I wasn’t much of a fan of the 1970s while I was growing up. We went from hippie sensibility to disco distraction, impeached a president, suffered through an oil embargo, and the clothes and hair basically sucked big time (hmm… history really does repeat itself), but there was a gem of a TV show that brought back my own pleasant memories of coming of age in the late disco area.
No, it wasn’t The Wonder Years, although that show was a fairly accurate depiction of life in the early '70s. The program I’m referring to is That ‘70s Show.
Originally airing on FOX in 1998, That 70s Show starred Topher Grace as the nerdy Eric Forman, Ashton Kutcher as the terminally attention-deficit Michael Kelso, Danny Masterson as the burn-out, radical-thinking Steven Hyde, Mila Kunis as the shallow, cheerleading Jackie Burkhart, Wilmar Valderrama as perverted foreign exchange student Fez, Laura Prepon as Eric’s dream girl next door Donna Pinciotti, Kurtwood Smith as Eric’s scary father, Red Forman, and Debra Jo Rupp as Eric’s kooky mother, Kitty. That '70s Show ran for eight seasons and spawned a successful transition to the big time for Ashton Kutcher (also known as Mr. Demi Moore).
There were several reasons why I (and my husband) really liked the show. For one thing, we spent the late 1970s growing up in the Twin Cities. Instead of going through the trials and tribulations of high school, both of us were in college, which made us a little older than the kids on the show.
Still, we shared many of the same situations visited by That ‘70s Show. We both had that burn-out, radical thinking, pot-smoking friend. We both knew that nerdy kid next door who was in love with a beauty, and we both watched the wallpaper dance while our parents yelled at us.
While Minnesota is not quite Point Place, that fictional small town somewhere outside of Green Bay (was it Oshkosh, Appleton, Baraboo, Beaver Dam? — we still don’t know), it shares the same quaint Midwestern charm as its cheese-headed neighbors to the east.
When That ‘70s Show was originally released, we weren’t watching FOX sitcoms. At the time, we were watching the funny guys on Comedy Central. We have since made up for this omission and have purchased all of the DVDs of the shows. I consider the first few seasons to be some of the golden moments of television.
Even though the depiction of a Wisconsin winter wasn’t exactly accurate (I seem to remember being buried under many feet of snow back then), the characters were totally believable. I’m not the kind who looks at trade magazines, so I don’t know for sure, but I got the feeling that everyone genuinely liked each other and had a great time being in the show – this from the barely contained snickering that could be seen in the background.
Ah, but the lifetime of a good sitcom is fairly short-lived. It’s hard to come up with something new and exciting for eight long years. I could feel the disintegration of the show long before season eight.
After viewing season seven, which was getting to the brink of feeling insincere and a bit staged, I waited with trepidation for season eight. Season seven was bordering on lame, with Eric turning into a huge, directionless slob on his “year off.” This was totally unbelievable when you consider that his father, Red, was the epitome of cranky. He wouldn’t have stood for it. He would have tossed him to the curb on his "dumb ass." Then, too, Donna taking him back (sort of) after being left at the altar was a bit of a stretch for me.
Season seven was the beginning of the downhill turn. The “kids” were fast approaching their 30s in real life, and the fresh blush of credibility was starting to fade. Several people informed me that season eight was just plain God-awful. (Remember, I hadn’t seen any of the episodes yet.)
While I was fairly certain That ‘70s Show probably suffered the same fate as those other Wisconsin-based sitcoms that continued into an area too far past their prime, like Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley, I didn’t think the show would reach sewer-like depths of horrible. I was wrong. Season eight was finally released on April 1. I have to agree with my friends’ warnings. It is God-awful.
First of all, Eric is working in Africa? This is totally unbelievable. Hyde marries Samantha (Jud Tylor), a Vegas stripper who doesn’t look like one and is barely tolerable. She doesn’t appear to connect with the rest of the cast (even her husband) and therefore doesn’t connect with me as a viewer.
Kelso leaves after a few episodes. Without his superior comedic timing (oh yes, Ashton Kutcher is a master!) to temper the personalities of those left, the shows without him suffer big time. The pairing of Jackie and Fez as a love match leaves a yucky feeling in my mouth, like eating a peanut butter and sardine sandwich.
Alas, the biggest bone of contention for me is the addition of Randy (Josh Meyers) as a supposed comic foil and possible love interest for Donna. While the other actors seem like “regular” enough people to live in the middle of Wisconsin, Randy does not. He’s just too chipper, appears too Californian, and smiles too perfectly.
He tries way too hard, and for a show that had the specter of death hanging like a cloud over it, the overacting is too much. What worked for That ‘70s Show in the early years was the subtlety of the inside jokes. To throw all of that over for “in your face” comedy just ruins the mood. I was happy to know season eight was the last one just to see Josh Meyers out of the picture.
Luckily, the final episode saves the otherwise dismal day, when loose strings are tied up. Sort of. Yeah! Kelso is back, too! It’s the beginning of the ‘80s and we all know how that decade turned out. I won’t be throwing out my DVD collection, as I still love That '70s Show, but I’ll be cringing every time I see season eight.