Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re continuing our 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, TANYA ROBERTS as Midge Pinciotti, and LISA ROBIN KELLY as Laurie Forman.
After having laid out the basic trajectory for my commentary in last week’s entry, the rest of these posts won’t need as many words. You already know that Season Two, along with both Three and the last few episodes of One, comprise what I’ve deemed the “Long Golden Age,” representing a period of consistency and episodic greatness. And you already know that we’ve defined episodic greatness as the series’ ability to project the most key part of its premise — its ‘70s setting — through story in a way that is supportive, neither overshadowing (nor existing peripheral to) its guiding character interests. Additionally, we also recognized that the series’ closest thing to a thesis is the growth of its anchor, Eric, whose relationship with Donna — true to this Friends-like rom-com — is the vessel through which stories explore him, and in these first few years, it is the show’s principal dramatic purpose. In fact, we saw how the start of the Long Golden Age couldn’t begin until the first year transitioned from Eric’s romantic pursuit of Donna to his sexual pursuit of her, a goal that has more character-based conflict, yet reinforces the same sense of nostalgia that made their relationship initially so potent. Season Two remains largely defined by the new Eric/Donna storyline… at least until February, when they finally become intimate and the show abandons a formal arc for them in favor of episodic conflicts. This latter period, which I say lasts until February 2001 (mid-Season Three) when their upcoming split becomes an arc unto itself, is what I call the “Peak Golden Age,” because it suggests the best use of character — and not just for Eric/Donna (whose flaws are better used in story), but for the rest of the cast as well, for once the main pair has smaller, weekly stories, there’s more room for the others. This means underbaked characters like Fez and Jackie are given more time to grow; we see it here in the last ten episodes of Two (like in his mini-arc of wanting to date her after she and Kelso split) — the start of this peak period — and we’ll see it even more in Three, which, like all of Two, is episodically great throughout, but most character-driven during the aforementioned peak of the more-than-two-year Golden Age.
To that point, while I do think there’s a difference in quality within Two between the episodes before Eric/Donna have sex (“The First Time”) and those afterwards, this distinction is more about recognizing the series’ most ideal (and least flawed) use of character in late Two/early Three, than it is about critiquing the nature of early Two. Because, actually, the definition of the “Long Golden Age” is episodic greatness, and with all of Two (and Three) falling into this period, the ENTIRE year is filled with gems — so many that, like Three, I’d probably be more comfortable with a list of 12 favorites than ten, for these are the two best years… And I can even understand why Two would be someone’s absolute favorite. Although Three is smarter and more ensemble-geared, Two benefits from the unique blend of novelty and knowingness. We’ve explored this phenomenon before: it’s where the growing understanding of character crosses paths with the dwindling novelty of identity (in this case, the ‘70s setting), making for the most perfect, intrinsically exciting entries. In other words, Three probably is smarter for character (overall), but Two is inherently fresher, particularly with the premise. To wit, this is the year (mostly in its first half) that best features the parents, for while Bob/Midge have marital difficulties, the show also explores the financial problems of the otherwise stable Red/Kitty, thus showing the varying effects of the decade on contrasting couples. Furthermore, this year makes supreme use of Laurie, an outstanding foil for, well, everyone, as her affair with Kelso, which starts at the top of the season, offers an ensemble arc with rippling consequences. And, what’s more, the stellar cast is rounded out by the introduction of Tommy Chong’s Leo, who appears five times this year — mostly in/after February — and, as with Laurie, helps give rise to the notion that the series is firing on all cylinders, for the ensemble is complete and every character is valuable. And frankly, each upcoming departure will coincide with changes in quality. Seasons Two and Three — especially the last half of Two, first of Three — are the only years where everyone is present and ready to be used. So, this week (and next) is That ‘70s Show at its best, and I have, as usual, picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this year’s best.
01) Episode 26: “Garage Sale” (Aired: 09/28/99)
Hyde makes special brownies for the Formans’ garage sale.
