Sunday, July 20, 2008

Swing on Swingtown

At first I was excited about this new show, but in a sort of trepidatious way. I thought, "70's swingers; could be fun; could be sexy." I had some high expectations that it could be a sort of period piece like Mad Men, with perfect details (art design) and some pithy insight into the time and place (Chicago suburbs). I watched the first episode and was a bit disappointed, but also kind of intrigued. The disappointment was to be expected, because it is a network show; that means, for a show where a major plot line (swinging) revolves around sex, there is little of it. There was a lot of press about how this could have been a better cable show. I just found it a little predictable at first. The trouble with most network TV is that the characters are so widely drawn they are stereotypes, and the plots quickly devolve to the soap-operatic. Desperate Housewives is a perfect example of this.

So yes, it was kind of predictable and kind of shallow, but for some reason I stuck with it. The characters are all quite interesting and the music and period details did picque my interest.

The series revolves around three couples and their children. Susan and Bruce are best friends with Roger and Janet. They have lived in the same middle class Chicago suburb for years. Their friendship is mostly between the wives, Susan and Janet--as is the case with most two-couple friendships based primarily on proximity. Bruce gets a huge promotion and so he and Susan and their two kids move to a more expensive suburb. That's when everything starts happening--this is all in the first episode. Bruce and Susan's new house is right across the street from Tom and Trina, a coupla wild and crazy swingers. This is like the Chicago version of Ice Storm, but not as dark. Tom and Trina spot Susan and Bruce as they're moving in--actually they're practically drooling at the new meat in town. They are, at first, more like vampires than swingers, but their identity as swingers and the degree to which they prostletyze their lifestyle (yes, I would say this is a lifestyle, so don't go getting all PC on me) becomes very nuanced eventually. They're actually pretty cool about the whole thing, adopting a sort of a "take or leave it, but it works for us" stance that of course makes them irresistable. Hell, I'd do 'em in a minute! Trina is sexy as hell with a killer voice and wise eyes.

Anyway, I digress. Tom and Trina move in for the kill instantly. They invite Bruce and Susan over a party on, I think, on their very first night in the 'hood. Long story short, they seduce them after the party. Oh but I forgot the important part: just as they're about to go over to the party (which they don't know is a swinger party until they get there), who shows up with a covered dish, but their old pals Roger and Janet? So naturally Susan and Bruce invite them to come along. Susan and Bruce just barely fit. At least they are wearing polyester. But Roger and Janet look like chaperones from central casting. The whole point is constantly to portray Roger and Janet as the biggest squares in the world; they're actually complex and nice and even sexy in their own way--it would have been so easy to make them one-dimensional. But Janet, especially, is so tightly wound, and so unforgiving and sarcastic towards this brave new world, and really so deeply hurt that she (thinks she is) losing her best friend to this life of debauchery. So, in brief, their friendship starts collapsing while the foursome of Susan and Bruce / Tom and Trina starts flourishing.

That's all you need to know to pick this up. There are some juicy subplots though, mostly involving Susan and Bruce's' teenage (and lovely, precocious) daughter Laurie who falls in love with her hott(!) Advanced Placement English teacher and tosses aside heartlessly her equally hott, and age-appropriate surfer dude boyfriend (complete with corduory OP shorts). Now that's a predicament I would have very much enjoyed handling in high school. I keep wanting to yell at her "why choose?"

Okay, what I like about this show, and what's most surprising to me, is that the real drama is mostly internal. It's really about each of the characters trying on new roles, new perceptions of themselves and seeing how it fits, then shyly marching around in this new uniform, with a new set of lines, seeing how others are perceiving them. It's touching in a way. The acting is really quite good. I do wish this had been slightly moodier and on Showtime or HBO where it would have more creative freedom. But for network TV it's a wonder: there are no good guys, no bad guys, lots of shades of gray in this moral playground. And they're taking their time to let the story unfold. In the first episode Bruce and Susan lost their cherries to another couple, and now there's a heap of tension around whether they will do it again; they've said it was a "one time thing" but we all know that once you've bitten that apple. . . Now we're wondering if Roger and Janet might be going down the stony end with them. They never wanted to go down the stony end, but once you try pot brownies in some friends' country house where there's a lake outside and inside: (uh-oh!) Twister (!), well anything can happen.

