The Ten Best THAT ’70S SHOW Episodes of Season One

Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re launching coverage on the best of That ’70s Show (1998-2006, FOX), which is available on DVD, Blu-ray, streaming, etc.!

That ’70s Show stars TOPHER GRACE as Eric Forman, LAURA PREPON as Donna Pinciotti, ASHTON KUTCHER as Michael Kelso, DANNY MASTERSON as Steven Hyde, MILA KUNIS as Jackie Burkhart, WILMER VALDERRAMA as Fez, KURTWOOD SMITH as Red Forman, DEBRA JO RUPP as Kitty Forman, DON STARK as Bob Pinciotti, and TANYA ROBERTS as Midge Pinciotti. With LISA ROBIN KELLY as Laurie Forman.

With a mischievous laugh-oriented sensibility inspired by a 1970s setting that invokes equal parts silly irreverence and romantic nostalgia, That ‘70s Show is such an easy show to enjoy, and I’m thrilled to see it finally get its due here. However, I want to preface our coverage with the understanding that formal analysis, as with the recently discussed The King Of Queens, can only be taken so far. That is, there are dramatic particulars that we can and will use to both define the show and establish how it delivers its episodic successes. But otherwise, its charm is not necessarily enhanced by intense scrutiny; rather, to maintain a general appreciation for this series and what it offers, one has to be relatively forgiving… whenever possible. This is a delicate way of saying that That ‘70s Show isn’t a staple of the genre, and my coverage has to begin with the assumption that you all know we’re NOT dealing with a Seinfeld or a Frasier or an Everybody Loves Raymond. We’re dealing with something that might be on the proverbial second-tier: a fun, easy to like comedy that reflects its genre well, but mostly in the very basic sense: it gets its laughs and makes us feel good… Okay, I don’t want to undersell the show either. It’s populated by well-defined characters, most of whom are extraordinarily well-cast, and boasts a low-concept premise that makes story generation easy. It’s well-built, and when things are great, they’re great; when things are not great, they’re… well, VERY not great… But again, I’m not sure that its descent in quality is as devastating as other shows’ — we just can’t take it as seriously — and true to the laid-back spirit of the ‘70s, I think coverage of That ‘70s Show is much more about finding what works than harping on what doesn’t… That said, I’m not going to be easy. (Am I ever?) The quest for quality is ruthless, and I think this show fails to deliver its best too often. So, you’ll know exactly when I believe this to be the case — and why. And, as usual, these beliefs all stem from the beginning, with how That ‘70s Show defines itself…

First, That ‘70s Show is NOT a ‘70s show. Oh, the series does a fine job of physically suggesting the 1976-79 era in which the action is set — or at least, enough so that we neither doubt the universe or regard its existence as a joke (the ‘70s isn’t being parodied; it’s being evoked) — but the writing is very much of the late ‘90s period in which it was launched. It owes much more to the trends of the latter than the former, and in fact, if there’s anything that That ‘70s Show seems wont to emulate, it’s Friends, the popular rom-com that married the notion of theoretically character-driven “arcs” (predicated on growth/evolution) with the soapy, predictably plotted relationship twists and turns that otherwise defined its long-term storytelling. This is clear right from the pilot, as That ‘70s Show introduces us to a group of six teenagers; two are in a relationship, and another two want to be. It doesn’t take long to realize that tracking the growth of these characters is going to be largely synonymous with following their romantic pursuits… and naturally, these interests bring their own pluses and minuses. Even though character is theoretically paramount and rom-coms make emotional investment easy, often the relationship story machinations take precedence, forcing the characters into scenarios that might not make the best sense given their definitions… Fortunately, ‘70s has several foundational qualities that both make this design more palatable and help differentiate it from, say, Friends. First, these six characters are teens, meaning that their emotional immaturity is vital to their depictions, and it’s able to justify some of the foolish choices that they’ll be forced to make. Second, because they’re teens, a large part of the show — and its conflict — comes from their relationships with their parents. Yes, That ‘70s Show has extra comedic ammunition in the form of the adults — namely, the Formans and the Pinciottis — who are expertly used as a study in ‘70s contrasts and as a (mostly) more stable, domestic unit that gives the show increased narrative dimension (closer to Carsey-Werner’s norm), and a regular distraction from the teenagers’ romantic angst.

