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.
That ‘70s Show continues its descent with a season that knew it would likely be saying goodbye at year’s end to two leads — Kutcher and Grace — even though there might be a renewal, as both the network and the ensemble wanted more. Thus, Seven, like Six, offers macro growth alongside micro disappointments, with trouble, in particular, for the lead character, whose usage remains hindered by these behind-the-scenes moves… Following an engagement that made it hard to support the thesis that Eric/Donna are good for each other and meant-to-be — because it neither felt earned nor beneficial to them individually — the core couple’s wedding was pushed to Grace’s believed wrap: the end of Season Six. But Grace renewed mid-year, and ‘70s became stuck; it couldn’t marry them and it couldn’t split them up, since the latter would negate the show’s thesis and the former would have made it even harder to oust Eric. This trapped Seven, too; by holding on an extra year to the show’s most important character, it was asking for narrative leaps and character contortions counterintuitive to the series’ dramatic health. And with Eric’s journey being ‘70s raison d’être, when he’s unable to move within the relationship (his primary vehicle for growth), and forced to stagnate as an individual — with an arc expressly about him doing nothing for an entire year — it isn’t just Eric that’s failing, it’s the show, too… Also, while I appreciate that Seven breaks their engagement, eliminating the tension of having to root for something we don’t actually want, the lack of repercussions for Eric/Donna aren’t buyable. And ultimately, with neither Donna nor Eric being allowed to evolve for the better — and in fact devolving (see: Donna, who dyes her hair blonde and gets a ‘00s cut that further distances the series from its ‘70s setting, which has to be invoked in story again, since the year is having a terrible job doing this via character, and Eric, who wants nothing in life and therefore isn’t emotionally worth caring about anymore — especially because he wasn’t like this early on) — the series’ belief in their rightness is now a liability. We don’t believe in them and we don’t believe in the show. So, though Eight suffers for Eric’s loss, Seven suffers from his slow drawn-out demise; you can choose which is more painful.
Now, Eric’s stagnation is truly glaring when almost everyone else has some forward momentum — at least, within story arcs. (Remember, the general issue of growth not being apparent in weekly plot still applies.) While Kelso is now a cop and a dad, several characters embark on new careers, including Fez as a shampoo boy, Jackie as a TV host, and even Red as the owner of a new muffler shop. Meanwhile, Hyde also sees a lot of change as he meets his biological father, played by WKRP’s Tim Reid, who’s not only black, but rich — the owner of a series of record stores… one of which Hyde is allowed to manage, with his new half-sister, Angie (Megalyn Echikunwoke). The record store is a groovy and era-appropriate new hangout, but Angie, the math major intended to be a second Laurie, fails to make a splash. Although she is a foil for her brother and indeed sleeps with Kelso — furthering the subtle positioning that goes on this year, offering Hyde as a potential replacement anchor for Eric — her persona is led by story and she’s not allowed to be funny. She isn’t an asset to the series or Hyde. Accordingly, even though I think Hyde benefits overall from the job and his dad, the Angie shows — no matter if they’re episodically okay — feel like an aberration in the series’ overall run, for she’s one of several late-in-life moves that don’t really work… like Charlie, who appears in the last three episodes as an Eric replacement. (The actor got a new gig, so the eighth season premiere will literally kill him off, gleefully.) And as Season Seven barrels to a close — with the Jackie/Hyde relationship degenerating into a soapy mess that has nothing to do with character and everything to do with story (why are they splitting up?), and Eric leaving to go to Africa for reasons that make little sense and don’t do anything to mitigate the damage done to Donna and their relationship (he’s still abandoning her), things look bleak. Not even the return of Leo (Tommy Chong) can fix it. All we’ve got now are broad stories and silly gimmicks — the Lindsay Lohan episode is particularly brainless — and with the series not only losing its dramatic center but moving further away from the ‘70s, That ‘70s Show might as well be dead… But there are still moments of life, so I have selected ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s finest.
