Food & Drink

Sex appeal vs. salacious tripe


10 p.m. Thursdays,

CBS, Channel 3



Debuts 10:30 p.m. Monday, Showtime

They say there's no such thing as bad sex, but they're wrong. At least on TV.

This month, the tube's boundaries on tasteful vs. tawdry get tested with two series, the '70s period piece “Swingtown” on CBS and the saucy “Secret Diary of a Call Girl” on Showtime.

“Swingtown” is Eden without the garden, temptation without the fruit. It is set in the era between Woodstock and Reaganomics, the liberation of The Pill and the consequences of AIDS.

It explores the journey of desire confronting a couple when they move to a new part of town and meet their neighbors – who happen to be into mate-swapping.

Open marriage seems to work for the Deckers, Tom the randy pilot and Trina the retired flight attendant. “It's not cheating. It's the opposite, actually,” Trina explains to new neighbor Susan Miller, who's in the ho-hum phase of her marriage to Bruce. Trina says sharing has given Tom and her a new level of intimacy.

This apparent paradox is left hanging as Susan accepts a Quaalude to help her digest the revolutionary concept.

Their meeting falls on Independence Day 1976, a holiday deeply symbolic of new beginnings. Bruce and Susan are left to ponder joining the party, though there's little doubt it's their destiny.

“Swingtown” uses its bold sexual and narcotic themes to shock, but fails to deliver – at least in its premiere last week – a cogent narrative deserving of anything more than a leer.

While reviews are split on whether there's any “there” there in “Swingtown,” the Parents Television Council has condemned the show, calling for CBS affiliates – especially those in the Midwest and Rockies, where it airs at 9 p.m. – to pre-empt the show.

Nothing could help its fortunes more than a few affiliates doing so. Getting banned in Boston is better than a million-dollar ad campaign, but “Swingtown” is hardly worth getting feverish over. Like the central characters, the series is suspended between two cultures: the traditional broadcast network and the artistically unfettered world of pay cable.

In its current realm, it goes too far and not far enough. If there is a story there, it needs to be told frankly and without innuendo. And broadcast television, a place where values of viewers outside the Hollywood screen community should be taken seriously, is not the place. This may be the central dilemma to life in “Swingtown”: fear of intimacy and failure to commit.

Not so with next week's bombshell, “Secret Diary of a Call Girl.” It will dwell at Showtime, a channel where you know what you're getting and you're paying full freight.

It is a full British import and that's to its credit. Somehow the accent, the glib British tongue, adds a heap of elegance. When the BBC's “Coupling” crossed the pond to NBC, it retained the British scripts but voiced them in American English. It was like hearing Shakespeare in a West Texas drawl. “Coupling” unraveled quickly. Cleverly bawdy there, crudely unwatchable here.

Billie Piper (“Doctor Who”) plays Hannah Baxter, a well-educated and clever 27-year-old in London with a secret alter ego – Belle du Jour, a high-priced hooker catering to the carriage class.

Her diaries outline the vivid extremes of her night job, but it is when Piper turns to the camera and talks right to us the real connection occurs. No, I was not abused by a family member, she says. Yes I enjoy my work very much, thank you. In fact I get paid to do things I could only fantasize about. And, yes, I am a prostitute and you may call me what you will – here she offers a thesaurus of possibilities – but spare me your judgments. I am a businesswoman, and while my work is unconventional, I'm quite good at what I do.

It turns out, what she does well goes beyond the physical. For Belle, the challenge is to get inside the mind of the client and figure out where the knot is that needs to be undone. She is a therapist in lingerie, and one must admire her most stunning asset – a nimble and challenging mind.

At its soul, “Secret Diary” is about the tension between two compartments of Belle's life and how she must struggle to keep them apart. “Secret Diary” succeeds in its burlesque – like Sally Rand's classic fan dance, you think you see much more than you actually do. You walk away stimulated, but only in the imagination.

One gets quickly lost in “Swingtown” because the show goes the other way – its hope for connection lies in the acrobatics rather than the affection.