a party at their house, they make it clear they'd like to get to know Bruce and Susan better. A lot better.

Though Kelley said the title refers to the mid-'70s as a sort of pivot point - a moment when the cultural and social pendulum swung in a new direction - the title also refers to partner-swapping.

"What we're exploring is the idea that these adults really missed their adolescence," said Kelley, who is 40. "They went from high school to college to being married with kids, instead of experiencing the '60s."

When CBS entertainment president Nina Tassler read Kelley's script in the fall of 2006, she said she "couldn't turn the pages fast enough." Not only did she respond to the ideas in the drama, she was in the midst of acquiring shows that were supposed to shake up CBS' image as the staid purveyor of successful procedural shows.

"We are going to throw out the rule book," Tassler told Variety in October 2006. Cane, Viva Laughlin and Moonlight were other shows that were supposed to give CBS some buzz in the fall of 2007.

All of those shows crashed and burned, Viva Laughlin most spectacularly. But Tassler said she doesn't regret the network's own walk on the wild side.

"At the end of the day, they have to be good shows," Tassler said. "I'm not saying they weren't good shows, but to me, the biggest failure is to stop trying."

And she's still trying with Swingtown. She strongly disputed the idea that giving the show a summer run represented any kind of loss of faith in the program. She pointed out that the network gave the show a good time slot - after CSI repeats on Thursdays - as well as an extensive promotional push.

"If we had abandoned or buried Swingtown, I would never have been able to live with myself," she said. "This is a labor of love."

Part of the connection is familial: Tassler is related through her mother to George and Nena O'Neill, the authors of the famous 1972 book Open Marriage. Though her parents weren't in an open marriage, the issues of equality and changing gender roles - topics that were explored in the O'Neills' book - were resonant ones for her.

Tassler told Kelley and his fellow executive producer, Alan Poul (Six Feet Under, Rome), about the personal connection she felt to Swingtown's themes. So she didn't have to do "the hard sell," she said, to convince them that the show belonged on a broadcast network rather than the cable home they had been aiming for. (Showtime had expressed interest in Swingtown, Kelley said.)

Kelley said Tassler was true to her word and didn't make him substantially alter the people or their stories.

Still, a show that touches on so many controversial subjects is bound to stir up a negative reaction in some quarters.

And changes did have to be made so that Swingtown could air on a broadcast network without invoking the ire of the FCC. For example, the instances of group sex in the pilot are much more implied than shown.

Both Tassler and Kelley say that the show's summer run is largely a byproduct of the writers' strike. Swingtown was originally set to debut at midseason because the network thought it would be better if the semi-serialized drama didn't get lost in the onslaught of fall premieres.

When the strike ended in February, only a few episodes of Swingtown had been shot. Rushing the show back into production and throwing it on the late-spring schedule didn't seem like a good idea to CBS executives, Tassler said.

Summer certainly seems to be a good fit with Swingtown, which takes place during the hottest months of 1976. And audiences have made scripted shows such as The Closer, Monk and Burn Notice into hits during what, just a few years ago, was considered a dead zone of reality and repeats.

"I think the audience is different in the summer; they're looking for something more escapist. There's a little more license," Tassler said.

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