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, and DON STARK as Bob Pinciotti.
Every season following That ‘70s’ peak is a decline in quality, even though some years — like the fifth — do everything in their narrative power to create a “comeback” myth that disrupts what is otherwise a downward trajectory. However, we’ve reached the point in the run where it’s overkill to harp on how/why the series, and its episodic returns, aren’t as good as before — by now, that’s simply a given. We merely go into Six ready to track a continued descent… And yet, operating with far less of the youthful buoyancy that underscored the years prior to the kids’ high school graduation — making it harder for stories to capably project the nostalgic ‘70s setting — Six’s core concerns should be familiar; they’re not new… While there are big arc-led efforts to evolve the leads (Fez finally gets his green card, Kelso trains to become both a cop and a father, Donna goes to college, etc.), we don’t necessarily see this growth reflected through individual stories that use their flaws/insecurities to propel change. Instead, it all comes from and exists as story. This is probably no worse than before, although it’s now more obvious, with SO MANY premise-y notions, like the cliffhanger’s Fez/Laurie yarn, which predictably devolves into a string of situational clichés (in part because Lisa Robin Kelly was once again fired and had to be recast after shooting the premiere with a far less convincing performer — Christina Moore), and several comedically strained and dramatically contrived story-driven multi-parters built around blah guest stars, like Alyson Hannigan and Seth Green. Much of this doesn’t work… but not everything’s awful. To wit, Six sees the return of Jackie’s mother — initially a walk-on role by Eve Plumb, now played legitimately by Brooke Shields — in an arc that at least tries to explore Jackie like we haven’t seen before. Shields’ presence, as a former ‘70s star, is undoubtedly a stunt, yet it’s somewhat satisfying — not because of the story-driven triangle it sets up with Bob and the returning Midge — because it gives Jackie something that may provide growth outside of soapy stuff with Hyde, with whom she is stable (but not evolving).
Would I like to see Jackie/Hyde better used in episodic story where their personal differences lead to conflicts that mature them? Yes. But I know better than to expect it; I’m just glad story isn’t damaging their depictions right now. And the same goes for everyone else — like Kelso, whose selection of a career (police) ties in nicely with his need for rapid maturation, courtesy of an accidental pregnancy. Oh, there are the usual concerns with this idea — it’s a convenient story-driven narrative with an outside character, Brooke (Shannon Elizabeth), who has minimal definition and isn’t really allowed to be funny, which then limits our interest — but it actually DOES force Kelso to visibly change a bit. Furthermore, it provides an “off-ramp” for his character, as Kelso the giant toddler raising a toddler is a perfect endgame arc for him — one the series needs, for entering this sixth year, the writers knew that everyone else might be negotiable for an eighth season, except for Kutcher, who just signed on for the seventh and would then likely call it quits… and Topher Grace, who didn’t renew until midway through Six, meaning that this year had to hedge its bets… Now, I think this had been happening since Five, when the show first set up an engagement arc that was intended to feel good, but kind of trapped Eric/Donna, as we were supposed to root for something we couldn’t (due to their lack of clear-cut growth). Here, the show still can’t reject its belief in their rightness for each other, and yet it also can’t have them get married, especially if, at some point in the very near future, Eric is leaving and Donna is staying. That would be worse for its thesis… So, it has to keep pushing off this trap of a development, at least for a while. First, it uses Red’s heart attack to keep Eric in the house, thereby maintaining the status quo of location, and then sets the wedding date for season’s end, giving the year something of a breather (until those final few entries). This makes Eric/Donna’s weekly usage less of a struggle than it was in Five, when they were embroiled in the “please let us get married” arc that demanded unearned support.