01) Episode 155: “Let’s Spend The Night Together” (Aired: 09/15/04)
Hyde is in for a surprise when he finally meets his biological father.
Written by Dean Batali | Directed by David Trainer
Following a decently written season premiere that nevertheless can’t overcome the basic character trauma inherent to Eric’s “do nothing” arc and the lack of consequences in the Eric/Donna relationship after the cancelled wedding — we want that wretched story to end without having to split them or marry them, but the fact that neither happens isn’t buyable — the year’s sophomore entry has less overhead “baggage” limiting its ability to entertain. Instead, it gets to charge head first into the new season’s story interests, principally the introduction of William Barnett (WKRP‘s Tim Reid) as Hyde’s biological dad, who everyone is shocked to learn is… rich. Just kidding, they’re more shocked to learn that he’s black, and this sparks the bulk of the comedy. It’s odd; the show hasn’t dealt much with race relations in its chosen era (the late ’70s), and now that it does, I’m glad that it makes a big point of it, but also kind of skeptical, for this almost seems like an actual ’70s sitcom’s take on what this story would be, as opposed to real people’s existing in that time period. In other words, it’s so silly and heightened as to appear false, but, again, that’s more a reflection of the season’s aesthetic than anything else. Also, in the subplots, Donna (who’s now blonde — and looking more like a woman of 2004 than 1979) and Eric attend a feminist rally, and Kelso waits for news about the birth of his baby.
02) Episode 156: “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (Aired: 09/22/04)
Red buys a muffler shop and Kelso changes as a result of being a father.
Written by Kristin Newman | Directed by David Trainer
Season Seven presses forward with some of its big character arcs (which supply the only real growth most of these regulars are going to receive at this point), both with Kelso, who’s now the father of a baby girl, and Red, who spent a year recovering from his heart attack and is ready to go back to work, opting to buy a muffler shop. The comedy from the A-story, with Red and the muffler shop, is rather juvenile, as it involves the now-deadbeat Eric vandalizing the space, changing muffler to muff — inspiring a lot of easy, dirty jokes that becomes less funny the more the teleplay relies on them. It’s not a good look for his character, for although youthful rebellion was always part of his arc towards maturation, this unintelligent characterization of someone who does little and wants nothing is a rejection of who we thought Eric was (we thought he was a little more focused than the rest of his crew — at least, he was in the first few seasons) and makes it hard to stay invested. (It’s difficult to care about people who don’t care about anything.) There’s much more success in the Kelso subplot, as he finds that having a daughter might change his attitude towards women… well, slightly. The scene where he gets punched out is a classic — one of the funniest of the season, and even better, it comes within a story that’s self-aware about his character’s actual, palpable growth.
03) Episode 157: “Beast Of Burden” (Aired: 09/29/04)
As Fez becomes a shampoo boy, Hyde has job offers from both Red and his real father.
Written by Dave Schiff | Directed by David Trainer
The season is still setting up some of its bigger arcs here — in its fourth aired entry — and much like early Season Four, which made promises for the regulars that the back half couldn’t fulfill, Seven’s opening installments benefit from being able to introduce ideas that make sense for these characters, without having to actually make good on them and showcase how their depictions are changing as a result of these developments. That is, these early shows get to claim that Seven is going to be good for character growth without having to prove it. Now, when Fez gets a job as shampoo boy at a hair salon, and shows an initial expertise with women’s hair, it’s a victory, no questions asked. And when the A-story gives Hyde a terrific dilemma, pitting him between his biological father, who’s offering a job at his record company, and the father figure who gave him a place to stay the past few years (Red), who’s offering a job at the new muffler shop, Hyde really has an important choice to make, one that tells us something about what he wants from his life going forward. Additionally, this is a great story for Eric, once again reinforcing (like “The Forgotten Son”) how Red views his son and how different they are. In this way, Eric feels slightly well-used, even though, narratively, the lead is Hyde… thus suggesting a structure (Hyde as the new Eric — i.e., anchor) that comes across quite a few times throughout the last few years… So, though not hilarious, there’s character value.
