CBS might be an unlikely home for the new series Swingtown -- a sly drama exploring the sexually swinging '70s -- but it’s a perfect fit for executive producer Alan Poul. With groundbreaking dramas like Six Feet Under, Big Love, and My So-called Life on his resume, the openly gay Poul has a commitment to television that pushes the envelope. We talked to him to find out how Swingtown (airing Thursday, June 5, at 10 p.m.) got started and whether we can expect any of its characters to swing in a same-sex direction.
Alan, I’m feeling a little protective of Swingtown. It's such a smart, unique show, but it's airing on a very traditional network. How did something like this, which you'd normally expect to see on FX or HBO, end up on CBS? Well, first of all, your protection is welcome -- and maybe unnecessary, because so far, we're doing OK. You actually put your finger on it in the question. I was under an overall development deal at HBO when we finished our run of Six Feet Under, and this was one of the projects I brought in as part of that deal. Mike Kelley, who created the show, is an old friend of mine, and he had worked on a lot of network shows, and he had this idea for what he thought could only be a premium cable show. He brought me the pitch, and we worked on it and felt that it was a slam-dunk for HBO.
And? Well, we took it to HBO, and we pitched the show, and they were very intrigued...but since they had several projects already in production or late-stage development that dealt with, as they put it, "multiple sexual partners," they felt that they couldn't take another one on their plate, so they regretfully passed. Mike then wrote a script based on the pitch and then, thinking again that this show could only ever exist in the cable sphere, we went to Showtime, where they were very interested in buying it, but there wasn't cash on hand -- it wasn't their buying season. We were more than happy to be patient, and then in the interim we got a call from our agent that CBS wanted to buy the show. We were as shocked as you probably are to hear that that's where it landed.
There’s certainly a lot more sexual innuendo than you tend to find on CBS. I'm thinking of Lana Parrilla's smirk when her swinging character watches Pyramid and the category is "Things You Spread." But, Alan, naming the central family's teenage son B.J.—really? [Laughs] It's so funny. You're not the first person to bring that up, but it's so not true! The truth is that the show itself is loosely based on recollections that Mike had from growing up in Winnetka, Ill. The B.J. character is kind of based on Mike, and one of my best friends growing up was named B.J. Miller -- that's who the character is named after. You know, that kind of lurid, winky-winky innuendo is so not what the show is about, but it's just amazing. You put something out there, and people will read a different thing into it.
In its nontraditional examination of monogamy, Swingtown reminded me of two other series you’ve been involved with: Six Feet Under and Big Love. I come from a cable background and have a cable sensibility, but I do think that questioning traditional relationships is in the zeitgeist right now. I think that we've become more open to depictions of it on television, and that's why the shows you mentioned have come about. The fact is that the genesis of the questioning of the traditional family unit dogma is in the '70s, and that's why it's so great for us to go back and look at it from the point of view of this period. Our main grown-up characters are in their early 30s. They were raised in the '50s; they got married in the early '60s. The sexual revolution passed them by, and they basically got married and began to breed [laughs] based on the unshakable assumption that you had to marry the first person you had sex with and that you basically had to begin propagating. That was an unchallengeable assumption, and then people began to challenge it.
It's also notable that Swingtown, Big Love, and Six Feet Under all boast gay creators or gay executive producers. Do we look at the traditional family unit in a way that informs the sensibility of these shows? You know, you're preaching to the choir because when working in television and film, I'm always astonished that -- whether they generate gay content or not -- the percentage of gay talent in the front ranks of innovators is always disproportionately large. Because I am a champion of the queer sensibility, I do believe that having outsider status conferred on you as a child does force you to think more creatively and also forces you to look at the big picture of why people do what they do.
In the pilot, at least, I felt there was a hint of bisexuality with Lana Parrilla's character, Trina. I got a vibe that she's gone down that road before. Are you saying "gone down," pun intended? [Laughs]
See, now you've got me doing it! But I'm curious whether any of the characters in Swingtown will be exploring their queer sides as the series progresses. There are certainly hints that there is a certain amount of sexual fluidity within the group dynamics -- in particular, that the Deckers [played by Parrilla and Grant Show] get involved in. If you've studied open-marriage tracts of the time, it was true that within the early days of open marriage, girl-on-girl contact was tolerated to a much higher degree than boy-on-boy contact, which was strictly prohibited -- sort of like the straight male porn aesthetic, right? On our show, I would say that the relationship that develops between Trina and Susan is certainly a deep, enduring friendship, but that doesn't mean that it's a friendship that has to be devoid of physical content.
You know, I'm surprised you didn't bring up any of the younger characters.
You mean the friendship between young boys B.J. (Aaron Christian Howles) and Rick (Nick Benson)? That's the ringer. So far, we haven't explored it except in subtextual terms because we're depicting them as presexual. But it's clear in the pilot that little Rick, B.J.'s best friend, has a boy crush.
How so? Just the way that Rick is attached to B.J. and is constantly jealous of him. Actually, there was originally a scene that we never shot that made the subtext a little bit more overt in terms of Rick's boyish attachment to B.J. We screened the pilot for test audiences, and they just jumped to the assumption: "Yeah, I liked the friendship between the two boys, one of which is gay." You can interpret it as you like. These are feelings that the people having those feelings were not even aware of.
Will any explicitly gay characters ever be introduced? Through a series of circumstances I can't tell you about, Janet (Miriam Shor) will find herself going back into the workplace before the end of the season, and she'll make a new best friend who is going to be her contact in Chicago's urban gay subculture.
Is that something you’re interested in exploring? The world of the show initially is very white, very straight, and very suburban in the way that suburbia was segregated in those days. Once we feel comfortable that we've delineated that world, we can begin to stretch and explore other lifestyles that were taking place at the same time. It takes a while, but we want to get our characters into a broader range of society.