As for the pair’s use in story, the big issues remain. There are signs of growth — Eric lets Donna go to college, though it pains him, and she opts to stay (see: “Magic Bus”) — once again reinforcing that they both learned their lessons from the end of Three. But as episodic story (see: “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” for one) suggests that their same gendered issues persist, particularly Eric’s, their macro and micro depictions don’t match. Furthermore, although Eric made the right gesture and Donna came to the “right” com-com conclusion, the series’ need to maintain its status quo — for as long as Grace is around — means that we’re supposed to believe that Eric is Donna’s freedom and they’re the best things to happen to each other… even though Eric is working in a hotel kitchen and Donna is going to a community college. That is, with neither living up to their full potential, it looks like, hey, maybe they aren’t actually good together… Okay, this feeling isn’t as bad here as it will become in Season Seven, when Grace’s upcoming departure forces Eric to not only stagnate and therefore seem more unideal for Donna, but also makes him shed so much of his characterization that it becomes impossible to care about him (or Donna) in the same way we used to, which… Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Six still has some self-awareness about how it needs to keep his character viable, and despite Eric’s choice to “ghost” Donna being hard to support or believe, the year’s chosen excuse for why the marriage doesn’t happen surprisingly allows him some introspection, as it’s not his cold feet that do it — it’s his fear that he’s keeping Donna from being everything that she should be. (Now that’s the kind of growth that would have been welcome last year!) This makes for the last time that Eric feels like the character we once knew, before story issues further stunt him… But, I want to be an optimist (as much as I can), so I’m not going to talk any more about the story problems… and the dwindling nostalgic fun — which yields fewer and fewer fantasies, incidentally; instead, we’re just going to find the moments that work the best… So, as usual, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s finest.
01) Episode 131: “Magic Bus” (Aired: 11/12/03)
It’s Eric’s 18th birthday and Donna is preparing to leave for college.
Written by Rob Deshotel | Directed by David Trainer
My choice for the season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Magic Bus” follows two solid offerings that transition the show away from its fifth year by settling into a new cliffhanger-quieting status quo. Now that Jackie and Hyde have reunited, Fez is married but not “with” Laurie, and Eric has decided to stay at home and take financial care of the family as Red recovers from his heart attack, this one puts the final touches on getting everything set for the rest of the season by keeping Donna in Point Place so that the entire ensemble remains intact. This, frankly, is its sole objective… But, as referenced above in the seasonal commentary, this is a seminal excursion, and there’s actually some artistry here, as it offers Eric and Donna the chance to affirm to us — more obviously than last year, when it was nebulous — that they’ve both learned the lessons of their first breakup. For now that Donna is going off to college without Eric, he has to let her go — there’s an appropriate Casablanca fantasy in support — which means that he finally loves her so much that he doesn’t feel the need to subordinate her. And then Donna, having been sent off to fly, decides she’d rather stay with Eric, as she finally trusts that he’s what she wants. Hurray!… Well, at least, on paper… for, as we’ve discussed, even though the characters come to the right conclusions, the need to maintain the status quo inevitably makes it feel like Donna is sacrificing a whole lot more than Eric — giving up her potential for growth — especially when he doesn’t do much this year (and it gets worse in Seven), and isn’t evolving either. Thus, while we feel good that the happy rom-com choices were made, the overall effect isn’t as joyous as it needs to be… and with future episodic conflicts contradicting the growth suggested here, it’s hard to remain half as optimistic as this bluesy, romantic, entry wants… As usual, though, that’s less the fault of this individual outing — which bookends the series well, as it’s Eric’s 18th birthday (his 17th was back in Season One — don’t try to do the math) — than it is Season Six’s, which has macro/micro problems with believable growth in story. So, this is Six’s best, before the rest of the year lowers its value.
02) Episode 132: “The Acid Queen” (Aired: 11/19/03)
Nobody believes Kelso when he claims to have hooked up with a hot librarian.
Written by Mark Hudis | Directed by David Trainer
This feels like the first true episode of Season Six, as it’s used to set up a major arc for the season, and the storyline that, as we mentioned above, will serve as an “off-ramp” for Kelso’s character when Kutcher makes his known departure after Seven: his accidental pregnancy with Brooke (Shannon Elizabeth), the hot librarian who nobody believes would ever hook up with him. It’s a funny idea, because Brooke and Kelso are so palpably different, and while some of the previously addressed concerns are already apparent — she simply isn’t comedically flawed enough to be a sitcom character about whom we can care — and despite the pregnancy reveal not coming until the half-hour’s final moments, “The Acid Queen” nevertheless is a fine showcase for Kelso, who really is the story’s star. Also, there’s a sense of lingering carefreeness running throughout this outing, perhaps supplied subliminally, in part, due to the casting of Elizabeth, an American Pie alum whose best known credit enjoys largely the same kind of goofy, young, nostalgic appeal as That ’70s Show. This serves as an able contrast to the final bombshell at the end, which will force Kelso to grow up (to a certain, mostly believable extent)… Meanwhile, the subplot pairs Red/Kitty with Jackie/Hyde: a more common arrangement during this point in the run (as the show looks to Hyde to maybe be a replacement anchor).