04) Episode 158: “It’s Only Rock And Roll” (Aired: 10/06/04)
Hyde starts working for his father and Kitty takes up tai chi.
Written by Philip Stark | Directed by David Trainer
After seeing four consecutive outings highlighted, you might presume that That ’70s Show is on a hot streak. But don’t be fooled — it’s simply that, as noted above, the early shows get to set up character arcs without having to worry about the follow-through. At least, that’s why the above three were featured — this one is more memorable because of its funny ideas. Okay, you know I seldom like to reward based on the comedic value of story interests alone, and as a matter of fact, “It’s Only Rock And Roll” is one of those offerings that never immediately comes to mind as being a must-include. But I think in addition to each story having some basic humor — such as the silly subplot where Fez overdoses on porn after Kelso gives him his collection — the ’70s setting is well-applied. That’s obvious in the Kitty story, where she joins Midge in taking up tai chi — one of those era-specific fads to which Midge has always been drawn (and this is a better use of her character than most of the other shows in which she appears this year, where her inclusion is purely story-driven — getting her to either stay or go). But it’s also evident in the Hyde A-story, where he starts working at his father’s company, being saddled with an office job that’s clearly something not suited for the “rock and roll” Hyde. Not only is this an arc-furthering narrative that’s good for his character, it’s also a chance to give us a glimpse into office culture circa 1979 — something we haven’t seen before on this series.
05) Episode 161: “Angie” (Aired: 11/17/04)
Hyde’s half-sister tries to get him out of the company as Eric’s roller disco secret is revealed.
Written by Bryan Moore & Chris Peterson | Directed by David Trainer
Hyde’s half-sister Angie is obviously introduced in this installment, and my thoughts on her are pretty well-covered in the seasonal commentary: she’s meant to be a foil for Hyde in the same way that Laurie was to Eric, but she’s given only basic definition (she’s a snooty brainiac) and, more to the point, isn’t allowed to be comedically on par with the rest of the characters, which means she can’t fully integrate with them and earn our investment (as was likely intended). As such, the A-story, in which she initially bonds with Hyde only to betray him to their father in an attempt to get him kicked out of the company, isn’t easy to enjoy, despite it leading to a development that maybe looks to be more promising: the oppositional half-siblings being forced to manage a record store together… Actually, the reason this episode is here is the subplot, in which Kitty accidentally spills the beans about Eric having a secret obsession: roller disco. Yikes. This is so much of what I hate: an idea-led subplot that puts its situational hahas over any real concern for character, who, in this case, is being further caricatured into pitiful, un-root-for-able oblivion… And yet, for Seven’s standards, it’s such a notable entry (repetitive roller disco humor — see: Season Three — aside) that none of the Honorable Mentions are even marginally as competitive, meaning that “Angie” looks better in comparison.
06) Episode 163: “Surprise, Surprise” (Aired: 12/01/04)
Hyde is upset when Angie begins sleeping with Kelso.
Written by Sarah McLaughlin | Directed by David Trainer
The season continues its attempts to make Angie a viable part of the ensemble in this entry, which makes her usage’s similarity to Laurie’s even stronger by pairing her romantically with Kelso. It’s a bit easy and does nothing to actively further the character’s depiction or her potential within this established cast, but it does provide for a lot of laughs, courtesy of the gang’s institutionalized knowledge about each other’s histories. Eric’s jokes about Kelso nailing Hyde’s sister are especially riotous given what’s transpired before with these characters, and this story benefits from not only acknowledging it, but playing it up comedically… Meanwhile, this is one of those rare outings where the subplots all tend to work well, too — while the story where Kitty tries to teach Jackie how to bake something for Hyde is effortless fun, a contrast in characterizations that doesn’t need much by way of plot in order to spark hahas (no matter how spiritually redundant), the story where Donna tries to lead a boycott of Red’s store following a calendar he puts out that she finds exploitative to women is a chance for their characters (and even Kitty) to be used oppositionally in an idea that doesn’t feel merely situational, but emotionally true to who they are. So, this one does some good things with character all the way around, putting them in episodic story that, yay, makes sense and comedy.