Written by Dave Schiff | Directed by David Trainer
My choice for the Most Valuable Episode (MVE) of the year, “Garage Sale” is the kind of offering that I don’t enjoy having to praise above the rest of this excellent season’s output. This is because it goes against several of the points I’ve made above — not only is this NOT from the second half of the year, which I’ve distinguished as being the “Peak” part of the longer Golden Age, but it also uses a gaudy, idea-driven narrative that, even worse, doesn’t have a lot to do with Eric, or more precisely, Eric’s relationship with Donna, which is the primary engine of his emotional arc (not to mention the series’). And yet, at the same time, it validates so many other things — beyond proving that the ENTIRE second season is gem-laden, it also boasts a strong use of the series’ identity, specifically its ’70s setting, for with a garage sale motivated by tough economic times, a trip to the movies to see The Goodbye Girl, and the entire comedic centerpiece revolving around the parents getting ahold of some pot-laced brownies, there’s no doubt about where this series — and these characters — exist. And though I maybe could argue that the idea-led nature of this entry’s appeal suggests that the era is not so much used in support of the characters, my opinion is buoyed by several things: A) the fact that the brownies come from Hyde, which makes a lot of sense and somewhat explains the gimmick, B) the fact that the drama concerns the selling of Eric’s car, which harkens back to the pilot and the central character’s emotional journey, meaning that even if Eric/Donna aren’t well-used, Eric himself is, and C) the fact that the subplot with Fez indicates that the year will be even better for him and other members of the ensemble, like Jackie and Kelso. Additionally, I really appreciate “Garage Sale” for helping to transition us to this new season, for while the loud comic sensibilities of the new year are well-displayed, the simplicity of the pilot remains in our minds, not just with the car, but also in the gag where Eric and Hyde lecture Red when the latter, for a change, is high. And ultimately, regardless of there being superior character showcases elsewhere, with laughs this big, and a centerpiece that seems so ’70s the series would be stupid not to use it once, this feels more like That ’70s Show than any other That ’70s Show here.
02) Episode 30: “Halloween” (Aired: 10/26/99)
The kids visit their old abandoned elementary school on Halloween.
Written by Joshua Sternin & Jeffrey Ventimilia | Directed by David Trainer
Admittedly, I find this Halloween excursion (and next season’s) overrated, and if you’ve been following this blog for a while, you should know why: holidays are an excuse to traffic either in unchecked sentiment or conceptual idea-based humor. Indeed, I find both of the series’ classic Halloween entries — I know they’re beloved — a little more premise-driven than I’d prefer. And in fact, I’ll even say that the subplot flashback with Red and Kitty (and Marion Ross, whose return is extraneous) is a maudlin affair that negates some of the laugh-driven appeal of this type of show… However, what I think this episode gets right is that it puts all six of the “teens” together for an extended period of time, and just as with other ensemble series that we’ve discussed, like Friends, it’s really a treat to see them all bouncing off one another, for that’s when their characterizations thrive. Accordingly, even though I don’t like the lazy setup where regulars trade in revelations about each other (I’d rather see how they behave, not hear about it), this design ensures that the interplay actually does boost their chemistry and magnify the bond that these characters share, and in addition to the equitable distribution of laughs — signs of the growing import of the ensemble — I also think “Halloween” is sneakily vital in giving some emotional resolution to the Eric/Donna/Hyde mishegoss of Season One. Also, aside from this good character stuff, I know that of all the gaudy outings honorably mentioned below, this is the one I’d miss the most if it wasn’t here. It’s more unforgettable than unideal.
03) Episode 31: “Vanstock” (Aired: 11/02/99)
Laurie and Jackie both crash a group trip to Vanstock.
Written by Arthur F. Montmorency | Directed by David Trainer
Although I seldom see this offering listed among many fans’ favorites, I think this is, like “Garage Day” and several others this week, one of That ’70s Show‘s truly classic half-hours, with a stunning grasp of how to ingrain the particulars of era within the run-of-the-mill teenage angst that typically drives seasonal narratives, if not episodic ones. In this case, the whole use of “Vanstock” as a low-rent Woodstock is vital in establishing a time and place for the action, and helps contribute to the joyful, slaphappy energy that’s born from the premise’s inherent nostalgia… So, it’s the perfect backdrop for the first narrative movement in the Laurie/Kelso arc, which officially began in the year’s sophomore broadcast and doesn’t really pop up again until here, when Donna learns about their duplicity and also discovers that Eric knew and didn’t tell her (it’s an easy way to get some drama between the central couple). Naturally, there’s a lot of fun to be had because this triangle storyline makes good use of the ensemble as a collective, and there are many laughs in supply when Laurie is opposed against the main characters, even Jackie, with whom she finds she has more than Kelso in common (cue the Three’s Company theme)… Also, now that Red is unemployed, the subplot where he watches soaps with Midge is easily funny — and a chance to both parody the daytime serials of the era (which is what I love about the Long Golden Age: ’70s-specific fantasies), and pay homage to one of our favorite sitcoms, Soap. (Chuck and Bob make a cameo…) Another classic.