03) Episode 135: “Christmas” (Aired: 12/17/03)
Jackie brings the guys to her high school Christmas dance.
Written by Philip Stark | Directed by David Trainer
Although seemingly well-liked — well, as well-liked as shows from this sixth season can be — the year’s Christmas installment isn’t one of my true favorites here, as I think it’s a little bit jokey and easy, like in the subplot where Red is Santa at the mall. Obviously, that’s an unideal position for him and the laughs that come therefore feel situational and cheap, since the motivation for getting him there is scant and the character comedy is less about exploring Red as it is putting him in a known template. But, it’s memorable and beggars can’t be choosers this year… Actually, the A-story is a little more valuable, as the boys go back to their high school for Jackie’s Christmas party, and the mere return to this environment engenders an uptick in the youthful verve that underscored the show’s first few seasons, prior to the other characters’ graduation. (Since then, there’s been a definite reduction in the fun, silly, enthusiasm that only high school kids — with their futures in front of them — can bring.) Also, I appreciate that Eric’s insecurities — his need to be liked, and his feeling that Donna is too good for him because he’s not as conventionally appealing as she is — ties into one of the entry’s central conflicts, as he suddenly finds himself popular with high school girls now that he’s a graduate. So, there’s some fine stuff in “Christmas”… by Six’s (admittedly lower) standards.
04) Episode 142: “Baby Don’t You Do It” (Aired: 03/03/04)
Eric and Donna go to premarital counseling at church and lie about their sex life.
Written by Mark Hudis | Directed by David Trainer
One of the funniest teleplays on this list, “Baby Don’t You Do It” guest stars Star Wars alum Billy Dee Williams as the pastor that Eric and Donna decide to visit for counseling in advance of their upcoming wedding (and following a February Sweeps pregnancy scare). His inclusion is a major wink to the audience, given Eric’s love of Star Wars, which comes up in their session at the church and proves to be something of an obsession for the pastor as well (much to Donna’s chagrin). However, it’s funny even if you don’t know the connection, and that’s good, because, while it’s idea-led — as Eric’s descent into super nerdom HAS been these past two seasons (it really didn’t start until the top of Season Five) — it’s also a great recognition of how a regular’s quirks can manifest themselves in interactions with other characters. That’s not the point of this installment though; the point is to introduce some kind of conflict that Eric/Donna can have going into their wedding that gives them something to play in episodic story but isn’t serious enough to jeopardize their relationship. The solution? A vow of celibacy, made after Williams convinces Eric that “the force” is sex. It’s the best any offering does with this wedding arc… Meanwhile, the subplot with Kelso and Brooke is expressly about his growth, and that’s exactly what I want to be seeing from this storyline with him!
05) Episode 144: “Man With Money” (Aired: 03/17/04)
Kitty thinks Red has a crush on Pam and Jackie and Donna try to stop Pam from seeing Bob.
Written by Bryan Moore & Chris Peterson | Directed by David Trainer
Another one of the entries included here simply because its teleplay strikes me as especially comedic — meaning it’s laugh-out-loud funny repeatedly and for generally the right reasons (i.e. character), “Man With Money” also makes this list because it’s the best use of the Bob/Pam relationship in weekly story… As noted above, Pam is Jackie’s mother, now played by Brooke Shields, a case of stunt casting that somewhat invokes the ’70s (because the actress first came to fame near the end of the decade, when this season is set), and her presence makes for an interesting arc for Jackie, whose parents have otherwise been a non-entity since the first season, thereby giving her new material to play, and a chance to evolve the characterization into something with more substance. Also, by pairing Pam with Bob, the show can keep the Pam/Jackie relationship at the fore and involve other regulars, like Red and Kitty — a notion that gives this particular outing many great hahas when the latter becomes jealous of Red’s attraction to Pam… Now, honestly, I’m not thrilled with Jackie and Donna’s plan of using Fez to seduce Pam because it’s the kind of thing sitcom characters come up with, not real people, but Jackie and Donna have always had a fun rapport and stories that showcase it well deserve to be commended as such. (Mostly, though, this is just Pam’s best showing.)
