Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re concluding 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 LAURA PREPON as Donna Pinciotti, 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 JOSH MEYERS as Randy Pearson.
Ugh. That ‘70s Show has always been about Eric Forman growing up in the late ‘70s, finding love with the girl next door, and navigating his entrance into adulthood during a time of great cultural change. Even when later years were destroying his character by refusing to let him evolve, he remained the center. And now that he’s gone, the series is unmoored. Oh, sure, various characters take turns guiding our perspective — sometimes it’s Donna (who’s saddled with a new romance that does her no favors), or Jackie (as she strains to motivate her endgame arc), or Hyde (despite being stuck with a dreadful newbie), or the broadening adult Formans — particularly Kitty, the star of both the year’s premiere and finale (the latter of which I find unsatisfying — see below). Yet no one is Eric, the series’ everyman, its romantic lead, its link between the kids and the adults. Without him, there should be no series, especially given the state of things before he left… That said, this year is no worse written than the past few, for all the same issues with character and story remain. Now it’s simply that we’re unable to keep pretending it’s capable of improvement. After all, nothing has been learned — it’s still attempting to add undefined characters, for although the premiere merrily kills off the bland Charlie, it soon replaces him with the equally bland Randy (Josh Meyers), a pretty boy blank canvas who’s not as moronic as Kelso (who appears in the first four episodes before being written out in a blaze of stupidity) and not as cool as Hyde, and therefore isn’t funny, but is still forced to be Donna’s love interest … for a brief period, anyway… You see, one of the things the year does that shows shocking insight is that it doesn’t undermine Eric’s importance within the group. (In fact, it isn’t until episode 13 that Donna actually agrees to start a relationship with Randy… which, again, lasts only a few weeks because, well, the series is ending and the nebulously defined Randy can never be her endgame.) Of course, it’s a double-edged sword; referencing Eric so often also reminds us of how foolish the show was to go on without him…
However, because Eight is the end, there is endgame stuff that provides growth. But it’s hit-and-miss… After an awful cliffhanger that returned to the Jackie/Hyde/Kelso triangle for lack of anything more character-rooted, Hyde comes home with a stripper named Samantha (Jud Tylor) that he apparently married in Vegas. It’s terrible — driven by story — and her character has no more definition than Randy. Her inclusion also precludes Jackie/Hyde from reuniting, and while it’s clear the show doesn’t want them back together — it never could write for them anyway (despite their inherent possibilities to evolve each other) — it’s a rotten thing with which to plague Hyde, for it doesn’t grow him at all. Jackie, meanwhile, fares better… Following an arc where she works for a TV host played by Mary Tyler Moore — the best stunt casting of this guest-star-heavy season (Moore’s character isn’t just a ‘70s gimmick; she’s used to further Jackie’s arc) — Jackie realizes that her perfect guy is her new roommate, Fez… Wait, hold up? Jackie moving in on her third member of the group is just as ridiculous as it sounds — a strain to logic. And it’s further insulting when the year tries to frame their pairing as the plan all along, for we can look at past years and know it’s not true… Yet, because Jackie has to change her way of thinking to motivate this silly endgame romance, she does end up growing a bit, and I could make the case that, by being with Fez, she’s less flawed. (I wish I could say the same for him.) That’s basically it though; aside from Jackie/Fez, Eight doesn’t do much with growth or big developments (and it dashes the Formans’ last-minute move), for when the year knows it’s ending — ‘79 will finally become ‘80 — it mostly just nudges the leads toward their nearby happy places, without much story (the Sam and Randy arcs notwithstanding). It’s a nice surprise, even though, sadly, the finale isn’t great, and the year does damage the show, if not the characters, who, by this point, have endured several seasons of unideal usage and have proven remarkably durable — a testament to how good the series could have been… But I’m trying to remain optimistic, so I have picked ten episodes (yes, a full ten!) that I think exemplify the year’s finest.
01) Episode 179: “Bohemian Rhapsody” (Aired: 11/02/05)
Kitty records a tape to tell Eric what’s happened since he left.