04) Episode 32: “I Love Cake” (Aired: 11/09/99)
Midge kicks Bob out as Donna tells Eric she loves him.
Written by Jeff Filgo | Directed by David Trainer
I used to have mixed feelings about this one, and it’s because I found the A-story with Eric/Donna alternatively gimmicky and confounding. I found it gimmicky because how many times on the sitcom have we seen a story about one person being unable to tell another “I love you”; too many to count, right? So even with the laugh-driven twist of “I love… cake” added, it feels a little “typical sitcom” for my tastes, and not so much motivated by Eric himself. And that’s why I found it confounding, too. As we start to see the show build the flaws for Eric and Donna that will create their central conflict and lay the groundwork for their eventual split, we might anticipate the reverse: that Eric would be eager to tell Donna how he feels as a form of commitment, while Donna, more prone to freedom, would be initially reluctant. But during this survey, I’ve come to realize that this actually is how it should be, not only because so much of the drama between these characters mirrors broader conflicts between men and women at the time (and therefore, Eric, the man, should be less emotionally forthcoming), but also because of what’s going on in the subplot, where Midge has kicked out Bob, forcing him to reside at the Formans’. You see, these kids are the products of their parents, and the Pinciottis are the, for lack of a better term, “liberal” couple — the ones who are into exploring every new thing the world has to offer, which typically requires a more forward emotionality. The Formans, meanwhile, are traditional, conservative, and they don’t gratuitously share their feelings. And since we know that Eric and Donna’s upbringings influence their flaws, which influence their goals, which influences their break-up, this is EXACTLY the kind of episodic Eric/Donna show that we want to see in this more arc-driven era. It’s smarter than it seems.
05) Episode 42: “Afterglow” (Aired: 02/21/00)
After Eric and Donna have sex, gossip spreads about his performance.
Written by Jeffrey Ventimilia | Directed by David Trainer
As you know from our past two seasonal commentaries, this is the offering I use to mark the transition from the Long Golden Age to the Peak, mostly because Eric and Donna’s arc has now officially moved from his pursuit to bed her and onto more weekly conflicts, where, I argue, their characterizations are better explored… Now, that’s not to say that shows within this “let’s have sex?” arc aren’t good; on the contrary — they’re teeming with the youthful nostalgia that makes us root for the characters even more passionately than we would without the ’70s setting, and yes, the prior installment, the Big Development-having “The First Time” is listed below as an Honorable Mention because it wisely uses Bob and Midge’s hippy dippy vow renewal as the launching pad for the younger couple’s first tryst… However, there’s no doubt that this, the aftermath, is superior, for sentiment has given way to big laughs, and the ensemble is put to great use when word gets around that Eric may have been, well, a lousy lay. It’s a lot of fun — perfect for characters this age — and even sparks a memorable fantasy sequence, an animated scene where the characters are depicted à la Scooby Doo (a nice era-specific reference). And, while I think the Red/Kitty subplot is a touch trite, the A-story is enough to sell this as a winner, with fine stuff for the younger cast, a nice teen-like energy, and forward movement in the main arc that symbolizes an acceleration of dramatic quality.
06) Episode 43: “Kitty And Eric’s Night Out” (Aired: 02/28/00)
Kitty wants to spend more quality time with Eric.
Written by Linda Wallem | Directed by David Trainer
Again, I seldom see this entry listed among people’s favorites, and I get the impression that this may be one of several listed here (along with “Holy Crap!” probably) that some of you diehard fans reading this would replace with one of the more ostentatious Honorable Mentions below. However, I think this is an exquisite study of how the show suggests its identity through era details that support the characters, while at the same time, providing growth and depth to some welcome members of the ensemble. To the second part, I like that the subplot spends time giving more emotional depth to regulars like Fez, Hyde, and Jackie, and more specifically, builds the bond between Hyde and his new boss at the Foto Hut, Leo, who appears here for the third time (in broadcast order — second in production order). I look to this script as really creating the genuine dynamic between the two that will remain in place even after Leo’s return near the series’ end… As for the other stuff, the A-story with Eric and Kitty is a nice chance for the two to connect (we usually see Eric with Red, because that relationship has more conflict; Eric and Kitty have less, so they tend not to get classic episodes together, unfortunately), and the use of Annie Hall as a means to flesh out the differences both between their characters and their generations, is well-applied, while the expected fantasy sequence is funny without requiring any knowledge of the film itself. Okay, there are more memorable shows listed below, but none that I would say honor what the series wants to be more than this one.
