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, DEBRA JO RUPP as Kitty, DON STARK as Bob, and TOMMY CHONG as Leo.
The fourth season of That ‘70s Show gets a bad rap — and only some of it is deserved. As the first year most fans would agree is not better than (or equal to) its predecessor, Season Four is a supersized transitional era — old writers leave and new ones (like Will Forte) come in, while the company plans for the misbegotten That ‘80s Show — and it largely follows two arcs: the separation of the central couple and the eventual implosion of the reunited secondary pair. These are both storylines that, aside from being soapy, aren’t intrinsically likable; Eric/Donna belong together — the show believes this — and Jackie/Kelso don’t belong together, which means that even though we have stuff to “root” for, per se, the audience is both ahead of the plot, as we know what’s inevitable for both, and that means “the journey” has to work overtime to satisfy… However, while these big picture, or “macro,” narrative pursuits indeed hinder enjoyment, I actually think both storylines are necessary and provide ample opportunities for key character growth. The problem, rather, is how these developments are handled, as this better explains why the year disappoints — and why it’s NOT a continuation of the last two years’ “Long Golden Age,” which, as we’ve seen, was characterized by consistency — a high volume of gems, and a baseline that assured pretty much every entry had something worthwhile, even peripherally. And even following a decline from the Peak within the longer Golden Age, for a variety of reasons — including a change in Eric/Donna’s usage, a loss in the ensemble (Laurie), and an increase in the number of stories per week (making it harder for any script to be all great) — Four is a further descent, as the year not only is less successful at using its ‘70s setting in support of its regulars, its scripts also increasingly struggle creating “micro,” or weekly, stories to explore them, too often relying on comedic ideas that pack laughs, but with little value for character. (See: the last few Honorable Mentions, including “Prank Day” and “Eric’s Hot Cousin” — popular shows with situational plots and NO character insight whatsoever.)
In other words, Four’s arcs make things difficult, but its weekly stories are where the true struggle occurs. For instance, following Eric/Donna’s split, the year opens with an entry that affirms their “endgame” status and establishes reconciliation as Eric’s goal. But after a few solid shows dealing with the narrative ick of their disunion, the last part of the season introduces Casey Kelso (Luke Wilson) and a hacky love triangle, a cheap device common to rom-coms, giving the year a narrative excuse to indulge in story-driven conflicts that fail to truly grow Eric’s character. You see, we know he loves Donna and will fight to get her back — that’s obvious; what we don’t know is whether or not he’s evolved enough by year’s end to deserve her. That is, does Eric even get why their relationship hit the skids? It’s unclear. And while next season suggests some growth may have occurred (I’ll argue both cases), particularly with Donna, the fact remains: Season Four doesn’t earn their reconciliation. Oh, sure, this year doesn’t reconcile them anyway; but its narrative shape is founded upon the promise that they are going to get back together. When it doesn’t come, it just cements the year’s narrative failure, for weekly stories that showcased Eric’s maturation could have merited the pair’s reunion, fulfilling the season’s thesis… On the flip side, meanwhile, is Jackie/Kelso, a couple never depicted as meant-to-be, for their seeming compatibility is only due to their mutually destructive character flaws. This year posits that, together, neither will be able to evolve for the better, yet instead of motivating their upcoming split through interesting character stories that highlight WHY they’re wrong for each other, Four contrives a scenario where Jackie kisses another man, which is likened to Kelso’s earlier infidelity and eventually leads to their breakup in the season’s final episodes (which largely don’t work because they’re so soapy)… What’s galling here is that Four actually sets up the opportunity to use growth within the characters to drive them apart — see: Jackie, the spoiled princess, being forced to get a job at the mall — and it STILL turns to a rom-com cliché, indicating both a lack of imagination and a serious problem with micro character usage.