The third foundational quality that helps enable That ‘70s Show’s soapy romantic pursuits is its ‘70s setting, for not only is this an extra element that no other sitcom from the turn-of-the-century can boast, it also provides a font of nostalgia that, even for viewers who haven’t lived through the ‘70s, connects with us in a way that makes the series’ job easier. I’ll explain; when the pilot closes with Eric and Donna’s first kiss on the hood of the car, it’s different from the final Ross/Rachel pilot moment, where we start to root for them because the series tells us of their inevitability. No, we root for Eric and Donna because it means something deeper: their young love reminds us of some similarly innocent, joyful moment from our own past, and no matter how old we are or whether or not we actually lived in the ‘70s, the rose-tinted fondness we all carry for sacred moments from our youth — that we’ll never forget as adults — is reflected subliminally throughout the series by virtue of its “permanent flashback” setting. Thus, when these big narrative moments come up — the first kiss, the “first time,” the break-up — they pack an extra emotional punch because the nostalgia makes us more personally invested… Now, previous shows set in their own pasts, like The Wonder Years and Happy Days, benefited similarly, but ‘70s, I think, uses its period setting the smartest. First, unlike The Wonder Years with its genre fluidity,That ‘70s Show is always propelled by the desire to make us laugh, and comedy is used as the primary metric for episodic success. This is important, for even nostalgically fueled dramatic moments have to feel tonally okay when juxtaposed against big jokes, some of which also result from the setting… That is, just because we take the ‘70s seriously, doesn’t mean that the scripts are above the kind of “hindsight” humor that both reveals the era and allows the show to telegraph some self-awareness about itself, which sitcoms often use to signal their own intelligence to the audience. The key here is, both comedically and narratively, NOT to let the ‘70s be a gimmick that distracts from character, as I think was too often the case on Happy Days, which reveled in (a false notion of) era pomp over character circumstance.

To that point, the series’ use of its setting is instrumental in determining where we’ll find its best episodes: when the ‘70s is used as support — comedically, narratively, dramatically — for its guiding character interests. Three examples: one bad, one okay, one great. The bad is “Streaking,” in which the bulk of comedic value is derived from the situational novelty of President Ford coming to town, and the character notion of Eric proving himself to Donna is subordinate to the era-specific details of the ostentatious premise. It screams “‘70s!” louder than “character!” The okay is “Prom Night,” which is the inverse. It’s all about the big narrative stuff happening with the characters, with not enough reminders of how this particular time influences the decisions being made. It’s fine, because it’s about these people, but not great, because there’s an element of the series’ identity not being well-used (at least, not directly — the clothes and musical score are peripheral, trivial). The great is my MVE, “A New Hope,” which takes a well-known bit of ‘70s culture — the premiere of the first Star Wars film — and uses it to influence its character-led stories. This is a seminal show for a variety of reasons — much more on this below — including the fact that it’s the first real example of the show using an established element — its loosey-goosey sketch-like comedic centerpieces, most of which are fantasy — in a way SPECIFIC to the ‘70s, thereby allowing the setting to comedically comment on the character-driven action memorably and uniquely. This marks the start of what I’ll call the “Long Golden Age” — a period slightly greater than two years, beginning 80% of the way through Season One and ending at the close of Three — in which the show is able to reach this ideal episodic balance with frequency: the characters are paramount, while the ’70s setting is supporting and helping define them… Now, if that’s the Long Golden Age, it stands to reason that there might be a Short Golden Age, too; well, there is, but for this analysis, we’ll call it the “Peak Golden Age,” and it’s, in my eyes, only about a year — from around February Sweeps 2000 to February Sweeps 2001. Before I explain why…