One more detail I'm noticing: the bodies are 70's bodies (except for Tom, above, but he plays an airline pilot and everyone knows they are naturally muscular). Remember before Nautilus machines, before you had two gym memberships? You could stay fit--probably from running, or you could stay thin by chain smoking and watching Watergate hearings all night. But no one was really that muscular. It wasn't a high value. It was more important that you danced well, dressed well, and had nicely feathered hair. At least that was how it was for me, in high school. I never touched a weight machine until college--that was the 80's, and sometimes I wonder: have these pecs made my life any better? What if I had spent that time writing a TV show about Pocatello? Nah, I'll take the biceps.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

New Yorker, New York Times, New Post!

I know I know, long time no blog. But thanks to everyone who said, "when's the next post?" I have more ideas than time these days, but that's an excuse. My computer got stolen, but that's an excuse too. It's been hot, the fires in California, the film festival, a thousand reasons for what amounts to writer's block.

But I've been running across things in magazines I want to share, and in the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, and in the daily New York Times. Where to begin?

If you are a Mad Men fan--and who isn't who has even seen one episode--you must immerse yourself in the NYTimes Magazine think piece published a few weeks ago. It's a great look at what makes the series the best thing on TV, how realistic it is or isn't, what's the real social comment that the writers are trying to make (this will surprise you--it's not what you think), but mostly it's a juicy portrait of the neurotic Matthew Weiner, the creator and show-runner of Mad Men. And the best news of all: the DVD of the first season is out, so you can catch up on it, before the second season starts on July 27th.

One more from the New Yorker. If you didn't read the elevator article (sorry, Ed!) a few months ago, you will be a total loser at the office water cooler. Everyone is talking about it and the accompanying video. Now here's the thing that's most interesting about the article. This guy's life was ruined by the event. Things happen to us that become bends in our life trajectory--it changes everything, but compare and contrast what happened to the guy in the elevator what happened to Laura Bush.

"I Smoke. I read. I admire."

Did anyone read the Maureen Dowd op-ed in the New York Times about Laura Bush yesterday? Someone has written a fictional account of her life. Fair enough, but the editorial by Dowd about the book, had these really provocative paragraphs:

Once in a while, you’ll read about something she’s said, like that legendary line she uttered to her future in-laws — “I read, I smoke, and I admire” — that makes you realize how intriguing it would be to see the real Laura. One with her guard down and outside of the Kabuki-like job of first lady.

But there’s only one vessel that can ferry you past Laura’s moat, and that’s fiction. Ms. Sittenfeld has creatively applied her crayons to all the ambiguous blanks in the coloring book. It isn’t an invasion of privacy. Art has always been made out of the stories of kings and queens. Fictionalizing historical figures is fine. Fantasies about public figures are inevitable. The question of an ostensibly ordinary girl who lives through extraordinary things will always be gripping. For “Madame Bovary,” Flaubert partly drew on the real-life story of Delphine Delamare, a village doctor’s unhappy wife who had lots of lovers and a premature and humiliating death.

And the story of the quiet, pretty librarian who could suffer the fate of being an old maid if not rescued by the dashing hero is a favorite American narrative — from “The Music Man” to “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

During her husband’s presidential runs, many reporters shied away from asking Laura Bush about the freakishly horrible accident she had when she was 17. Hurrying to a party, she ran a stop sign in Midland, Tex., one night on Farm Road 868 and ran into a car that turned out to be driven by the golden boy of her high school, a cute star athlete she was believed to have had a crush on. He died instantly of a broken neck.

As Ann Gerhart wrote in “The Perfect Wife”: “Killing another person was a tragic, shattering error for a girl to make at 17. It was one of those hinges in a life, a moment when destiny shuddered, then lurched in a new direction. In its aftermath, Laura became more cautious and less spontaneous, more inclined to be compassionate.”

Laura has rarely spoken publicly about it, except to say in 2000 that “it was crushing ... for the family involved and for me as well.”

How could a novelist not be drawn to such a tragedy? It’s easy to imagine all that guilt, shame, conscience, fear, sex and nightmares in the hands of Eudora Welty or Larry McMurtry.

Wow. Did you know that about Laura Bush? I knew she was a big reader, a closet smoker, but I didn't know about that tragic accident. And she made a pretty good life for herself, except she married the most public idiot of her generation. Still, reading this: I love her. And I love Dowd.

And I love New York, The New Yorker, and The New York Times. I have nothing to say about New York really except see Sex and the City. Even though the NYT review called it shallow. Duh! (And not just shallow, but "the pits, vulgar, shrill, and deeply shallow." Thank god movies can be all of those things and deeply enjoyable at the same time, thank god Laura Bush made it, and thank god for Mad Men.