07) Episode 167: “Street Fighting Man” (Aired: 02/09/05)
The gang goes to a Packers game with Red.
Written by Alan Dybner | Directed by David Trainer
Admittedly, this is one of the few episodes from Season Seven that seems to be popular among the fan base, and I’m afraid I don’t think it’s as exceptional as most do. Or rather, I think this is a middling offering that’s filled mostly with stuff we’ve seen before, but because it’s packaged to look a little new and smartly knows that the easiest way to make a winning excursion is by putting the six main teens together at the same time and place, it stands out among a crowd of late-Seven showings that are, to put it mildly, below average. You see, having the kids go to a Packers game with Red is essentially a narrative retread of the first season’s “That Wrestling Show,” where the group went with the two main dads (Red and Bob) to a match — a structure used to bond Red and Eric, the two characters in this arrangement whose relationship is most made to clash, since one is athletic, the other is not, and that’s a major wedge between the two. And, again, “Street Fighting Man” does the exact same thing, and doesn’t offer much new… beyond the situational differences, some emotional continuity for Jackie and Hyde (who have, by this time, split — for a reason that really doesn’t matter because it comes out of nowhere, anyway), and a chance, at this point in the series’ run, to gather a majority of the cast together in a location that we technically haven’t been before. This gives it a figurative shine.
08) Episode 168: “It’s All Over Now” (Aired: 02/16/05)
Donna has a rival at the radio station as the record store prepares for a special guest.
Written by Mark Hudis | Directed by David Trainer
In earlier, better seasons, “It’s All Over Now” would probably be used as an example of a defiantly unideal That ’70s Show — one that relies a little too heavily on plot beats that SHOUT the particulars of the ’70s setting, and not enough on what’s going on with character (who should theoretically be embodying the era… without needing much overt help from story). This outing not only contends with the planned arrival of Tom Jones at the record store — shades of Gerald Ford stopping in Point Place in Season One — but also George Carlin’s famous “Seven Dirty Words” record, which is used as the climax of a story in which Donna is fired by an Eve Harrington wannabe at the radio station (played by Eliza Dushku)… It’s all very circumstantial, with the era reinforced not just through minor details, but actual plot points… and without enough support from the characterizations to obscure the otherwise hacky and overbearing use of the ’70s. Again, in earlier years, this would be a no-no, but here in Season Seven, it makes for a memorable show, especially since the series is no longer able to project its ’70s identity well at all. (Take a look at Donna and Jackie, for instance — they look about as ’70s as the Friends did.) As a result, this entry brings something to the list that, by now, has become valuable to the series: a reminder about what it is and where it’s set. (And it’s funnier and less obviously trite as the similarly gaudy “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.”)
09) Episode 170: “Down The Road Apiece” (Aired: 03/02/05)
Eric goes on the road to make a documentary and reunites with Leo.