…I have to discuss how the show best functions. We established above what makes a great episode (and that the Long Golden Age is the period with the greatest number). But there are other qualities that indicate when the series, on a macro level, is at its best… Just as Happy Days was built around a singular character who then departed, That ‘70s Show is built around a singular character who then departed. That’s right; you don’t have to find him the funniest of the ensemble to recognize that Eric is established as the anchor and that his relationship with Donna is positioned as the most important emotional through line. His growth is ‘70s closest thing to a thesis, and the series’ dramatic health is directly correlated to how well he’s being explored. Of course, this will be an ongoing conversation, but now I’ll tease that the first four (or five) years are defined by the status of Eric’s relationship with Donna, which is the engine for tracking his (and her) emotional growth. And much like Ross/Rachel, the show also views them as “endgame” — meaning their happiness together is symbolic of the resolution of their dramatic journeys. Eventually, there will come a time when they no longer grow — mostly because the show doesn’t know if/when it’s ending and who’s coming back or not — and they instead become a slave to the machinations of their relationship. Yet here in the Long Golden Age (and even the years on either side), said relationship actually begets forward momentum, and it’s used to develop and work through their individual flaws, which are established early on… along with a central conflict that brilliantly relates to the larger gender-based drama of the 1970s: insecure Eric wants to nest with Donna like Red did with Kitty; insecure Donna wants to fly like Midge never could. This dilemma is born by flaws introduced very early on, and it’s clear both will have to compromise before their arcs are complete. Although, because it’s Eric series, he’ll have more work to do than Donna. At least, he should

At any rate, with Eric established as the way to determine the series’ best eras, it’s therefore fairly easy to see how this corresponds to my timelines for the Long Golden Age and the Peak Golden Age. First, the shows before the Long Golden Age, prior to March 1999, are dominated, until February, by one singular goal with regard to Eric/Donna: getting them in an official relationship. This isn’t a very conflict-rich endeavor, because though their individual flaws are established, they both so clearly want to be together from the beginning that nothing — not even their greenness — is a major roadblock. As a result, the year introduces Hyde’s feelings for Donna as a possible complication in November. But this isn’t good, because Hyde, along with Fez, is one of the year’s two non-romantically paired characters, which means that he is among the least defined. By using him solely in story, as the third point in a triangle whose resolution is inevitable, Hyde’s functional purpose supplants actual definition, and this is a character problem that hinders these stories. (It’s not until late in the year, thanks to the smart decision to move him into the Forman home — as a contrast to Eric — that he gets the narrative usage he deserves.)… So, Eric/Donna are officially paired when the Long Golden Age starts, and for about a year, until the Peak Golden Age begins, Eric has another singular goal: having sex with Donna. This is the kind of “teen summer movie” objective that ties in nicely with those themes of nostalgia that help reinforce the ‘70s identity, all the while evolving both characters within their relationship… Yet once they have sex in February 2000, we move into the period that I think is the peak, mostly because Eric/Donna no longer have one sole story arc, and instead the show has to explore episodically how their differences lead to conflict. This is when we REALLY start to see how and why they both need to grow. I place the end of this period around February 2001, because that’s when Donna gets the job on the radio and their drama becomes more explicit, almost so much that the story momentum of their upcoming split overtakes the character flaws that justify it. Thus, the end of Season Three is still episodically great (Long Golden Age), if not quite as character-y as the Peak.

