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, and TANYA ROBERTS as Midge. With LISA ROBIN KELLY as Laurie and TOMMY CHONG as Leo.
The third season of That ‘70s Show is the second of two consecutive years that I celebrate for delivering consistent episodic greatness. This collection is loaded with great half-hours, and like its predecessor, a lot of this is because the premise’s unique ‘70s setting is used in support of story that’s motivated by the guiding interests of the regular characters. And this is particularly the case with Eric, whose relationship with Donna remains the series’ most important emotional through line for the third year in a row. So, like Two, Season Three could be called the series’ best — it’s either this one or Two — for while its ability to produce classic installments has warranted it being categorized under the “Long Golden Age” umbrella, a good part of the year — until about February Sweeps — has previously been singled out as the “Peak Golden Age,” a period of more acute excellence, heretofore defined mostly by the narrative usage of Eric/Donna, which instead of being decidedly arc-driven (as it is elsewhere in the Long Golden Age), is more concerned with episodic conflicts. I prefer this design because these entries are better able to use the characters’ flaws to establish their central drama, which is going to be used in the latter half of the year more plot-heavily as the show moves towards the next milestone in their relationship: their breakup. Episodes like “Eric’s Panties,” “Who Wants It More?,” and “Donna’s Panties” (all of which are highlighted or mentioned below in some capacity), give the couple seemingly trivial dramas that nevertheless represent so much more… But that’s not the only reason the first part of Three (along with the last part of Two) is Peak. I think it’s also Peak because the show is truly firing on all cylinders with its characters, interested in expanding the depths of ensemble members like Jackie, Fez, and Hyde, all the while benefiting from the regular or recurring use of Laurie and Leo. Notably, this is the only period in the show’s history where all 12 of the series’ great characters coexist with regularity, and so it’s no coincidence that the sky’s currently the limit for That ‘70s Show… at least, until February.
But before we discuss what changes midway through the year — because, as with Season Two, there are some noticeable shifts — I want to contrast Two and Three, for while they both (along with the last few weeks of One) comprise the finest era and are themselves both candidates for being the singular best, they’re actually different. Two, as we saw, benefits from an increased knowledge of the characters meeting the diminishing novelty of the premise (best embodied by the ‘70s setting). The entire year, even before the later Peak period, is extra fresh as far as storytelling goes, and plays with the era to great comedic and dramatic advantage. Three, in contrast, has more character smarts, but far less novelty, which means that the use of the regulars in story is more nuanced and growth-giving, but the way the ‘70s is projected is less inherently exciting. It’s also different — there are fewer sketches/fantasies strictly dependent on the decade’s culture, and this can be viewed as either a positive or a negative. It’s negative because every series, to fully satisfy beyond its characters, has to be able to project its identity on a weekly basis, and the less often a series acknowledges the importance of this fact, the more often it’s prone to disappoint on a fundamental level… On the other hand, this can be seen as a positive because, since novelty is dwindling, the show can no longer rely as heavily on the ‘70s to bolster its episodic appeal; instead; it has to put more of its figurative stock in the characters. And in doing so, the regulars themselves begin to subliminally embody the era in a way that they hadn’t as much before. That is, the ‘70s has become more ingrained in them, so the show’s plots have to do less to make the explicit connection between the players and the premise. (We can really see this link made in Eric/Donna’s conflicts.) Now, the only reason this is fine in Season Three, but won’t be later on, is that the characters are generally being well-used (Jackie flirts with Hyde before reuniting with Kelso, Fez has his first real girlfriend, Hyde finds his father), and we have strong episodic returns to show for it… throughout the year. Thus, I think it’s fair to say that Season Two is the best year for the premise, Three is the best year for the characters…
And yet, around January/February of 2001, Season Three moves out of the Peak Golden Age and back into the longer Golden Age we’ve discussed. What changes? Well, aside from the aforementioned use of Eric/Donna in a more story-heavy manner — her radio job being the catalyst for the resumption of another quasi-arc — there’s also the surprise departure of Laurie, after the actress was fired due to sobriety issues… Okay, though richly comic, Laurie is not a huge loss on her own. But her exit represents a hit to the series’ “sky’s the limit” appeal, and as this coincides with a less ideal use of Eric, it’s clear opportunities are contracting. But that’s not all… You see, the show’s whole storytelling apparatus shifts around January when scripts go from using two stories per week to three. This makes sense; the show is developing everyone now, using the ensemble more, and in the first half of the year (as with late Two), it’s rewarding. But as three stories become the norm, we start to see the regulars take a back seat to the comedic idea. And this has several consequences; not only do the characters feel less prominent (for instance, Hyde’s dad arc falls out and doesn’t return), now the funny idea — like Fez’s girlfriend being crazy — is prioritized, sometimes at the expense of character truth and growth. As such, gaudy episodes from the end of the year — like “Kitty’s Birthday (That’s Today?!)”, “Eric’s Naughty No-No,” and “Backstage Pass,” with their gimmicks, stars, and lofty plots (where the regulars don’t all get together as much as they should) — may catch our eye, but they aren’t laudable alongside the rest of the year’s output, where character is otherwise foundational. Additionally, multiple stories per episode means unevenness, and more chance for failure… So, when Three ends — with a powerful moment in the Eric/Donna relationship that only THIS particular character-wise season could pull off so deftly — we’ve basically both seen the best of what this series can do and are finally getting a taste of how/why it won’t be able to continue… But don’t sound the alarm bells just yet. Three is still tops for character — even at the end — and I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify the year’s finest.
