Swingtown (Thursday, 9 p.m., CBS) is CBS's attempt to sink to the depths of depravity.
The series is set in 1976, at the height of suburban swinging. A square couple named Susan and Bruce (Molly Parker, Jack Davenport) move to a go-go Chicago neighborhood where everybody's sleeping with everybody. The leering husband and wife next door are apostles of open marriage, and they talk Susan and Bruce out of their clothes within five minutes. Our squares simply pop a quaalude, roll a joint and join the orgy. The screen fills with writhing bodies - that's right, soft-core copulation smack in the middle of prime time. Clearly, American viewers are about to get aroused on a mass scale.
But wait. Just when you think Swingtown will be a wicked romp, CBS pumps in socially redeeming value. God forbid we could simply enjoy the bare-naked sex. No, it must be incorporated into a stern morality tale about the corruption of decent values. The soundtrack cues up an earnest Seals & Crofts song as the squares look searchingly into the ether, meditating on what they've lost.
Suddenly, American viewers are no longer aroused. If the series succeeds in bringing back Seals & Crofts, some of us may never have sex again.
Saturday, 7 pm (CBS)
This new adaptation of Flora Rheta Schreiber's book stars Tammy Blanchard as the troubled young woman with multiple personality disorder and Jessica Lange as her patient psychiatrist. It's the mid-1950s, and the medical establishment scoffs at the idea of multiple personalities. But Lange's Dr. Wilbur is stunned to watch Sybil change from one persona to another - 16 in all.
We, on the other hand, are not so stunned. The story is familiar from Sally Field's 1976 TV-movie version of Sybil, not to mention countless other psychological-disorder movies in the intervening years. There aren't a lot of surprises as Dr. Wilbur peels back the layers to discover Sybil's abuse by a cruel mother. On the other hand, both Blanchard and Lange give powerful performances, and the movie treats the potentially heavy-handed subject with finesse.
So part of me liked Sybil, while another part of me was bored. Part of me was moved, while another part of me laughed hysterically. Part of me....
Sunday, 7 pm (ABC Family)
This car-racing TV movie finds a pretty young newcomer (Michelle Trachtenberg) trying to make her mark in a male-dominated sport. She's living in the shadow of her estranged dad (Billy Campbell), a racing star whose bad behavior has ruined his career. And she's pitted against a devilishly handsome rascal (Drew Fuller) who's become the sport's latest sex symbol. Will she beat him or fall in love with him? And if she falls in love with him, will she break the heart of the regular-guy mechanic (Tommy Lioutas) who's always been sweet on her?
No, The Circuit doesn't overlook a single cliché. But, dammit, I like it anyway. The actors aren't just gorgeous, but lively, witty and substantial. Though, admittedly, they had me at gorgeous.
Sunday, 9 pm (Lifetime)
The series continues its soap-opera ways in the second-season premiere. Spouses at an Army post bond, fight, love, lose, cry and hug, usually in that order. The melodramatic plot picks up the pieces after a jealous husband set off a bomb in last season's cliffhanger finale. The writers shamelessly exploit Iraq to goose their insipid storylines, as Roxy (Sally Pressman) wonders whether her soldier-husband has been killed in a roadside ambush.
Support the troops; turn off Army Wives.
Tuesday, 9 pm (Starz)
Now that mega-budget superhero movies are a fact of life, it's hard to believe comic-book adaptations were once considered box-office poison. This lively documentary begins with a long chronicle of failure. In the 1940s, the movie industry treated Batman and Superman like junk, producing cheapie serials to show before feature films. In the 1950s, comics were demonized in congressional hearings (they supposedly led to homosexuality and suicide), so Hollywood kept its distance. In the 1960s, Adam West's dopey Batman movie flopped. And in the early '70s American cinema was obsessed with arty human dramas.
1978's Superman was the first big-budget production to take a comic-book character seriously, and grateful audiences made it the year's number-one movie. Sam Raimi, Tim Burton and other directors who actually cared about comics began to lavish attention on the likes of Spiderman and Batman; A-list actors clamored for the roles; and Hollywood studios happily poured zillions of dollars into the productions.
"There's no way I would have suspected, years ago, that this would happen," says Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee - the first known instance of Lee's imagination failing him.
Wednesday, 8:30 pm (NBC)
NBC declares that this "thrilling new series immerses today's top stars in the breathtaking world of the circus." Would you really call Stacey Dash, Christopher Knight, Antonio Sabato Jr. and Wee Man Acuna "today's top stars"? It kind of makes you wonder if the network is also stretching things with the words "thrilling" and "breathtaking."