Now that’s just an encapsulation, but you can see that the series’ quality very neatly aligns with what’s going on with Eric (or Eric/Donna). It’s true going forward as well, as the following two years (Four and Five), cover the necessary ramifications of their split and reconciliation, but with only vague notions that some growth may have occurred. (That is, those years don’t use the characters as well as the earlier ones. More later…) And then things go from okay to not-okay in Six, when it becomes clear that the relationship is not only limiting their evolutions, but perhaps even actively stopping it. By the time we reach Season Seven, and Eric’s character is purposely not growing because the show fundamentally believes Eric/Donna are endgame even though Eric is definitely leaving at the end of the year, the show is really in a bad place… But I’m getting ahead of myself. In the meantime, I’m here to talk about Season One, which, as noted, isn’t quite yet the series at its best — until “A New Hope,” when scripts discover how to episodically use the ‘70s setting in support of the characters, and the dramatic engine of Eric/Donna no longer comes at the expense of other regulars, like Hyde. Plus, there’s the increased use of the well-defined Laurie; she rounds out the ensemble, and the years in which she appears (Lisa Robin Kelly’s Laurie, I mean) are made better for the narrative benefits she provides. Also — and one last point — this first year, in keeping with its tonal self-discovery, indulges several stories featuring Marion Ross as Red’s mom — making a gaudy explicit link to Happy Days — and while the series won’t be above stunt casting EVER, these early examples of it feel more clumsy, especially because the show’s use of character isn’t quite yet what it needs to be. Ross’ shows trade in situational hahas over anything meaningful for Eric (so don’t look for them below)… Yet, with all that said, Season One is fun, and its characters are generally well-built. So, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify the year’s strongest.

 

01) Episode 1: “That ’70s Pilot” [a.k.a. “Pilot”] (Aired: 08/23/98)

Eric takes his friends to an out-of-town concert.

Written by Bonnie Turner & Terry Turner & Mark Brazill | Directed by Terry Hughes

Part of the beautiful joy in watching this opener well after the series has finished is reveling in how young all the “teenagers” look — their raw, unrefined newness (both as actors and people) is palpable, and it adds an additional layer of sentiment to the proceedings, beyond what’s already inherent to the series based on its ’70s setting. However, after stripping away the hindsight, the pilot remains a terrific encapsulation of what the series hopes to be, with basic definitions afforded to all the players (again, basic), including the parents, a clear anchor of the ensemble in the form of Eric, and an easily investment-worthy romantic through line between our leading man and Donna. Additionally, the series’ madcap sense of whimsy, which not only reinforces the setting but also defines the kind of comedic abandon in which the show will traffic throughout its run, is made evident — in the fun tracking shot at the party, the kids’ fantasy of what an adult event looks like, and the outstanding (and much replicated) scene where Eric is, well, not in his right frame of mind as his parents lecture him in the kitchen. This freewheeling energy aids the pilot’s youthful bounce, and certainly ratchets up the nostalgia, which is in full force in the final scene between Donna and Eric on the hood of the car, which we talked about above — for here, the ’70s setting makes the series’ intrinsic soap elements much more emotionally resonant, as Eric/Donna’s first kiss isn’t just about their first kiss, it’s about ours too. A well-made, original, setting-defining, character-establishing opener.

02) Episode 4: “Battle Of The Sexists” (Aired: 09/20/98)

Eric doesn’t like that Donna is better than him at basketball.

Written by Joshua Sternin & Jeffrey Ventimilia | Directed by David Trainer

You may be surprised to see this installment here — especially over some of the flashier, more popular outings noted below in the Honorable Mentions. I am too, for I know that this isn’t a classic — there’s nothing comedically exceptional about this one, even when measured alongside the lesser baseline of the Pre-Golden Age era. However, I had to include it because I had to discuss it, for it’s SEMINAL as far as Eric and Donna are concerned. You see, it’s the first to explore the possibility of deriving a conflict between the two based on their different personalities. This time, Eric — now that he and Donna are becoming more than just friends — is upset that she is so much more athletic than he is. It’s a timid, general conflict, but it introduces some of the gender-driven drama that will fuel their larger problems and define exactly how the two need to individually grow in order to get their happy ending. Also, these two, as this teleplay indicates, are totally the products of their parents, and with Red and Kitty indulging in their own battle, during which the man and woman have “traditional” roles, it’s only natural that Eric would carry these ideas into his own relationships. Right now, the problem is just about basketball. Two-and-a-half years from now, it’ll be about bigger things, stemming from a multitude of fears and flaws, but still connected to the general tension of the decade regarding the changing roles of men and women, which both sets of parents (particularly Bob and Midge) already reflect. This prescient entry is just the first of its kind.

