This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog. This review was originally written a couple of months ago, when the programs in question were just starting; the first seasons of both are now over, and an update appears at the end of the piece.
Funny thing. When I wrote my recent Blowfish review of the “Sex and the City” movie, my friends all had just one question:
(I guess they figured out what I thought of “Sex and the City” without need of any more questions…)
I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it, but until I started getting these questions, I hadn’t even heard of “Swingtown.” I’m not sure how a prime- time major- network TV show about swinging escaped my notice. But if you don’t mind, I’d like to let my lack of pop- culture coolness slide for the moment, and just talk about “Swingtown.”
And a new face of sex on television.
To some extent, I’m reserving judgment on both shows. I’ve only seen a couple episodes of each, and it’s way too early to get into the serious socio- politico- sexual analysis of either one. But it’s not too early to say this: I’m watching. I’m curious. I care about the stories and the characters, and I want to see what happens next.
And that’s because the characters are — dare I say it? — human beings.
Which is an exciting new development in the relationship between alternative sex and television.
Let’s take “Swingtown” first. A new prime- time drama on CBS, “Swingtown” is about Susan and Bruce Miller, a couple who move to a nice Chicago suburb in 1976 and are introduced by their neighbors to the world of swinging. They’re clearly intrigued by these new possibilities; at the same time, they’re clearly freaked out, and not at all sure where they want to go with it or even if they want to go with it at all. Adding to their confusion are their old best friends, Janet and Roger, a more conservative couple who disapprove heartily: of all these new ’70s shenanigans in general, and of their friends’ new friends in particular. Susan and Bruce — especially Susan, who’s clearly the central character — feel increasingly torn between the old friends and the new… a conflict that symbolizes, and gets tangled up in, their conflicted feelings about the new sexual world that the decade is offering.
I’m not sure where the show’s going with this. And I’m not sure what its attitude toward swingers and swinging will ultimately be. On the one hand, the swinging neighbors, Trina and Tom, are a little too evangelical about swinging: a little too convinced that it’s the solution to all life’s problems, and a little too cool-kid superior about people who don’t want to play. On the other hand… well, that is a reality. I’ve met people like that. I’ve been people like that, in my younger days. And while Trina and Tom definitely have a high- school cool- kids vibe, they also come across as very genuine, complicated and three-dimensional, with honest affection for Susan and Bruce, and a strong marriage that works for them.
And while the show may be a little pissily judgmental about Trina and Tom, and may even be gearing up to play them as sophisticated seducers who blindly fuck up a happy marriage, it isn’t playing Susan and Bruce that way at all. It may be setting them up for a fall, but it isn’t being judgmental of them for being curious and open- minded and willing to try new things — and new people — in bed. They are the moral center on which all these social changes are pivoting… and they’re making friends with committed swingers, and taking baby steps into trying out that world for themselves.
“Secret Diary of a Call Girl” (Showtime) is nowhere near as complex or subtly shaded as “Swingtown.” Itâs definitely a bit in that lurid, gratuitous, “how can we put sex on our network today?” vein that Showtime is so good at. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that…) But it also shows its characters — prostitutes and customers alike — as very real and human indeed: funny and poignant, anxious and clueless, selfish and touching.
The show is based on the blog of a real (or supposedly real) high class London call girl, Belle de Jour. And reality is a major player in the story. While it definitely shows the sexy, entertaining, soft- core- pornographic side of Belle’s work, it also shows her as a thoughtful, quirky character, someone who basically likes her job but has issues with how it affects her non-working life. And in these early stages of the show, itâs not yet clear how that conflict is going to play out.
In fact, in the first five minutes of the first episode, Belle puts it this way, in what may amount to the show’s mission statement: “There are as many different kinds of working girl as there are kinds of people, so you can’t generalize. But I can tell you about me.”