Okay, perhaps the issue is macro, too, for signs of serious growth for Hyde and Fez also get mostly abandoned, as Hyde has several maybe serious lovers who evaporate without warning, and Fez’s arc with Big Rhonda, a walking fat joke whose humor actually comes from her being notoriously easy with all but him, dwindles by year’s end, becoming less about his maturation and more about the comedic pursuit of sex. Thus, “broken promises” is a widespread concern, underscoring why, no matter what fans think about the idea-driven shows late in the year, the beginning of Four is more valuable for character, as that’s when opportunities are established — even with Bob, who loses Midge, but gains Joanne (Mo Gaffney), a surprise credit to the year. Introduced as the anti-Midge, Joanne’s unflinching feminism enlivens the dynamic with the contrasting parents, helping Four maintain its grasp on the ‘70s setting. In fact — though it may not be Peak and despite episodic stories letting down the year and enabling these unfulfilled promises — Four’s ability to project its premise is still ahead of Five’s, just as pretty much everything about Four is better than Five. Oh, I know many disagree; Five has a “comeback” aura and is more macro-appealing, reuniting Eric/Donna and busting out of the Jackie/Kelso rut by pairing her with Hyde, a move that hopes to finally yield more individual growth for all. But, again, quality is defined episodically, and Four’s many issues are relative — meaning, there’s still room for Five to be less good for character on a weekly basis. (And it is…) Accordingly, Four isn’t a Golden year, but I’d still take it over those that follow, for the series’ problems are less troubling now than they will be, and some of the big picture reasons Four is harder to enjoy are necessary, regardless of the episodes being hit-and-miss… Still though, there are gems, and while my list is probably different from most (the transitional nature of Four means I can either favor entries that are comedically broad but character-ignorant, like what’s ahead, or ones that better resemble, you know, the smarter, more ideal Golden Age — and, for the last time, I can choose the latter), I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this year’s finest.
01) Episode 77: “It’s A Wonderful Life” (Aired: 09/25/01)
Eric gets a glimpse of what his life would be like if he and Donna never dated.
Written by Linda Wallem | Directed by David Trainer
I know some of you are going to scan down to the Honorable Mentions and find a few of your favorites purposely excluded from this list for being too idea-led. Then you’re going to pan back up and do a double take, for this is the year’s most conceptually predicated show, a formulaic take-off on It’s A Wonderful Life (with 3rd Rock’s Wayne Knight as Eric’s angel). Don’t worry: I still find this unideal on principle, especially because there are logic problems (i.e. some cultural/visual elements of the future seem born of Eric’s imagination, while others come from a metatheatrical awareness of what DID happen). And yet, even in comparison to less gimmicky outings, I nevertheless think this is crucial for character, and that’s because it not only uses the established relationships to inform the alternate timeline — even acknowledging the Hyde/Donna dross from Season One — it also serves as this year’s compass, marrying several character revelations to dramatic theses. That is, this story cements to us that, even after their darkest moment, Eric/Donna remain meant-to-be, and it brings — with Eric’s corny realization that “it’s better to have loved and lost…” — his first step towards the emotional maturation necessary to win her back, which then becomes the point of Season Four… At the same time, we also get foreshadowing with Jackie/Kelso, for although the alternate universe similarly presents them as intertwined, it also shows that, unlike Eric/Donna, who are best together, these two could have happier, more fulfilled lives without each other… and that speaks to something this fourth season also proves: there’s no positive growth for these individuals as long as they’re paired. Thus, Four’s premiere, despite its pomp and circumstance, has its two most important arcs set up for itself, the audience, and the corresponding characters.
02) Episode 80: “Hyde Gets The Girl” (Aired: 10/09/01)
The group throws a party so Hyde can meet girls.