03) Episode 6: “The Keg” (Aired: 10/25/98)

The group decides to throw a keg party.

Written by Dave Schiff | Directed by David Trainer

Party episodes tend to be popular, and while I think some of the appeal with shows like this are derived from the premise, I also think there’s natural value that comes from situations where the ensemble — particularly the teenage group — is all together. “The Keg” is a perfect example of how putting the core six in a party scenario is comedically interesting, for with everyone together, they’re able to bounce off each other with great ease, resulting in big character hahas. Accordingly, I like “The Keg” because it’s essentially a play on the theme from the pilot, teenage rebellion (Eric doing what he’s not supposed to), but with regulars who are even better defined and now share a better chemistry with each other than they did just a few scripts earlier. I chose this entry to showcase the series’ growing knowledge of its characterizations, within a plot that, like the pilot, does a good job of using the ’70s setting’s nostalgia for comedic and dramatic gain. (All the Rich Man, Poor Man talk with Kitty and Midge helps build their relationship and further flesh out their differences, too.) So, we come to this one for the premise, but stay for the characters. (Note: The Brady Bunch‘s Eve Plumb appears briefly as Jackie’s mom.)

04) Episode 7: “That Disco Episode” (Aired: 11/08/98)

The group goes to a disco, where Hyde dances with Donna.

Written by Bonnie Turner & Terry Turner | Directed by David Trainer

Truthfully, I think this is an uneven half-hour that I include mostly to show that, despite the obvious greenness, the series is moving in the right direction. Mentioned in my seasonal commentary, this is the November Sweeps excursion that formally introduces Hyde as a romantic “complication” for Eric and Donna. But since it’s a little too obvious that Eric/Donna are inevitable, using Hyde to form a triangle feels manipulative and a waste for his character, who is most at risk of being damaged. So, the soap opera elements of this plot are a drawback (although the stuff with Fez/Jackie is a little more comedic, mostly because the Fez character isn’t yet supposed to be taken seriously). I also blanch at the misunderstanding stuff with Hyde and Kitty — that’s situational — but appreciate the show trying to balance its drama with laughs… This idea of “balance” is seminal though, for when I think of “That Disco Episode,” I think of both heavy soap and heavy ’70s, as the disco setting (with a great musical score) makes the offering feel like the perfect example of the ideal we talked about above. And yet, the ’70s-ness of the disco setting is circumstantial; the drama of this story could happen anywhere and in any decade, and as such, I think the series still has some learning to do with regard to HOW it uses its setting to support the characters. If not for the fact that the disco sequence is so iconic and unique to the series — too memorable to ignore — I wouldn’t be highlighting it.

05) Episode 16: “First Date” (Aired: 02/14/99)

Eric and Donna have their first official date on Valentine’s Day.

Written by Mark Brazill | Directed by David Trainer

As with “That Disco Episode,” this outing skews toward the soapier elements of the series, with the romantic drama of Eric and Donna’s first date driving the A-story and featuring a complication by way of Hyde, whose presence here, as in the aforementioned, is a hinderance to the narrative’s overall appeal. Again, we’re too ahead of the action for this to be a meaningful conflict, and even if it was going to be substantive and jeopardize the progression of the central Eric/Donna arc (to which both characters’ goals are attached), it’s still not good for Hyde, who needs more definition and a better usage — one that doesn’t restrict him to being the perfunctory, temporary roadblock for what’s clearly inevitable… However, after getting past this wobbly development, I can see that “First Date” is a well-written entry, and the culmination of this first era in the show’s life, where Eric’s pursuit of Donna is the dramatic engine. Naturally, for reasons we’ve discussed, this doesn’t make for the best of That ’70s Show, and so, simply by virtue of there being forward movement on this front, this installment is something of a victory. As such, while I don’t typically like “big development” shows on principle, in this case, this represents something more: evolution within the main arc and the first step towards the start of the Long Golden Age. (Also, I think the teleplay is above average, particularly in how its able to contrast the parents — reinforcing the era, but through character.)