07) Episode 45: “Kiss Of Death” (Aired: 03/20/00)
Eric kills Donna’s cat and Jackie discovers that Kelso has been cheating on her with Laurie.
Written by Rob DesHotel & Dean Batali | Directed by David Trainer
This is among the best, most important offerings in the entire series and it deals with a story that I think many fans find unlikable: Eric running over — and killing — Donna’s cat. It’s such a terrible, awful thing — we all love our pets — that it almost feels too much for the characters to bounce back from quickly. And it’s so vivid that it’ll be mentioned several times throughout the run as an example of a conflict that Eric/Donna had when they were together… I never could understand why it was so referenced, because to me, it seemed unlike their major conflicts in Season Three, which dealt with broader issues. And yet, during this survey, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is a sneaky precursor to all that’s ahead, for this is the first time Eric is so purely in the wrong with Donna that his actions have ramifications that will last beyond the half-hour. Here, he actively lies to her about killing her cat, and while we sympathize, and understand that he doesn’t want to hurt her, and he does tell her the next day, it makes Donna lose trust in Eric. This officially changes their relationship, moving them out of the honeymoon “just had sex” phase, and into a routine that’s more comfortable, but contentious. And we’ll see over the course of the next year (and two months) how Donna, after this, begins to trust him, and their relationship, less and less. In turn, this makes Eric try to hold on tighter, creating the core issue that we’ve talked about before and will talk about again: his insecurities make him want to lock her down, her insecurities make her want to fly. Right now, Donna isn’t yet ready to fly, but she’s given the first opportunity to doubt being forever together with Eric. And it’s surprising that it begins in an installment that’s designed trivially — almost to its own detriment, because the plot is so harsh — and is otherwise concerned with the B-story, where Kelso’s two-timing comes to a halt when Jackie discovers his betrayal and dumps him. (Oh, and there’s a Charlie’s Angels parody with Fez that I love — another classic ’70s fantasy coming from this classic ’70s season, making the setting loud and clear.) A seminal one.
08) Episode 48: “Holy Crap!” (Aired: 05/01/00)
Kitty is upset when both Eric and Laurie quit going to church.
Written by Rob DesHotel & Dean Batali | Directed by David Trainer
Truthfully, I’m surprised to see this one here; I know I could have easily given space to one of the two top-tier Honorable Mentions below. But this gives me the chance to recognize and celebrate different episodic qualities that make the series enjoyable — like a teleplay so hilarious that it justifies its unideal narrative structure. In other words, this script is so funny, with so many great character moments for the members of the Forman family (which now includes Hyde), that it’s worth singling out IN SPITE of a main narrative that veers toward the series’ domestic elements, heretofore only valuable as a source of dramatic conflict for Eric in his main arc (with Donna) or as a counterpoint to the teens that helps suggest the era. In this case, there really is no Eric/Donna thread, and the storyline itself doesn’t do much to propose a uniquely ’70s point-of-view… meaning, essentially, this would be an example, based on what we noted last week, of an “okay” episode — one that doesn’t realize its full potential, because it doesn’t use the series’ setting well, even if the characters are put to decent use… But, as always, laughs are the universal equalizer, and they can solve a bevy of problems. Thus, with an amusing heaven fantasy, the introduction of the quirky Kevin McDonald as Pastor Dave (whose Godspell duet with Leo is a hoot), and much fun for the ensemble of Red, Kitty, and Laurie, “Holy Crap!” indicates how That ’70s Show‘s sense of humor can be joyously persuasive all on its own. There’s no other outing on this list with the same appeal.
09) Episode 50: “Cat Fight Club” (Aired: 05/15/00)
Red finds out about Kelso and Laurie as Hyde teaches Jackie how to be zen.
