Miriam Shor, right, stars in CBS's new '70s-flavored drama, "Swingtown."

Watching the first hour of "Swingtown" evoked two completely different reactions.

As a child of the '70s, it was both fascinating and somewhat disturbing to see how much things have changed since 1976. The hair, the cars, the clothes, the music — even the much-more casual attitude toward drug use.

(The adults are using quaaludes and cocaine; the teens are smoking pot.)

As to the portrayal of wife-swapping — the vice that gives the new CBS drama its title — that's just disturbing. Not so much because of the event itself, but because of the exceptionally bad storytelling that goes into Thursday's premiere (9 p.m., Ch. 2).

The show revolves around two couples. Bruce and Susan Miller (Jack Davenport and Molly Parker) are an upwardly mobile couple who leave their middle-class neighborhood and move to an upscale lakeside Chicago neighborhood. And they're immediately confronted by temptation in the form of their new neighbors.

Tom and Trina Decker (Grant Show and Lana Parrilla) are an attractive couple who have an open marriage. As the episode begins, Tom, an airline pilot, is consoling a stewardess (remember, it's 1976) who just spilled coffee all over his white shirt.

"Your wife's going to kill me," the young woman says.

"My wife is going to love you," replies Tom.

Cut to the next scene — and the three of them are in bed together.

Tom and Trina are attracted to Susan and Bruce and more than anxious to get them to open up their marriage, too.

Moral turpitude has been a staple of everything from Shakespeare to prime-time soaps. Without conflict there is no plot.

But Mike Kelley, the creator/executive producer of "Swingtown," who also penned Thursday's premiere, has taken the easy way out. Even in 1976, you wouldn't expect EVERYBODY to think that wife-swapping is a good idea. And yet almost everybody in the pilot seems not only accepting but downright enthusiastic about the idea.

With one exception. The Millers' former neighbor, Janet Thompson (Miriam Shor), is shocked and disgusted with the Deckers' lifestyle. Of course, from the moment she first appears onscreen, Janet is portrayed as an uptight prude who's judgmental and at least vaguely unfriendly. Think Gladys Kravitz, the nosy neighbor on "Bewitched."

Because, of course, only uptight, judgmental prudes would disapprove of wife-swapping.

Sorry, but that's bad writing, bad character development and bad moralizing. It's setting up a straw man to be knocked down. It's cheap and easy.

It's taking a page right out of an old melodrama in which the villain is a mustache-twirling cad who ties pretty young women to railroad tracks.

Trina tells Susan that having sex with other people has greatly improved her marriage. And the only character who seems to disagree is Janet, who's credibility has already been undercut.

In Thursday's premiere, the Millers take the Thompsons along with them to a party at the Deckers' house. And when Trina quite intentionally misleads Janet into heading for the basement, Janet is confronted with an ongoing orgy.

(This is still CBS, so we don't really see the orgy. But it's not hard to figure out what's happening.)

Janet is shocked, which seems a rather natural reaction. Except to the "Swingtown" writer, who makes it seem as if she's an overreacting martinet.

Maybe subsequent episodes will acquire some degree of balance or subtlety that the pilot lacks, but at the end of Episode 1 viewers are definitely left with the impression that wife-swapping is the cure for what ails your marriage. And if you don't approve, you're a prude.

That's easy TV, but it's not good TV.


E-mail: pierce@desnews.com