Story by Jill Effron | Teleplay by Sarah McLaughlin & Alan Dybner | Directed by David Trainer
One of the great things about the Eric/Donna split is that it inspires a handful of shows that deal with the ramifications within the core teenage ensemble, meaning that, unlike the end of Season Three, Four has more scenes and stories featuring the primary six all together at the same time and place. Now, while the two entries bracketing this excursion deal more specifically with the main couple in its A-story, this affable half-hour shifts that thread to the subplot, exploring the still contentious Eric/Donna dynamic in a scenario that’s more focused on the heretofore least developed members of the gang: Fez and Hyde. And true to this one’s title, the main story involves a basement party that the group throws so that Hyde can meet a potential girlfriend, and that’s exactly what seems to happen here, as he finally finds a likely recurring love interest… who, through no fault of this episode, we never see again… Fortunately, Fez has better luck; he gets Big Rhonda (Cynthia Lamontagne), who, as noted above, is a walking fat joke that offers Fez the chance for emotional growth while simultaneously representing how the year too often fails to prioritize its most growth-providing opportunities. Again, it’s not yet a problem for this offering, because as the year finally sets up arcs for these two funny ensemble players, things are looking up for everyone. And indeed, with a jokey teleplay filled with big hahas in a party environment, “Hyde Gets The Girl” is very easy to appreciate. (Also, I enjoy the subplot with French Stewart, another 3rd Rock alum, competing with Kelso for a van.)
03) Episode 81: “Bye-Bye Basement” (Aired: 10/16/01)
Kitty hires Leo and his cousin to redo the basement as Eric and Donna continue to feud.
Written by Mark Hudis | Directed by David Trainer
There are several shows this year that do a great job of entertaining the consequences of Eric/Donna’s split within the group — the above, for instance — but this is one of two, in particular, that make this evolving dynamic its prime dramatic purpose. What I prefer about this outing, over the other — “Pinciotti Vs. Forman” (which is mentioned honorably below) — is that it’s less idea-driven. While the aforementioned is another funny entry with necessary moments, it builds the crux of its comic premise around the notion that Eric and Donna are treating the rest of the group like kids during a divorce, with the fight over “custody” serving as a proxy for “the parents'” personal vendettas. It’s satisfying and amusing, but it’s situational, and isn’t as revealing for the characters. “Bye-Bye Basement,” in contrast, attaches the Eric/Donna drama to something more tangible — the basement — as Kitty’s desire to renovate the kids’ regular hangout is an opportunity for the former romantic pair to vindictively retract and rebuild the things they took for granted about each other and their relationship… meaning that the show is linking the status quo of setting to the status quo of relationship. And just as the setting stays the same — Leo and his cousin Theo (played by Home Improvement’s Richard Karn) are an expectedly inept pair when it comes to renovation — Eric/Donna don’t actually change that much either, because, remember, they still love each other and are meant-to-be…
04) Episode 84: “Donna’s Story” (Aired: 11/20/01)
Donna writes a story about Eric for the school paper as Red clashes with Bob’s girlfriend.
Written by Philip Stark | Directed by David Trainer
Following several heavy, emotionally manipulative shows (including the one right after Midge makes her off-camera departure), the season finds what may be its most episodically satisfying Eric/Donna conflict in this, the criminally underrated “Donna’s Story,” which boasts a good blend of comedy and drama that neither feels circumstantial/narratively applied nor ignorant of the growth necessary to motivate what’s been established as the year’s arc. The premise is centered around Donna’s writing, which is one of the goals that’s been linked to her freedom as an individual, and as she uses it to vent about her side of the relationship drama with Eric, the show gets to lampoon their past conflicts — Mr. Bonkers, the panties, the Playboys — in a fantasy setting that engenders riotous humor, but still allows for the deeper problems to remain in view. As we knew at the time, Eric and Donna see their split completely different, and just as their micro clashes often were about gendered conflicts, their macro drama mirrored what many men and women were experiencing at the time. Accordingly, even though both versions of this “story” are set in a fictional past, they still suggest the characters’ entrenchment in the ’70s, and with Eric’s being especially retaliatory, the year remains clear about Eric’s growth being vital if the two are ever going to get their inevitable reunion… Meanwhile, Red and Kitty have their first encounter with Bob’s new girlfriend, Joanne, who, as discussed above, is a terrific foil because her straightforward feminism is a completely different shade from Midge’s confused feminism, and this sparks great conflict with Red and gives the two couples entirely new stuff to play, as their interactions continue to help project the era and serve as a counterpoint to whatever’s going on with their equally flawed kids. So, this one’s smart all the way around.