Written by Philip Stark | Directed by David Trainer
My choice for the season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Down The Road Apiece” is notable mostly for offering the official return of Tommy Chong’s Leo, who hasn’t appeared on the series since the end of Season Four (due to the actor’s public legal troubles and eventual stint behind bars). Aside from everything else, seeing him is a reminder of a time when anything was possible and the show’s character-rooted storytelling was firing on all cylinders. Yet instead of being sad and nostalgic, proving just how far the mighty have fallen, I’m happy to say that his inclusion has a restorative effect, infusing the show with some of the energy of its earlier days — not to mention some great character-driven laughs — and serving, as suggested briefly in the seasonal commentary, as one of the only things from the back half of Seven that doesn’t position Eight as totally dire and misguided… This entry is a winner just for Leo alone, but fortunately, it’s a funny show in its own right, providing some episodic salve to the unbearably soapy machinations of Jackie/Hyde by using Fez as an interloper to once again reunite them. (It’s a rehash of Kelso reuniting them back in early Season Six, but, hey, beggars, choosers, you know the drill…) Additionally, the A-story is all about Eric going on the road, à la Jack Kerouac, to find himself, which at least acknowledges what a lost character he’s become this year, and it almost reignites some of the youthful spunk that defined him in the first seasons. So, when he finds Leo and ends up in a diner, there’s therefore lots of fun to be had, especially when the Formans, Kelso, and Donna (with whom Kitty is being particularly catty) show up — the jokes are quick and, for the most part, born from the characterizations. Okay, there wasn’t much to choose from when picking an MVE, but this unforgettable half-hour has character value and Leo-led fun to help clear away the year’s sadness about its own inevitable fate.
10) Episode 178: “Till The Next Goodbye” (Aired: 05/18/05)
Eric prepares to leave for Africa.
Written by Mark Hudis | Directed by David Trainer
To That ’70s Show‘s credit, it tends to take extra care with its big episodes — its finales, its premieres, its game-changers — making sure that they’re among their seasons’ more polished efforts, with solid dramatic moments and a respectable number of laughs. That’s definitely true of this outing, which shouldn’t be celebrated, since it brings about the departure of the series’ lead — its anchor, its dramatic focus, its reason for being, and without whom it shouldn’t exist (you hear that, Eight?) — and basically does nothing but send him on a parade of goodbyes. (There’s also a contrived triangle cliffhanger with Jackie, Hyde, and Kelso that regresses all three, but their usage this year has left a lot to be desired, and so these soapy maneuverings, while detestable, are almost ignorable at this point.) This so-called parade of goodbyes for Eric is emotionally indulgent and precisely the kind of finale fare I dislike — it’s not a great sample of what the series is week-to-week — and it’s very hard to like now because of what his departure means for the series going forward. Also, because of the damage done to Eric’s character, the power is blunted… as is the comedy of the parents catching the kids smoking, leading to another callback of the pilot kitchen scene, which feels played out and no longer an able reflection of what the series and these characters are…. And yet, there’s real care taken with each moment here, and it shows, and as the obvious end of so much physically, it’s hard not to engage with the show’s long-buried nostalgia, which uses Eric’s decision as a symbol of him growing. Yes, he’s supposed to grow with Donna, and yes, they’re meant to be together, but with his character spending two (maybe three) years basically stagnant, this move is almost a welcome relief; they’re both free now… if only the show could be at peace, too…
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” which attempts to reinforce the Hyde-as-anchor structure as Eric is stuck in a jokey subplot that continues to showcase how pathetic he’s become (the Styx jokes are not a substitute for character comedy), “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” which uses its ’70s setting in a very ostentatious and idea-led way, but is less comedically satisfying as “It’s All Over Now” (above), “On With The Show,” which has some growth for Eric and Jackie (who starts her TV career), but within a teleplay that’s cringe-inducing, partly due to a terrible Angie subplot, and “Take It Or Leave It,” which introduces the ill-fated Charlie for a decent guys-having-fun outing, ruined only by soapy Jackie/Hyde stuff. Of more Honorable Mention quality, meanwhile, are “Time Is On My Side,” the solidly written premiere that just can’t overcome its Eric/Donna troubles, “Who’s Been Sleeping Here?,” which attempts to force Eric/Donna to talk about the current state of their relationship, and “Short And Curlies,” classic only for the VERY funny scene where Donna dresses as Princess Leia.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Seven of That ’70s Show goes to…
“Down The Road Apiece”
Come back next week for Season Eight! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!