06) Episode 145: “Happy Jack” (Aired: 03/24/04)
Donna is disgusted when she catches Eric touching himself in the bathroom.
Written by Kristin Newman | Directed by David Trainer
Among the season’s most memorable, “Happy Jack” could be a That ’70s Show poster child for the Victory-In-Premise, an idea that’s just so comedically rewarding that it doesn’t matter necessarily how it fits for the show or this set of characters. Fortunately, although I do think the idea is somewhat easy and not necessarily original or unique to the series, I also think it’s triumphant for character, because the show has before gone on record about Eric’s porn collection, and this subject has already been a source of conflict with Donna back when they were first dating (in Season Three). And given that Season Six has currently forced them to be celibate as a way of giving them something relatively minuscule to argue about at this point in the arc, it’s entirely believable that this would happen and be a weekly story for these characters. Sure, the entry is particularly jokey, maximizing the other regulars’ reactions to the situation, but it’s technically smart, for this is also one of those gendered conflicts that Eric/Donna have always been designed to play out, starting back in Season One. And it is legitimately amusing, so it’s enjoyable (and sans any major qualms)… Additionally, the subplot with Kelso and the other guys makes it a point to analyze Kelso’s change as result of becoming a police officer, meaning, again, that he’s being used in a plot that highlights forward movement.
07) Episode 146: “Do You Think It’s Alright?” (Aired: 03/31/04)
Eric schemes to get out of wedding shopping with Donna.
Written by Patrick Kienlen | Directed by David Trainer
Admittedly, I have some sweeping concerns about this offering and how it’s written — I think some of the characters’ voices are not 100% consistent within the teleplay and I am absolutely disenchanted with the Red/Kitty sex fantasy subplot, which I think is a hacky idea that banks on laughs derived from the scenario, and not from any true character insight. (Perhaps if this depiction of their sex life was better connected to the ’70s setting, it would feel less generic and unearned.) But I can’t avoid that the rest of this show has the right idea — generally — with its treatment of the two teenage couples, as the wedding arc inspires an episodic narrative that uses Eric’s flaws to its comedic advantage (and not to his dramatic detriment), while also encouraging both the inclusion of the always big-laugh-getting Fenton (Jim Rash), and a correlating subplot that features an ideal use of Jackie and an understanding of what her and Hyde’s main problem could perhaps be: his fear of commitment and the insecurity that makes her need one. (This is essentially what will break them up next year, but since this doesn’t really come up again, it’ll essentially feel random, forced, and confusing; stay tuned…) So, with most of the important characters being utilized smartly — at least, on paper, within story — “Do You Think It’s Alright?” rises above segments that are funnier, but more narratively troubled.
08) Episode 150: “Sparks” (Aired: 05/12/04)
Eric accidentally tears Donna’s wedding dress… and then keeps making it worse.
Written by Rob Deshotel | Directed by David Trainer
There’s a farcical element to this installment that’s appealing, as the continual onslaught of unfortunate circumstances that keep mounting on Eric, like a soufflé that keeps getting higher and higher, makes for great comedy. It all happens after he and Donna decide to break their celibacy streak, which seems to beget a string of bad luck as Eric accidentally rips Donna’s wedding dress, stains it, and then shrinks it in the wash — each beat making him, and the characters pulled in (Kitty and Fez), more manic. And while there’s no mistaken identity or slamming doors, the sequential plotting of Eric’s deceit-based — and perhaps fate-sparked — dilemma reminds us of those great Frasier farces, where the tension would give rise to an explosion. That ’70s Show doesn’t do this type of narrative often — heck, this might be the only one — and that makes it extra special. In fact, this popular episode is an affable standout for Season Six (no thanks to the silly subplot with Red and his new canoe — that’s not worth discussing here), and despite it not really being competitive with other shows that do this genre more frequently and better (that is, this isn’t anything close to a Frasier farce, so don’t think that my bringing it up is me likening the two — they’re in totally different leagues), it works and it’s a fresh story for a show that, right now, isn’t. One of this year’s finest.