06) Episode 17: “The Pill” (Aired: 02/21/99)

Jackie thinks she may be pregnant and Eric learns Donna’s on the pill.

Written by Linda Wallem | Directed by David Trainer

Without a doubt, this is one of the soapiest half-hours here, with a plot that has Jackie fearing a pregnancy following her first few times of being sexually intimate with Kelso, while Eric (and the entire ensemble) learns that Donna is on the pill, even though those two — now officially together — haven’t yet become as familiar with each other as Jackie/Kelso. This excursion ONLY makes this list by being better than the average, for despite a story that typically predicts an entry of middling quality (where the rom-com dramatics overtake both the identity specifics that come from the projection of era and a broader interest in comedy), “The Pill” actually manages to be one of the funnier segments, and that’s thanks in large part to the character work. If earlier offerings showed growth within the teen ensemble, this one shows that everyone — including the parents — are well-defined and have set relationships with each other, such that a story like this has repercussions for all. This is indicative of a show that’s doing better on behalf of character than the episodic premise may seem, and for that reason, it easily earns a place on this list. Heck, it’s starting to feel like these people really know each other.

07) Episode 20: “A New Hope” (Aired: 03/14/99)

Eric worries about Donna’s friendship with Red’s boss’ son.

Written by Joshua Sternin & Jeffrey Ventimilia | Directed by David Trainer

Already noted for being my choice as this year’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “A New Hope” is the installment that I think officially takes the series into the Long Golden Age of its existence, as now the template for weekly greatness has been established (and it’ll be replicated with commendable frequency). To reiterate, this is the first really good example of the show making use of its fundamental 1970s setting in a way that actively supports the characters, instead of getting in their way and/or existing so peripherally that there’s no link to be made between this era and how that influences the regulars whose journeys we’re following. Here, the premiere of the first Star Wars film — which captures several characters’ imaginations (including Eric, although, it must be said that he doesn’t become a HUGE geek about the film until around Season Five, when this trait is heightened significantly) — is used not just as a structural tool, but also as one that then informs and comments upon the A-story, which is a seminal Eric/Donna narrative. You see, Donna has befriended Eric’s old rival, with whom he must make nice now that the boy’s father is giving Red a job, and Eric — possessive over Donna to a degree that speaks to his own insecurities (and will eventually expand outward to create the central conflict between the two before they expectedly split) — wants to step in to fight for his woman. There are some Star Wars gags in accompaniment, but the real victory on this front is the fantasy sequence, which has already become a series staple, even though this is THE FIRST TIME that the sketch itself is specific to ’70s culture. This is important because one of the things that defines the Long Golden Age is the series’ use of the ’70s, and when this is reinforced via the show’s requisite fantasies — as opposed to them being generic or not related to the era — the series is truly fulfilling its premise, or promise to the audience. And, as is the case here, when it’s also revealing for and/or driven by character, we’re dealing with a well-crafted sitcom. So, “A New Hope” is truly just the beginning, and it’s an exciting one.

08) Episode 21: “Water Tower” (Aired: 06/14/99)

Kelso falls off the water tower and Eric sees his parents having sex.

