Swingtown

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Airdate: 10-11 p.m. Thursday, June 5 (CBS); production: CBS Paramount Network Television

When they start switching partners on CBS' "Swingtown," they're not square dancing. Instead, they're testing the limits of open marriage or wife swapping, if you will (or if you won't).

Set during the summer of 1976 in a Chicago suburb not unlike Winnetka, Ill., where creator Mike Kelley spent his childhood, "Swingtown" aims to show what life was like in that polyester period of social revolution and sexual upheaval. Kelley does this by performing a sort of cultural biopsy in which three couples represent the three discrete parts of the entire adult population: the adventurous, the curious and the traditional.

Where "Swingtown" excels is in its effort to re-create the trappings of the era right down to its 8-track tapes, Princess phones, wide and striped collars and massive full-size cars. The show moves to a soundtrack that pulsates with disco and images of line dancing.

But style is one thing and substance is another. Even skillful performances by its largely unknown cast aren't able to hide the lack of character development and the sense that the people in this series are almost self-parodies. Their dialogue is shallow, and their lives even shallower.

Nor does it help that "Swingtown," which is very much about sexual exploration and experience, is presented on a broadcast network instead of premium cable, where it originally was pitched. The producers talk a good game about how this challenge made "Swingtown" a better show, but the reality is that, with so much restraint imposed here, steamy scenes become, at best, lukewarm.

Molly Parker and Jack Davenport play the pivotal couple, Susan and Bruce Miller, whose upward mobility takes them to a new home and neighborhood a short distance from their old straight-laced friends, Janet and Roger Thompson (Miriam Shor and Josh Hopkins). No sooner do they move in then the Millers become red meat for their new neighbors, Tom and Trina Decker (Grant Show and Lana Parrilla), who see them as potential players in their games of musical beds.

The Millers have two children, teen daughter Laurie (Shanna Collins) and adolescent BJ (Aaron Christian Howles). Ironically, their stories are more interesting and complex than those of their elders.

CBS has gone all-out to promote the series, but if ratings for "Swingtown" disappoint, what message will the network take from the experience? Will the network feel vindicated for moving this series from midseason, the perch for which it originally was intended? Or will network honchos wrongly conclude that original comedy and drama aren't worth the effort in the summer?

Cast: Molly Parker, Jack Davenport, Grant Show, Lana Parrilla, Josh Hopkins, Miriam Shor, Shanna Collins, Aaron Christian Howles, Britt Robertson. Executive producers: Mike Kelley, Alan Poul. Producer: Robert Del Valle. Director: Alan Poul. Writer/creator: Mike Kelley; Director of photography: Xavier Perez Grobet; Production designer: Scott Chambliss; Editor: Ron Rosen; Music: Liz Phair, Marc "Doc" Dauer, Evan Frankfort; Set designer: Gabriella Villareal; Costume designer: Mark Bridges; Casting: Liberman/Patton Casting, Elizabeth Harris.

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