09) Episode 151: “My Wife” (Aired: 05/16/04)
Eric worries about living with Donna in a trailer as the girls go to a strip club.
Written by Dean Batali | Directed by David Trainer
If there was any offering on this list that could rival my chosen MVE as being a contender for the spot, it would be “My Wife,” an underrated half-hour that I think is easy to dislike for several reasons — the biggest one being that it deals with the central couple’s upcoming nuptials, which we don’t really want to have to root for, no matter how much we like Eric/Donna and even if we still believe, per the show, that they belong together. Additionally, even if we aren’t unhappy about the upcoming wedding, the fact that this one lays the groundwork for Eric running out on Donna — a lame move that, on a surface level, paints Eric unfavorably and makes it seem incredibly difficult for Donna to forgive him easily (when she does, it’s hard to believe) — has it guilty by association. However, as I noted above, I think the motivation behind Eric getting cold feet is great and a credit to his character, because he’s not nervous about this because he doesn’t want to do it; he’s nervous because he thinks that Donna will eventually become unhappy being trapped in an RV, unable to fulfill her potential. And that’s actually a noble realization that does a better job of proving growth than even his actions in “Magic Bus.” Also, the teleplay is very comedic, both in the opening RV bit with the main teen ensemble, and in the scenes with the girls at the strip club, where Kitty gets to be wild (cheap laughs, no doubt) and Donna reconnects with Casey Kelso, a symbol of her freedom… Dramatically, this is the year’s smartest outing, and the surprise that it’s as funny as it is? Well, that’s a cherry on top. Again, an MVE contender — don’t “sleep on it.”
10) Episode 153: “The Seeker” (Aired: 05/19/04)
Midge returns and Hyde falls off the water tower after Eric disappears.
Written by Jeff Filgo & Jackie Filgo | Directed by David Trainer
My understanding is that this is an episode that most fans remember, and therefore tend to rate highly within the season itself, even though they hate some of what happens, particularly with Eric/Donna. I would agree that this, narratively, isn’t stellar, and I only highlight it here because it is memorable and because it gives me the chance to ruminate a bit more on the end of the year. (I almost highlighted the premiere, but I think story stuff gets in the way there, because it doesn’t get to create, like this one does…) Truthfully, “The Seeker” is also guilty by association, for the previous is the story-heavy affair where Eric doesn’t show up for the wedding rehearsal, forcing the marriage to be cancelled. It’s not funny, it’s not a great character showcase, and while I maintain that the show does its best to give him a noble excuse, it’s not something that we can actively support, because we’re still supposed to like and care about Donna and their relationship. So, this entry, in which Eric doesn’t return until the final scene, is a tough pill to swallow. However, it’s mostly Season Seven’s problem, for that’s when it becomes clear that there’ll be no consequences for this whole called-off-wedding mess, making all the emotional turns of this season for naught and the character choices that accompany it unnecessary… Yet, again, “The Seeker” isn’t burdened by these problems; actually, it’s mostly concerned with setting up Seven, bringing back Midge for a triangle with Bob and Pam, and introducing the notion that Hyde has a different biological dad than he thought — two ideas that show promise, more promise than we had going into Six. And with another fall off the water tower (this time it’s Hyde), there’s a surprising That ’70s optimism that precludes the offering from being a total disaster. Is it sublime? No. But it’s iconic and mostly avoids the arc’s stink…
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: the premiere, “The Kids Are Alright,” which is solid, despite some story stuff that it has to get out of the way (in order to maintain the status quo), but basically most notable for a well-executed Grease fantasy, “Young Man Blues,” a stuffed entry that takes several funny ideas and tries to dovetail them together à la Seinfeld, but doesn’t manage to do so cohesively, even though there’s a great Eric/Red subplot that elevates the whole half-hour, and “A Legal Matter,” which has a very funny subplot in which Fez studies for his citizenship exam, allowing for great character material with both Red and Kitty, among others. Oh, and I guess “Squeeze Box” has an amusing and noteworthy subplot with the guys seeing Pam topless… however unoriginal it may be.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Six of That ’70s Show goes to…
Come back next week for Season Seven! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!