05) Episode 85: “The Forgotten Son” (Aired: 11/21/01)
Eric is upset when Kitty befriends Donna and Red chooses Kelso to star in a Price Mart ad.
Written by Kristin Newman | Directed by David Trainer
Okay, in terms of comedic proficiency, this is one of those installments that really isn’t exceptional, and, honestly, I’m just as surprised as you to see it here. However, highlighting “The Forgotten Son” gives me the chance to showcase an outing with a near-perfect dramatic structure, and yes, while I seldom think structure alone is anything worth celebrating — it’s not inherently great for character — the others in contention for a spot are less valuable, for this one is a “master class” in how using Eric’s position as the series’ anchor can enable multiple stories with a single emotional through line. Aside from the small Leo/Fez/Hyde subplot, the entire offering is dominated by two stories that simultaneously exacerbate Eric’s insecurities, all the while dealing with several of the core relationships that define who he is. On one end, he is upset that Red has chosen Kelso to star as a stock boy in a Price Mart commercial — a bit that enables a fun, should-be-iconic fantasy sequence where Kelso imagines himself as Travolta in Saturday Night Fever (a classic Peak Golden Age way of projecting the ’70s) — and on the other, he is peeved when Kitty begins hanging out with his ex-girlfriend, Donna. Eric feels slighted in both cases, as his relationship with his parents — particularly Red — is not only an easy source of conflict, but also a defining bond that has influenced the way he’s handled his relationship with Donna. So, as the Red story brings to mind why Eric is the way he is, the Kitty story makes the necessary connection to Donna, who’s also struggling right now because of Midge’s absence. (Dig that emotional continuity!) As such, “The Forgotten Son” is a perfect example of how conflicts can highlight character flaws, and with the ’70s setting well-established, this is simply what the series should be doing week-to-week.
06) Episode 88: “An Eric Forman Christmas” (Aired: 12/18/01)
Eric has trouble directing his friends in the church Christmas pageant.
Written by Dean Batali & Rob Deshotel | Directed by David Trainer
One of my favorite Christmas-themed excursions from the series’ run, this fun, jokey show works mostly because it starts with a scenario that guarantees a lot of all-cast scenes (at least, with the six main “teens”). The premise has Eric in charge of putting on the church Christmas play — an annual hallmark of growing up in that era — and sets up the dynamic where Eric, who despite his own streak of rebellion is otherwise a rule follower in comparison to his friends, is forced to wrangle a group of rowdy teens who’d rather be doing anything else. In essence then, there’s a lot of youthful nostalgia running through this episode, for this is one of those shows where the “teens” actually feel like teens, and that fosters a sense of abandon that justifies some of the sillier moments of comedy, like Kelso’s Rudolph stop motion fantasy (which, as with the animated Scooby Doo scene from several years ago, is very gaudy, but nevertheless rooted in the era and the character). Also, this is a chance to reuse the funny Kevin McDonald as Pastor Dave in a story where it makes logical sense for him to appear. In fact, this is his last appearance, and not since his debut in the similarly comedic “Holy Crap!” from Season Two has he been featured so well… But again, typical of this transitional era, part of this one’s appeal is its big hahas; the smart story and the way it positions Eric within and against the ensemble (who help suggest the era via nostalgia) is merely helpful.
07) Episode 89: “Jackie Says Cheese” (Aired: 01/08/02)
Jackie is forced to get a job as Fez has a foreign exchange student rival.