01) Episode 52: “Reefer Madness” (Aired: 10/03/00)
Red is furious when Hyde is arrested for possession of marijuana.
Written by Joshua Sternin & Jeffrey Ventimilia | Directed by David Trainer
If I were to pick the best stretch of episodes from the entire series, I would choose the four that comprise the transition from Seasons Two to Three — the last two of the former, the first two of the latter — for they collectively represent the height of possibility within the show’s dramatic interests and offer a supreme use of the major characters (not to mention peripheral gems like Leo and Laurie), and they’re surprisingly not bothered by the fact that, hey, the series has to shoehorn a cliffhanger into the middle of everything. Normally, these wouldn’t be ideal shows for me, since often the presence of a cliffhanger necessitates the prioritization of plot over character, but as we discussed last week, this one does a pretty good job of motivating the narrative through decisions the regulars (specifically Hyde and Jackie) make, and for that reason, it works… “Reefer Madness” likewise clicks, with a single story — NOTE: a single story — that has ramifications for almost everyone in the ensemble, involving choices made by not just main players like Hyde, Jackie, and Red, but also Donna, Eric, Kitty, and Leo, who starts to become more integrated with the core cast when he pops in at the Formans’ house to advocate for Hyde. Furthermore, the entry balances its great use of character with a seminal sense of whimsy, both in the well-remembered (yet rather easy) Reefer Madness parody, and also in the flashback with the boys as pre-teens. There’s a lot going on, but it’s all character reactions built around a single event, and with a fundamental dose of That ’70s charm added, this is a classic.
02) Episode 53: “Red Sees Red” (Aired: 10/10/00)
Red puts all the kids in his house under a strict curfew.
Written by Linda Wallem | Directed by David Trainer
As with the above, this iconically fun outing continues to deal with the aftermath of the cliffhanger, utilizing a singular narrative as the fulcrum around which all of its rich and well-applied character material revolves. Dramatically, this installment does a terrific job, like its predecessor, of using the ensemble within one narrative framework, and there’s nothing more satisfying than the final centerpiece where Red, who’s cracked down on the rules of the house, and Kitty, who thinks Red needs to let it go and forgive the kids, catch all seven teenagers (including Laurie) conspiring to sneak out with the Vista Cruiser. It’s a moment of well-built storytelling, totally motivated by all the character stuff that’s come before (like the hilarious scene with Red in the basement with the gang, while we hear all their unspoken thoughts)… Meanwhile, the show applies its sense of identity in its memorable fantasy, where Kitty imagines that her family is starring in a variety series like The Brady Bunch Hour, with guest stars Shirley Jones, Charo, and (later) a Gene Simmons lookalike… It’s a funny sequence that suggests the era in the same way earlier cultural parodies did, but it’s interesting here, because Season Three seldom is so overt in how it uses the ’70s — meaning that such a direct fantasy take-off is becoming less and less common, and so you can either look at this as the last throwback to Season Two, where such fun was part of the inherent novelty of being, or as an example of Season Three being a bit more obvious and ham-fisted with its application of era… Regardless, though, only That ’70s Show could do this (and well), and it’s another classic.
03) Episode 57: “Eric’s Panties” (Aired: 11/21/00)
Donna finds another woman’s panties in Eric’s car.