Written by Jeff Filgo & Jackie Behan | Directed by David Trainer

FOX turned “A New Hope” into a quasi finale when it put the series on hiatus for three months, offering the year’s last five original episodes during the summer rerun period. “Water Tower” is the first of this five-show stretch that operates not just as the concluding entries of Season One (which we’ve said are finally in the series’ Long Golden Age, where episodic greatness is delivered with consistency), but also as the aesthetic bridge to the second season, whose more prominent comedic energy (driven by character, mostly) is starting to come into form… And with the exception of one entry that was produced mid-season (with Marion Ross) that is obviously not part of this forward-looking, stride-making bunch of five (and another that was produced before the critical “A New Hope”), these last few shows are head and shoulders above the year’s earlier efforts, for now that the series has discovered the best way to be itself, things have started to click, both with comedy, like the very funny story of Eric walking in on his parents having sex, and with character, as this launches the running bit of Kelso (and the others) falling off the water tower. By this point, we know the leads, we know the show, and the show knows itself so well that this might as well be the start of a whole new list…

09) Episode 24: “Hyde Moves In” (Aired: 07/19/99)

Hyde’s mother takes off and leaves him.

Written by Mark Hudis | Directed by David Trainer

This popular installment deserves credit simply for launching a development that opens up new story for the series while also crystalizing several characters’ definitions, for the decision to have Hyde move in with the Formans not only means that his character can now be used as a foil to Eric (and Laurie, whose increased prominence also begets an elevation in comedy and an expansion of narrative), but also that he can be featured regularly in stories that honor his characterization and provide him with increased nuance… Now, by Season Two’s standards, which is what the entries of this first year seem to be more rapidly embracing, this isn’t a hilarious laugh riot (outside of the jokey Kelso/Jackie subplot). Yet I think it’s a supreme example of the era supporting the characters, particularly as far as the parents are concerned, for “Hyde Moves In” offers us a look at the stable duo (Red/Kitty), who are old-fashioned but struggling economically; the couple trying to keep it together by embracing some of the fleeting fads (Bob/Midge), who are careening to a split; and the non-existent parents who represent the worst of the era’s role models: Hyde’s mother, who abandons him. And all of these varying couples influence their children greatly, making for comedy/drama that’s both character-rooted and inspired by the setting established within the series’ premise.

10) Episode 25: “The Good Son” (Aired: 07/26/99)

Eric is annoyed that his parents seem to be favoring Hyde.

Written by Arthur F. Montmorency | Directed by David Trainer

Although not a perfect offering, this — the official first season finale — sets up the upcoming year perfectly, with a show of character, era, and comedy that, as with the last few episodes produced for this collection, indicates why ALL of Season Two is part of the Long Golden Age (if not the Peak Golden Age). Here, the character rewards of having Hyde move into the house with Eric and Laurie are on display for really the first time, and though the story contrives a climax with a bowling ball that I don’t think is fully motivated by the characterizations (neither youth nor ganja is a good enough excuse), the dynamic alone shows a favorable understanding of how they should be used going forward, and how, at the same time, the era is going to be suggested in a way that’s significant, but not overbearing… Speaking of overbearing, I have mixed feelings about the Red/Kitty subplot, where their friends turn out to be swingers; this feels like the gimmicky premise of all gimmicky premises, shouting “we’re in the ’70s” instead of showing it quietly. But because I think so much of their usage in this period is dependent on contrasts, especially when Bob/Midge are involved (as they are by this point — Midge’s feminism has clearly been putting a strain on their marriage), a story that showcases, via sex and relationships, how Red/Kitty are different actually feels appropriate. Therefore, aside from the gimmick, I think the funny story is also a tool to explore their characters, and, as such, I think it’s ultimately a great place to segue into Season Two (coming next week)…

 

Other notable episodes that merit mention include: the closest to the above list, “Career Day,” a popular entry that I think explores all the characters, despite a convenient structure and some ham-fisted moments (like with Katey Sagal as Hyde’s mom — it’s a stunt that doesn’t even symbolize the ’70s) that make it MUCH less valuable. Of more Honorable Mention quality are three outings that do a good job of reconciling character with the era, but just aren’t as technically stellar as the ten above: “Eric’s Birthday,” “Drive-In,” and “The Stolen Car.” And, lastly, I’ll just mention a few popular offerings that I think lead with their ideas, and not their character interests: the VSE “Eric’s Buddy,” the party-featuring “The Best Christmas Ever,” and the aforementioned “okay” “Prom Night.”