Written by Mark Hudis | Directed by David Trainer
Although there’s an amusing subplot with Eric and his parents, where he and Red have a misunderstanding about one stealing condoms and the other thinking he’s been busted for marijuana (again), this entry is really a show for the other teens, like Fez, who gets an amusing situational story where he finds a rival in a new foreign exchange student who’s much luckier with the ladies — a notion that inspires a parody of Happy Days‘ notorious “Jump The Shark” moment (a self-referential bit where the show flexes its own super-awareness about its medium). Yet the real dramatic thrust of “Jackie Says Cheese” belongs to its eponymous leading lady, who’s forced to get a job after her father cuts her off upon finding out that she reunited with Kelso (who, remember, the season has already told us isn’t good for her). I love the way this arc starts because it truly explores Jackie, whose self-entitled prima donna persona has never before been confronted with the prospect of having to do regular labor (like selling cheese at the mall — a novel ’70s setting, by the way). And she has to do this because of her misguided choice to be with Kelso… This is the perfect launching pad for the couple’s future separation, for this should unquestionably change Jackie — either it’ll make her a less flawed person (and therefore, less of an ideal match for Kelso), or make her realize that he simply isn’t worth this degradation… Unfortunately, though, the year isn’t going to use the story’s natural character prospects for its acknowledged narrative aims; as we’ll soon find out, it’s got a more clichéd, contrived, idea-based “cheating” scenario in mind… which makes for a prime example of Season Four promising so much for character, and then not delivering it.
08) Episode 92: “Donna Dates A Kelso” (Aired: 02/05/02)
Jackie sets Donna up with Kelso’s older brother.
Written by Dean Batali & Rob Deshotel | Directed by David Trainer
Another underrated outing, “Donna Dates A Kelso” is actually an important pivot in the season — in the same way that we’ve seen in each of the series’ prior three Februarys. This time, there’s also another change in quality too, for after this, it becomes lamentably clear that all the character prospects established in the earlier part of the year — which itself was only good-but-not-great — are NOT going to be well-realized before season’s end, thereby making sure that Season Four ultimately does neither what it needed to do episodically nor in the big picture… This installment is the one that introduces the Casey Kelso triangle, and while it’ll eventually devolve into a plotty mess that makes it impossible for Eric to reach any of the necessary conclusions about himself that he NEEDS to find in order to deservedly win Donna back and fulfill the year’s thesis, here, it’s a smart weekly conflict that looks to have bigger ramifications, and seems like it could perhaps motivate Eric to finally wake up and start taking more steps towards true personal maturation. Again, the fact that this never happens is not the fault of this entry, which otherwise claims fun teleplay with some key moments — including the memorable Dating Game fantasy and the season’s best use of Fez’s arc, as his scene with Kitty in which he asks for advice about losing his virginity is a wonderful moment of both truth and character comedy (for each). Sadly, much of the rest of this year is a soapy mess…
09) Episode 96: “Class Picture” (Aired: 03/19/02)
The gang reminisces while trying to think up a quote for the yearbook.
Written by Kristin Newman | Directed by David Trainer
Well, I bite my figurative tongue again, for after excoriating the final part of this season for being less character-led than the series needs to be, we come across my choice for the year’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), the gimmickly structured “Class Picture.” Like the season premiere, this is one of those offerings with a narrative design — the flashback anthology show — that’s intrinsically stunty and ostentatious, typically suggesting a prioritization of story/idea over any possible character rewards. But, just as with the season premiere, there’s much more here than meets the eye, and in contrast to many of the popular idea-led shows that I couldn’t highlight on this list, “Class Picture” not just delivers on behalf of character, but does so in a way that proves that this was ALWAYS the cornerstone of its existence. For with a premise that does everything we need the show to do — gets the six teenagers together at the same place and same time (where they can bounce off each other with effortless ease, showcasing how well-defined they all are and how adept That ’70s Show actually has been at crafting them), ratchets up the series’ emotional currency via a heady dose of nostalgia (the yearbook photo day is something to which we can all relate, as is the drama over pictures and the need to think up a quote), and reinforces the ’70s era time and again with flashbacks that take us through how these characters met, or rather, how this group came to be. Then, in addition to the building of a shared history in which we’re intrinsically invested because of how we already feel about these characters, the flashbacks happen to be, overall, very funny and well-suited for all of their individual characterizations, yet again proving just how well the show knows these regulars… and the potential that still exists within the series to depict them so comedically on a weekly basis. Perhaps, then, this one works because, unlike the rest of the year, which struggles for its denial of true growth to the regulars, it’s focused on creating their past — a less tension-filled prospect because there are no clear-cut ramifications. This is just a singular episodic display of character. And it happens to be stellar: one of That ’70s Show‘s finest half-hours and one of the last truly memorable samples, transcending the bounds of the season.