Written by Philip Stark | Directed by David Trainer
Another one of my favorites from the entire series, “Cat Fight Club” would have been an MVE contender if it had a better, more character ripe narrative for Eric/Donna, or heck, even just Eric, who instead serves as the peripheral anchoring presence of two neighboring, but similarly comedic, ensemble stories — both of which are outgrowths of the main all-cast arc of the season: Kelso’s secret affair with Laurie. By this point, he and Jackie have split (and she won’t take him back), and he has decided to openly date Laurie. This smart installment wisely explores the two most obvious conflicts that would arise from this development: Red’s discovery of their misbegotten relationship and the drama of having Jackie remain in a group that includes not just her ex, but also her ex’s new girlfriend. The first conflict sparks just as many laughs as you’d expect, as Red is precisely in form as an oppositional force for Kelso and Laurie, with the best sequence emerging from this half-hour being his fantasy, a premonition of the future that owes SO MUCH to what the media of that period thought the future would look like (making it another era-based bit). The second part allows the show to explore the growing bond between Hyde and Jackie, something that will be used in this year’s finale to fuel a storyline going forward (not to mention a later one that’ll have more sticking power: their own official romance), but here is made to both handle the Laurie arc in a way that delivers plentiful hahas and integrates Jackie into the group in a way that she hasn’t ever been before. In fact, this entry has Jackie’s first time in “the circle,” and if that isn’t a signal of the ensemble’s growing prominence, I don’t know what is… Again then, this is a classic, with two great storylines stemming from one of Two’s fundamental arcs. Peak era for sure.
10) Episode 51: “Moon Over Point Place” (Aired: 05/22/00)
Eric learns that Donna mooned the camera in a yearbook photo and Jackie falls for Hyde.
Written by Jeff Filgo & Jackie Filgo | Directed by David Trainer
Season Two’s finale could be the series’ best season finale… although that may not be such high praise. After all, most of this show’s season-enders house Big Developments — conclusions of soapy character arcs, cliffhangers that may or may not make sense for them, and a general attitude that allows plot to be the guiding interest, as opposed to the characters’. “Moon Over Point Place” only traffics in a modicum of this foolishness, and that’s in the Jackie/Hyde story where he ends up getting arrested for possession of her marijuana. But that’s only the cliffhanger, and it actually stems from a believable place, for now that Hyde and Jackie have bonded, she has convinced herself that he is the man for her, and her procurement of ganja is her proof to both that they are well-matched. (This makes total sense given Hyde, given the series, given the fact that she only just joined the circle in the previous episode.) And their interplay is enjoyable and helps dress up the gratuitous drama of the final moments (as does the Jackie/Leo scene)… Meanwhile, the subplot that gives the offering its title, in which Eric is scandalized when he learns that Donna mooned the camera for one of the photos in their yearbook, is meant to be silly, trivial fun, but it’s a great exploration of their temperamental differences: he’s buttoned-up, she’s loosey-goosey. That’s how they were raised, that’s how they approach life, and that’s why they’ll have conflict next season. Stay tuned…
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: the two that I truly enjoy so much that I WISH they could have been featured in the list above: “Parents Find Out,” which is the second part — the parental half — of the consequences that Eric/Donna face after their Season Two arc is concluded and they have sex for the first time; it’s a funny show with great character moments (I really love the subplot with the Mod Squad jokes, too), but, on the above list, it would have essentially fulfilled the same purpose as “Afterglow,” and I believe the latter is more comedic, more surprising, and more revealing for Eric/Donna; and “Kelso’s Serenade,” which is uneven, but should be cited for working in an Eric/Donna conflict where she voices EXACTLY what her concerns are going to be with their relationship next season, with help from an amusing — and classically ’70s — All In The Family sketch; if only Donna’s anger was better motivated and the rest of the stories weren’t so hit-and-miss…
I need a whole separate paragraph for the rest of the Honorable Mentions — three ostentatious shows that have some richly potent, worth-knowing-about moments: “Hunting,” which locks into the Red/Eric dynamic, “Burning Down The House,” which guest stars Amy Adams and shows the obvious problems within the Jackie/Kelso relationship, and “The First Time,” the Big Development show with some cheesy ’70s nods, but some important character stuff, too. I also like and want to mention three outings that are never given enough credit: “Red’s Last Day,” which sets the compass for much of the season, “Sleepover,” which introduces the delectably iconic Leo, and “Jackie Moves On,” which is a key Fez show.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of That ’70s Show goes to…
Come back next week for Season Three! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!