Written by Dean Batali & Rob Deshotel | Directed by David Trainer
One of the funniest and simultaneously most important episodes of the season, “Eric’s Panties” is a powerful runner-up to this week’s MVE pick, offering perhaps the year’s best narrative use of character — well, Eric and Donna, anyway. Here, a conflict arises out of a misunderstanding exacerbated by both their flaws, as Eric’s constant fear that he’s not good enough for Donna makes him extra sensitive to the fact that no one is bothered when one of the hottest girls in school is obviously flirting with him. Donna, in contrast, after initially taking his fidelity for granted, has so little faith in Eric — not just because he deservedly lost some trust (see: the late Mr. Bonkers), but also because of her own innate fears about the nature of men (see: Midge and Bob’s relationship) — that when she finds a pair of panties in his car, she assumes the worst, without giving logic and common sense enough thought. Thus, what seems to be a situational problem — a misunderstanding about panties — is actually a chance for the series to explore the central couple’s insecurities, which are going to increase as the season goes on and lead to their inevitable breakup. So, this entry, with its smart episodic conflict, is a great way for the series to develop these core issues while keeping character at the fore, and with a funny teleplay that only makes room for an ever-so-slight subplot (“Tater Nuts”), this is yet another quintessential example of ’70s at its peak ability to deliver on behalf of its regulars. (Oh, and I’d be remiss for not mentioning the scene with Midge at The Hub, where there are so many big hahas that “Eric’s Panties” is proven to be comedically exceptional, too.)
04) Episode 59: “Jackie Bags Hyde” (Aired: 12/12/00)
The Formans and Pinciottis have competing barbecues as Jackie scores a date with Hyde.
Written by Dave Schiff | Directed by David Trainer
Admittedly, this is one of those installments whose appeal is a bit inflated by the fandom, where, in my observation, Jackie/Hyde have a cult of appreciation that tends to skew the perception of the episodic explorations of their respective characters. I’ll save my thoughts on this pairing for later, but here I’ll note that this is a story more valuable in hindsight, for in the big picture, it’s a classic fake-out that further proves how incompatible the two theoretically are, making their eventual coupling so delectably surprising and growth-providing. Within the context of this particular season, however, it’s a somewhat anti-climactic end to the cliffhanger-sparked arc of Jackie liking Hyde (even though Fez likes her). In this view, it is narratively functional and opportunistic, without giving either any real progress… Accordingly, this outing does NOT make this list for their subplot, but rather for the A-story: a middle-of-the-road competition between Bob and Red over competing Veteran’s Day barbecues, with dramatic ramifications (naturally) for the central couple. What I like about it specifically though is that it’s a chance to showcase how the season has shifted regarding its use of the ’70s setting, for the rival cookouts is a timeless centerpiece that nevertheless feels so utterly of this time, thanks to the way details are applied and how characters respond, and it makes the whole storyline seem entrenched in the period. As such, characters remain dominant — they simply exist in the ’70s. And that’s why That ’70s Show, at this point, can be taken seriously as a character piece.
05) Episode 61: “Ice Shack” (Aired: 01/09/01)
Kelso hopes to reunite with Jackie on a couples’ retreat to an ice shack.
Written by Philip Stark | Directed by David Trainer
This is a notable offering because it foreshadows the two remaining arcs of the season: Jackie and Kelso’s reunion, and Eric and Donna’s split. And yet, the Eric/Donna drama is more situational and not necessarily motivated by the guiding issues that inform every other conflict they have this year, instead being an outgrowth of a larger comic centerpiece (hold that thought). But that’s okay, because this convenient “the group up at an ice shack” design is still a great opportunity for these characters to shine, as almost all six of the main teens — minus Hyde, who gets an amiable subplot with Leo — are together at the same place and same time. There, the driving force of this entry is furthering the Jackie relationship drama, which is soapy, but at this point, has become so part of all the characters it involves, that they still feel well-used, regardless of the machinations. Also, the show finds a way to more subtly invoke its era by having Fez — who likes Jackie and is trying to stop Kelso’s obvious attempt to reconcile with her — host a skewed version of The Newlywed Game, based on the popular show. Here, the series gets to comedically benefit from Kelso and Jackie (unlike Jackie/Hyde and Jackie/Fez) being two of a figurative kind, for they know so much about each other because they’re actually alike. This helps motivate their upcoming reunion, and with a script that features lines that have somehow become iconic (“Well, damn, Jackie, I can’t control the weather…”), “Ice Shack” is a solid, memorable character study from this era of character superiority.
06) Episode 64: “Dine And Dash” (Aired: 01/30/01)
The group is caught without any money to pay the bill at the end of an expensive meal.