10) Episode 99: “Hyde’s Birthday” (Aired: 04/23/02)
Hyde doesn’t want to attend his not-so-surprise 18th birthday party.
Written by Mark Hudis | Directed by David Trainer
This show starts with a smart construction — it has several narrative threads but they’re all related to one specific idea: it’s Hyde’s 18th birthday and Kitty is throwing a not-so-surprise party for him. Typical of the unemotional Hyde, he’s not looking forward to this event, and we come to realize this is because he’s afraid he’ll be kicked out of the Forman home once he turns of age. (Incidentally, he moved back in with them earlier this year — after his arc with his dad last season fizzled out, as many of his character’s stories have seemed to do.) This grounds everything in a relatable dramatic fear for his character, and I appreciate that, in this sea of either hyperbolically trivial or obnoxiously self-important stories, this one is simple and relevant. Also, at the same time, there’s lots of quintessential ’70s fun happening, both in the planning of the party subplot, and in Eric, Donna, and Kelso’s attempts to steal a street sign (“High Street”) to give to their friend as a birthday present. As the former makes good use of Jackie and Fez, the latter has the chance to utilize the year’s Eric/Donna dynamic in an amusing episodic plot that doesn’t involve the story-driven Casey — which feels a bit closer to what we want to be seeing in this era. Additionally, the trio’s pursuit of this gift, along with the details of the party, feel so utterly ’70s that I commend this entry for being another buffet for just what we crave from this show: great character stuff within an easy reflection of the premise. In this way, its appeal is like the honorably mentioned “Eric’s Corvette Caper”… but with a unified structure that includes meaty stuff for everyone, not just Eric/Red.
Because of the season’s transitional quality, I need to mention episodes that I actually considered for this list, and then cite the popular ones I just couldn’t. The ones I enjoy and contemplated for inclusion are: two aforementioned shows that merely weren’t as valuable as their counterparts — “Pinciotti Vs. Forman” and “Eric’s Corvette Caper” — along with two amusing idea-led shows that fail to stick their landings with regard to character — “Kelso’s Career” and “Leo Loves Kitty” — and finally, two other memorable shows, “Tornado Prom,” which is dramatically unified but emotionally middling, and “Jackie’s Cheese Squeeze,” which is terrible in the big picture, but has fun with Eric/Jackie.
Then the popular shows that I simply couldn’t highlight this week as superlative samples of the year: “Red And Stacey,” which thinks it has an amusing Victory In Premise — about Red trying to set up a young employee with Eric only to learn that she likes Red instead — but isn’t actually victorious for character because, remember, I only care about Red in relation to Eric, and because Eric isn’t that invested in Stacey, I therefore don’t care that she likes Red, which means it’s emotionally inconsequential (and narratively gaudy), and two prank shows, Forte’s “Eric’s Hot Cousin,” which loves its funny idea of having Eric fall for his cousin, but within a premise-y plot during which the ending is both obvious and totally starved of anything imperative for his growth or the exploration of his seminal flaws, and “Prank Day,” which unites Red and Eric, but has too many logic problems for me to excuse the inherently unappealing premise, where situational humor not only deepens none of the characters, but even insults them… Now, I also have to discuss the series’ 100th episode, “That ’70s Musical.” It pains me not to include this one because, as you know, I love musicals and appreciate how the entry so easily celebrates the ’70s setting. But it’s a gimmick with little character value, and what’s more, it also suffers from a fundamental piece of missing advice: DON’T DO A MUSICAL IF THE MAJORITY OF YOUR CAST CAN’T SING.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of That ’70s Show goes to…
Come back next week for Season Five! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!