And that, folks, is what I’ve been waiting to see in mass- media depictions of non- mainstream sex. Not role models; not shiny happy people with perfect lives. Just people: people who want freedom and who want security, people who love sex and who are cautious about its power, people who think carefully about their sex lives and who make hasty, impulsive decisions about it. People who aren’t based on stereotypes or formulas, and whose actions can’t always be predicted.
Like I said, I’m still reserving judgment on both programs. I’m waiting to see whether “Swingtown” goes for the easy and predictable arc of seduction and ruination — which it might be doing — or whether it goes for a more complex, ups and downs, plusses and minuses vibe — which it might also be doing. I’m waiting to see if “Secret Diary of a Call Girl” comes up with any real analysis of sex work, or just winds up showing pretty pictures of sexy people.
But the point is that I’m waiting. So far, both shows have been about human beings, every bit as unpredictable as non- fictional human beings are. And I’m just going to have to watch, and wait, to find out what happens next.
Which is one of the biggest compliments I can pay to any show on TV.
Update: I originally wrote this review a couple of months ago, when both shows were pretty new and I was all giddy with excitement about them. Now that the first seasons of both shows are over, here’s my sober, better- informed opinion.
“Swingtown”: I’m enjoying this show a fair amount. Not as much as I’d like to be, mind you… but a fair amount. The plotting tends strongly towards the soapy, and much of the time the dialogue is, shall we say, rather less than sparkling. But the characters are interesting and complicated and human. And it’s easily the smartest and most sympathetic treatment of non-monogamy on prime- time network that I’ve ever seen. It’s actually one of the smartest and most sympathetic treatments of non-monogamy that I’ve seen in any pop-culture venue. It’s not all sunshine and roses — it wouldn’t be much of a drama if it were — but the sexual mistakes and conflicts are human, and understandable, and presented with a surprising lack of purse-lipped judgment.
And I love, love, love the fact that, of all the three main couples in the story, the happiest, most loving, most connected, most shit- together- having — by a long shot — is the swinger couple. When the show first began, I thought its moral center was Susan and Bruce, the newcomers dipping their toes into the world of swinging and unconventional sex. But it isn’t. If the show has a moral center, it’s Tom and Trina… the hard-core swinging veterans and evangelists.
And that, I wasn’t expecting.
Which is kind of what it comes down to for me with this show. The dialog is often on the flat and cheesy side; the plotting often leans toward both the soap opera and the after- school special. But ultimately, it’s unpredictable. It keeps surprising me: not with its stupid curve- ball plot complications (which are legion, alas), but with characters who keep turning out to be more complicated and multi-layered than you’d expected. I wish I liked it better than I do; I wish I could rave about it unreservedly and tell you all to rush out and watch every episode. But like I said in my original review, the characters are human; and I’ve come to care about them; and I want to see what they’re going to do next.
In summary: Execution, 6.5. Content, 8.5.
“Secret Diary of a Call Girl”: This definitely isn’t as deep or serious as “Swingtown.” It’s lighter, it’s shinier, it’s fluffier, it’s way more about the soft-core sex. (For a show about swinging, there’s surprisingly little sex in “Swingtown.” “Swingtown” may be more serious than “Secret Diary…” but “Secret Diary” is rather more fun to watch.)
But again, I’m sucked in. The characters — especially the main character, Belle — are complicated and human, and they stayed complicated and human throughout the course of the season. And the show does an excellent job of presenting sex work as a positive career choice that a smart person with choices might reasonably make… without sugar- coating the real problems that the choice can create.
And it’s really, really pretty.
Like with “Swingtown,” I’m a tad disappointed. It’s not quite all that it should be or could be. But again, I’m sucked in. And happily so. I’m not completely blown away — the show isn’t “Buffy” or “Six Feet Under,” neither one of these shows is — but it has a lot of surprises up its sleeve, and I’m definitely watching to see what happens next.
And for a show about sex work — for a show about any kind of unconventional sexuality — that is pretty darned high praise.
Execution, 8. Content, 6.5.