 

*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of That ’70s Show goes to…

“A New Hope”

 

 

Come back next week for Season Two! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!

10 thoughts on “The Ten Best THAT ’70S SHOW Episodes of Season One

  1. As usual, really appreciate your take on the series. What you look for in an episode, along with how the series’ Golden Age translates to what it’s doing for Eric is particularly insightful.

    There are a lot of sweet episodes here, but no real classics until “A New Hope” and “Water Tower.” Also, thank you for NOT choosing “Career Day.” I’m tired of seeing that show get overrated by fans.

    Can’t wait for Season Two! I love Laurie!

    • Hi, Nat! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I also like Laurie — she’s a great foil for SO MANY of the characters, and boasts a well-defined persona, too! Stay tuned…

  2. I’m so glad that you’re doing this series, as it’s one of my favorites. I personally would have bumped up Career Day and chosen Water Tower as my MVE, but I do agree with you about the Marion Ross shows. None of those were as funny as they could’ve been.

    • Hi, Charlie! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      “Water Tower” is definitely one of the season’s comedic high points. But I couldn’t deny the importance of “A New Hope,” which not only features an Eric/Donna story that hits to the heart of their main dramatic conflict, but also does so within a structure that literally discovers the most profound way of using the series’ premised era to further its character aims. It was an easy MVE pick.

      As for “Career Day,” I think we end up learning about each of the characters simply because the story’s design ensures it — and I appreciate it as a first season show for this forward progression alone — but, boy, I cringe at some of the moments in the otherwise uneven teleplay (with Hyde’s mom, in particular), especially because it comes later in the year, when there theoretically should be more consistency.

      Also, regarding the Marion Ross shows, it’s not their lack of humor that’s disqualifying (although, if they were funnier, there’d at least be an argument to include them), it’s that they’re too far removed from Eric’s dramatic arc and the narrative things about which we’ve already been primed to care.

      Anyway, stay tuned for my thoughts on Season Two — an even more fun collection of episodes!

  3. My son got me to watch “That 70’s Show” when he was in high school. I immediately fell in love with it. Red and Kitty are my favorites. I found this to be a funny show but not at the high standards that other shows follow. It just made me laugh. The time frame can be confusing since there was a Christmas show every year but only three years pass over the entire series. Oh well, looking forward to these reviews. I liked “A New Hope” also.

  4. I always found “A New Hope” to be a step up in quality but I never connected some of the reasons why. Thanks for this. You’re totally right that the more “70’s” the sketches, the better they are for the characters and the show.

    I’m curious what you think about this series in relation to 3RD ROCK FROM THE SUN. Obviously you like this one better because your’e covering it but because they’re both from the same company and people, do you think there are similarities?

    • Hi, Elaine! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Thanks for the great question. I think 3RD ROCK FROM THE SUN is a similarly laugh-laden, fun watch — with characterizations that are actually pretty specific and well-defined (and well-cast).

      However, I think THAT ‘70S SHOW has a better time with story because it’s got a more low-concept premise. The most ostentatious thing is its ‘70s setting, and while we *do* want this fundamental part of its identity reinforced on a weekly basis, the nature of the series’ simple design makes it possible to do this while supporting the characters, keeping them at the fore.

      3RD ROCK, on the other hand, has a high-concept premise, and in order to fulfill its promise to the audience, it has to be story or idea-driven on a regular basis, and as a result, character matters less. It’s therefore a less ideal form of sitcom to me — situational, but not because of character.

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