Friday, June 20, 2008

Making Adultery Naïve

Dear CBS:

This is in regards to your “new hit series” Swingtown.

Certainly, after a mere sixty years of television broadcasting, I can understand that new concepts are harder to come by. Eventually, the “reality series” well, which never really succeeded in bringing anything “real” to the air, had to start running dry, which in turn meant that all the writers would actually have to begin writing dialogue again. And certainly, you’ve had to do your best to end-run the rules against full-frontal nudity and the Seven Words You Can’t Say On (Network) TV so your shows could compete against the more pornographic, foulmouthed offerings on premium cable channels.

As I say, I understand. After all, even the movie producers, who labor under fewer restraints than you do, are also struggling to bring freshness to the screen. You can tell this by the attempts to resurrect Sylvester Stallone’s action-hero franchises, the omnipresent screen adaptations of comic b—oops, uh, graphic novels, the lame spoofs of old TV series, and the continued production of Adam Sandler and Mike Myers vehicles. Creativity in Hollywood seems to be running at odds of 9 to 5 against. Most of all, I'm just one guy, so if I boycott the show, how's that gonna hurt you?

But a series about “open marriages”? Are you kidding me?

At first glance, one would think that a series whose focal point is wife-swapping would soon run out of story ideas. In an industry that has already done suburban hypocrisy to death, a series whose only variation on the theme is that the hypocrisy is shared by several couples seems hardly worth the effort. And we already have That ‘70s Show, so the retro value is practically gone. (The creators, Mike Kelley and Alan Poul, and your president, President Nina Tassler, may be nostalgic for that epoch of self-centrism, fuzzy-minded idealism and bad clothes, but I’m not.) If it’s intended as a celebration of “free love” … well, it would do a lot better on one of the premiums, although HBO reportedly passed on it because it’s too close to Big Love. Why? In its current version, there’s arguably not enough skin. The only way Swingtown could possibly sustain dramatic value is as a sustained, implicit criticism of postmodern sexual ethics.

Kelley’s own words rule out the possibility that such criticism may ever purposely infiltrate the subtext. Kelley and Poul’s stated aim, according to the New York Times (“Take My Wife. Please. I’ll Take Yours”, 5/11/08), is to “combine the raucous abandon of Boogie Nights … and the sweetness of The Wonder Years.…” Kelley himself says “the jury’s still out” for himself about marriage and monogamy. Ms. Tassler is closely related to Nena O’Neill, the co-author (with her husband) of the multi-million-copy book Open Marriage. Her view is that “[Swingtown’s] ideas about experimentation and exploration will feel relevant today as well” (Source: Los Angeles Times, “CBS goes inside the bedroom with ‘Swingtown’”, 6/1/08).

I’m not certain that Kelley or Poul watched the same Boogie Nights I did. The movie I watched did a great job of exposing the squalid emptiness and despair underneath the glitzy decadence of the ‘70s porn industry (and Burt Reynolds put in one of his best efforts as an artistically-minded skin-flick director being slowly stripped of his illusions). And their concept of experimentation and exploration is about as relevant to today’s sexual ethos as Woodstock is to a live performance by Korn.

The sexual ethic inherent in the “open marriage” concept is based on theories of human sexuality that were very popular in the 1960s but were predicated on a combination of inadequate data and political influence. The “free love” movement had long held the idea that marriage is an artificial constraint on natural urges and relationships. Radical feminists, who were preaching that marriage is a male construct designed to oppress women, enthusiastically embraced “free love” as an alternative to lifelong chastity. Both ideas still have a shallow appeal, and were arguable as long as sexual research labored under the influence of Sigmund Freud and had not progressed very far beyond the Masters and Johnson study or The Hite Report.

Today, though, such ideas find very little scientific support. While the definition of marriage may change a little as it crosses cultural borders, children still need a male and female parent in a long-term, stable union for their best chance to grow to an emotionally and physically healthy adulthood. That chance is increased further when the parental bond is reinforced by an extended family. Mr. Kelley may have persuaded himself that divorce was the best thing that could happen to his mother; without knowing her circumstances, I can’t say no. But for the majority of single mothers, divorce trades one kind of misery for another. In many cases, swinging was (and is, as it can still be found out there) simply an interim step between an unexamined stress in an otherwise good marriage and a divorce that could have been prevented by open communications and a little patience … a divorce that didn’t need to happen.

Far from being an exploitation of women, traditional marriage and the sexual ethos which supports it turns out to be the best protection women—especially young women—had against sexual predators. The explosion of teenage pregnancies and single mothers which we saw in the late ‘70s and throughout the ‘80s occurred despite the easy availability of contraceptives and the similar rise of abortion to an industry with an income comparable to a multi-national corporation. The rise of public access to the internet made possible a similar explosion of the porn industry, enabling men to exploit young women nationwide rather than in a small slice of Hollywood. (Sadly, it’s also enabled young women to participate in their own exploitation by allowing them to seek out older men for sex.)

Strangely, it appears that many liberals—especially those which dominate Tinsel Town and are responsible for cranking out sex-drenched entertainment—seem to be missing that part of the human brain which connects the dots into a picture. I almost thought someone was getting a clue with Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. But you can unfortunately count on Richard Belzer (was he ever really funny?) to spit out some retread ‘60s garbage to head off any speculation in that direction, just as CSI’s William Petersen will predictably come up with some out-of-context factoid to justify a kink. (Which, I guess, explains why the aging procedural acts as Swingtown’s lead-in.)

I don’t argue that swinging “caused” any of this. Rather, it was a brief, glittering blip on the radar screen, something people talked about doing more often than something people actually did. While orgies and wife-swaps do still happen, the participants (I understand) are carefully screened for discretion precisely so the neighbors won’t find out. Basically, it crawled back under the rock it came from.

Which leads me back to my initial point: The concept of Swingtown, as described by its own backers, is so pathetically naïve in terms of today that it could only be interesting as a view of sexual dystopia emerging in the suburban idyll. But the naïveté isn’t the pure innocence of the child; rather, it’s the vincible innocence of people who really ought to know better: the pseudo-ignorance of women looking for a way to save their marriages and men looking for a way to get their wives to cooperate with their philandering.

It may be a hit now, as people flock to see what all the hubbub’s about. But I imagine that it will become passé even faster than disco, eight-tracks and bell-bottoms did.