Last night, my curiosity piqued by the Countess' review, I watched an episode of Swingtown, CBS' summer series about group love by the light of a lava lamp in the 1970s, a decade for which there is still no good excuse.
To my relief, except for the ridiculous Parker Stevenson and Shaun Cassidy as The Hardy Boys-wigs on two of the teenage boy characters, 70s kitsch was kept to a minimum. To my disappointment, so was the group sex. Ah well.
Actually, the big soap operatic question---whose bed/jacuzzi/sunken living room and when?---seems to involve the three female leads: when will they quit with the optical intercourse and get down to making out and in what combinations? Probably it's just my dirty mind at work, but it sure seemed that the wives were far more interested in each other than they were in the husbands, their own or each other's. Understandable, since the husbands are a pretty bland bunch, almost interchangeable physically---they could swap Grant Show's mustache every episode and you wouldn't notice that a different actor was playing a different husband this week---and the writers didn't give any of them anything much to say for themselves.
Swingtown isn't any more about the 70s than Mad Men is about the end of the 50s. Both shows are set in the past for the same reason Shakespeare set so many of his comedies in Italy and France, to disguise their contemporary satirical points with fairy dust (in Mad Men the fairy dust looks like cigarette smoke and in Swingtown it looks like polyester).
The historical settings are fun for the designers but they are problems for the writers. The temptation is to have the characters keep reminding the audience what year it is. But characters in historical fiction don't know they're living in the past. They think they're living in the present. And they can't see into the future. So they shouldn't talk as if they're cribbing from history books about their own time. Dialog shouldn't contain many temporal signifiers. Which is to say you don't want to have characters who happen to be living in the 1970s saying things like:
"Did you watch the Watergate hearings today? Can you believe Nixon taped all those conversations!"
"I bought the new Zepplin album today. Man, that Jimmy Page is a genius!"
"They're called Earth Shoes. They're supposed to be much better for your feet than regular shoes."
Mad Men falls into this trap regularly but then it's the main characters' jobs to be paying attention to trends and fads. Caught only one moment of this in Swingtown. Molly Parker's college student daughter has just finished watching Double Indemnity with a guy she's maybe interested in. He asks her what she thought of the movie and she says, "I know I'm supposed to go along with the whole femme fatale thing, but I just wish they didn't always have to portray powerful women as evil."
I guess we're supposed to think, "Ah ha, proto-feminist consciousness raising. It's the 70s!"
What I thought was, "This is all you have to say about Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity? God, what a pill!"
Note to the young: If someone's first response to your asking them what you think of a movie you like is a political rant, run. You are not on the same wave length and never will be.
But, come on. Hollywood in the 30s and 40s did not have a problem with powerful female characters. (As opposed to female characters with power, a different story.) A proto-feminist in the early 70s would more likely watch an old movie and wonder why there were no more powerful women like Barbara Stanwyck in the movies of the day. Even the femme fatales of the 70s were sniveling neurotics. Think of Faye Dunaway in Chinatown. And if the writers still wanted to make the point using old movies, there are better examples. How about Woman of the Year in which a strong, accomplished, philanthropic journalist and expert in foreign policy is shown up as silly and helpless because she doesn't know how to make toast for her man?
And speaking of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy movies as well as movies that might inspire a political rant when the credits roll, the featured film for next week's Wednesday Night at the Movies open thread at newcritics is Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.
Nice segue, Lance.
Thank you. I try.
By the way, as a Iead-in to the thread, I'll finally be posting my long-delayed interview with Karen Karbo, author of How to Hepburn.
I'll believe that when I see it.
Sure, Lance. Sure. Whatever you say.
At any rate, head to the library, click on over to Netflix, shop at Amazon, and get yourself a copy of How to Hepburn and read it while watching Guess Who's Coming to Dinner while taking part in the open-thread.
Multi-tasking. That's so 2005. Twenty years from now characters on the TV show about the early wildcat years of a handsome and dashing blogger fighting for truth, justice, and the American way with just his keyboard and a mouse will use that word a lot.