Written by Jackie Filgo & Jeff Filgo | Directed by David Trainer
My choice for the year’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), this is a bit like last week’s selection in that, in some ways, it’s an unideal representation of the season, for it’s a totally circumstantial narrative led by its Victory In Premise, and even though it technically still falls within the Peak Golden Age, the nature of its idea-driven appeal suggests that it’s more like the entries from the year’s back ten, which are more conceptually ostentatious than well-rendered explorations of character… On the other hand, “Dine And Dash” has to be commended as a SUPERLATIVE example of the season because it both eschews the trap of having too many plot lines — there’s only the main narrative at the restaurant (which includes the Fez/Caroline runner), and a small B-story with the parents — and also decides to put all six of the primary teenagers together at the same place and at the same time. And, as a matter of fact, this is actually one of the last occasions in Season Three (until the finale) where they all spend meaningful time together… and certainly within a singular story… As a result, there’s something extra special about this one’s premise — it’s not only Victorious because it’s an amusing idea; it’s Victorious because it understands how the series best functions, and thus, when it becomes a great showcase for all the individual characters (including Fez, whose new relationship with Caroline, again, is seamlessly interwoven into the main story), it then helps prove why That ’70s Show‘s Peak Golden Age is the Peak Golden Age, for even a design that should seem imperfect is used to get the most perfect rewards. And, frankly, this outing is just so memorable; I don’t know if any here could be quite as competitive by that metric — great for character (as this one is) or not.
07) Episode 66: “Donna’s Panties” (Aired: 02/13/01)
Eric embarrasses Donna by pulling down her pants in public.
Written by Dean Batali & Rob Deshotel | Directed by David Trainer
Although this installment was broadcast after the below-mentioned “Radio Daze,” which introduces Donna’s new job at the radio station and marks the point in the season where the show pivots away from purely episodic Eric/Donna conflicts to ones that have more narrative weight and feel part of an arc, “Donna’s Panties” was actually produced prior, and for that reason, I consider it part of the Peak Golden Age — or, more precisely, the very end of it. And, indeed, there is a sense of finality here, for Kelso’s thinly developed relationship with Laurie officially comes to a close — without the actress, who’d already been fired and therefore couldn’t appear — and Fez’s storyline with Caroline takes an abrupt turn when she is revealed to be insane, which after this point, becomes so broad that it’s no longer fun. But there’s also much of what makes the first part of Three so special too, for in addition to a wonderful teleplay with great comic moments (Kelso’s Tang joke fits him so well), there’s also a seminal Eric/Donna conflict. This one harkens back to their first in Season One’s “Battle Of The Sexists,” where Eric was upset that Donna was better than him athletically… which related to the different roles men and women are supposed to play. In this updated version, Eric embarrasses Donna — innocently, but intentionally — by pulling down her pants in public, revealing “granny panties.” It’s a seemingly small offense, yet it’s born of their recurring gender-laden issues, particularly Eric’s insecurity-led subconscious need to subordinate her, which ain’t good…
08) Episode 73: “Eric’s Drunken Tattoo” (Aired: 05/01/01)
Eric gets a tattoo after reading Donna’s diary.
Written by Joshua Sternin & Jeffrey Ventimilia | Directed by David Trainer
Pretty much all the Eric/Donna stories at the end of this season have an ominous undercurrent, because instead of each drama between the two representing an individual exploration of their characters’ differences, they start to paint the picture of a truly unhealthy relationship. Some of this can be narratively heavy-handed, which is one of several reasons, again, that I think the last part of the year is less consistently excellent than the pre-February period. However, “Eric’s Drunken Tattoo” has a key conflict that is also one of the season’s more enjoyable, and it’s because it’s better motivated by the characters’ flaws. That is, if you compare it to the era’s similarly foreboding “Backstage Pass,” you’ll see that the conflict there arises courtesy of a convenient situation: Donna getting to go backstage at a concert, leaving Eric behind — magnifying his fear that he’s losing her, and her fear that he’s stifling her. This one reaches almost the exact same conclusion but does so through choices that Eric himself, our lead, makes — he reads Donna’s private journal, is insecure about one sentence and then decides to get a tattoo (courtesy of Leo, which, of course, is a mistake, but a chance for laughs). And this only proves to Donna that her fears and lack of trust in Eric are valid. So, in choosing which of these two episodic conflicts from the end of the season for the primary couple should be represented here, “Eric’s Drunken Tattoo” is the smarter character choice. (Although, to be fair, like many from this late Three era, this one is saddled with some LAME subplots…)
09) Episode 74: “Canadian Road Trip” (Aired: 05/08/01)
A trip to Canada for beer gets the guys detained at the border.
Written by Dave Schiff | Directed by David Trainer
As with “Dine And Dash,” this is one of those excursions with a memorable premise generating much of its appeal, meaning that it’s less notable for being a great exploration of the characters or a showcase for their flaws/growth than it is merely a comedic Victory In Premise where the idea alone is enough to spark interest. What’s more, it’s got some gaudy guest star cameos from funny folk — Joe Flaherty and Dave Thomas (both from SCTV) — in support. And yet, beyond the pomp and circumstance, the A-story works because it puts four of the six main teens together, with the hilarious Leo, in an amusing scenario that we buy based not only on their depictions, but also on the sense of youthful rebellion that has always propelled some of the show’s sillier narratives, grounding them in a nostalgia that recognizes, heck, we ALL did stupid things when we were younger. As such, it’s very easy to appreciate this comically broad story for the big laughs it provides, for none of it really comes at the expense of character… And even though the ladies aren’t involved, that it includes four of the main characters is definitely a plus, especially at this point in the series, where all-cast shows are few, but still in our memory… As for the subplots, while the Jackie one (with Ileen Getz) is okay, the Red/Kitty Betamax recorder bit mentions Roots and helps project the era… though both remain peripheral to the A-story, which is why the entry is so (deservedly) well-remembered.
10) Episode 76: “The Promise Ring” (Aired: 05/22/01)
Eric gives Donna a promise ring that… causes problems.
Written by Jeff Filgo & Jackie Filgo | Directed by David Trainer
I’ve always had an aversion to offerings that house big developments, but I’ve come to understand that this is because these half-hours tend to show an unfortunate preference for plot over character (and specifically character comedy). But over the course of this blog, I’ve also discovered that some of these big development entries can be necessary and surprisingly enjoyable, for sometimes they actually offer the most pointed looks at character. That’s the case with “The Promise Ring,” the only episode at the end of Three to have one single story. Oh, yes, you may be thinking of the Jackie/Kelso ring subplot, but their ring is an off-shoot of the A-story ring, with theirs providing the happy contrast to the Eric/Donna drama, which pulls no punches and gets right to the point: Eric feels Donna pulling away so he wants to lock her down with a promise ring; Donna regards the ring as a tactic, given her history of mistrust with Eric, and sees it as a symbol of her being denied independence. When Donna pulls away — Eric’s worst fear — he cuts her off, immaturely severing the relationship at his own expense. It’s the moment towards which everything since “Kiss Of Death” has been building… And lurking in the background, meanwhile, courtesy of some rare and desperately needed group scenes — which deliver laughs (as does the stellar Let’s Make A Deal sketch) — is Midge’s “I’m unhappy, Bob,” a brilliantly simple reminder that the Eric/Donna drama is rooted in conflicts of the era, and born of their respective parents’. This makes the Eric/Donna clash simultaneously universally relatable and grounded in the ’70s. So now, the table is set for more growth next year, but the series’ smart use of character (and premise) may be diminishing; stay tuned…
Other notable episodes that merit mention include the two that I truly enjoy so much that I wish I could have featured them above: “Who Wants It More?” and “Radio Daze,” two ideal Eric/Donna conflict shows that come near the end of the Peak Golden Age and host funny teleplays that get some good character laughs and reflect the series’ era well.
Of more Honorable Mention quality, meanwhile, are two fine Fez shows, “Fez Gets The Girl” and “Fez Dates Donna,” the first of which introduces Caroline and the second of which has a fun I Love Lucy parody; along with two great Jackie/Kelso shows, “Roller Disco,” and “The Trials Of Michael Kelso,” the first of which boasts an iconic centerpiece, and the latter of which boasts a rare case where all three stories are somewhat enjoyable. I also have to mention “Too Old To Trick Or Treat, Too Young To Die,” which is a beloved Halloween entry that packs in parodies of at least six different Hitchcock films, and, of course, doesn’t make the above list because it’s not just idea-led, it’s SO idea-led that there’s absolutely no character-value whatsoever. (Any series could do it.) And, last, but not least, I have to single out “Baby Fever,” a mediocre show that nevertheless explores Donna’s fears beautifully and features, I think, the MOST dramatically revealing scene of the season — between Donna and Midge in the Pinciotti kitchen, before Eric enters. It’s so simple, yet so instructive.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of That ’70s Show goes to…
“Dine And Dash”
Come back next week for Season Four! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!