Written by Gregg Mettler | Directed by David Trainer
That ’70s Show‘s final season opens with an installment that, upon its initial release, convinced many critics that the series was ready to have a figurative fork stuck into it… Actually though, with hindsight, this is one of the stronger episodes of the year — a tightly paced, forward-moving small-scale narrative built around the idea that Kitty, with help from the others (mostly Donna), is recording an audio tape to tell Eric what’s happened in the time since he’s been gone. This allows the show to ditch the critically panned Charlie — he died falling off the water tower; it’s funny because the show is almost mocking itself now — and set up that Hyde’s been missing since catching Jackie with Kelso, thus enabling the idea-driven surprise of a stripper showing up at the house claiming to be his wife… Yikes. Meanwhile, there’s an easily jokey bit where Kitty tries marijuana and gets a lecture in the kitchen (it’s the pilot gag that’s been re-done to DEATH now and is no longer funny). It’s hacky, and so is the use of Kitty as the plot-pushing center of the action (she’s not the group’s mother; she’s Eric’s) — but the series always takes extra care with its premieres and finales, and with an above-par teleplay that transitions the show pretty well into its new year (however rotten), Season Eight could have done a lot worse with its opener than the unusually focused “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
02) Episode 183: “Stone Cold Crazy” (Aired: 11/30/05)
Jackie and Fez become roommates as he reunites with Caroline.
Written by Dave Schiff | Directed by David Trainer
Although the series doesn’t expend narrative energy foisting the idea of Jackie/Fez on the characters until the year’s back nine (right around the time cancellation seemed inevitable), I think it’s a safe bet to assume the entire season was heading in this direction anyway, especially starting in this entry, which has, now that Kelso has left (in the previous offering) and Hyde is stuck with the head-scratching plot device that is Sam, Jackie moving into an apartment with Fez. It’s all a little too cutesy and narratively convenient for my tastes, but in this case, some of this is purposeful, as the show parodies Three’s Company by having Fez take up again with crazy Caroline, who is so jealous of Fez with other women that Jackie, his new roommate, has to hide in the other room during their date… Okay, it’s totally contrived, but with a memorable Don Knotts cameo confirming that this is intentional, I can appreciate that the series is at least making some effort to pretend the show still cares about its ’70s setting… (even though, as always, I wish this came more through the characters; not gimmicks).
03) Episode 184: “Long Away” (Aired: 12/07/05)
Donna begins spending more time with Randy and Red learns that Leo’s a veteran.
Written by Philip Stark | Directed by David Trainer
The series begins laying the groundwork for Donna and Randy’s upcoming, but short-lived, coupling in this outing, which uses its A-story to both comment upon this fact and highlight the very thing that’s missing: Eric. As noted above, it’s good and bad the season does this — I love that it’s actually showing smart emotional continuity, the kind that would exist if these were real people (and it’s buyable that Jackie and Fez would want to alert Eric that Donna may be straying), but, of course, the more we talk about Eric, the more we think about the eighth season’s missing reason for being, and this ultimately isn’t good for Randy, who has no definition, or Donna, who’s left to babysit him in story… Fortunately, “Long Away” has a much stronger subplot — that’s why it’s here — in which, during a reunion for Red and his old army buddies, he learns that Leo is a veteran. It’s a funny idea — not just that burnout Leo was once in the military, but because it forces Red to change his mind. Oh, and there are some nice laughs in support, too (including an on-the-nose flashback that explains how Leo found marijuana).
04) Episode 185: “Fun It” (Aired: 12/14/05)
The gang steals the Fatso Burger plastic mascot.
Written by David Spencer | Directed by David Trainer
Ah, an entry clearly designed to cement the newly established Randy as a full-fledged member of the group by having him engage in one of the series’ requisite teenage rebellion stories. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this was a scenario written years earlier, for nothing about “Fun It” suggests the realities of the show in its present state — either broadly with the characters’ depictions (they’re older now, so some of these hijinks don’t quite play as well) or with Randy, in particular, who continues to elude definition, no matter how hard the show tries to convince us that he’s “one of the guys.” However… it’s a situational premise that’s easy to like and remember, and because that aforementioned teenage rebellion theme is fundamental to the series’ identity, even though they are older, and even though character isn’t used as well as I’d like, by the lower standards of this final era, this is an installment that stands out above the rest. And, frankly, I’m just happy that it manages to get as many laughs as it does, like with the Godfather parody (a ’70s reference) and an appropriately goofy Bob scene.
05) Episode 188: “Sweet Lady” (Aired: 01/26/06)
Jackie desperately tries to get a job working for a TV star.
Written by Alan Dybner | Directed by David Trainer
Mary Tyler Moore makes her debut in this offering as Christine St. George, a local TV host whom Jackie meets at Fez’s salon. Her three consecutive appearances constitute a mini-arc for Jackie, who, if you’ll remember from last season, apparently stumbled upon her ideal career path when she had the chance to be on public access TV. Now, the show’s final year finally develops this passion further with Christine, who, like Moore’s famous ’70s character, is associated with television and might deem it right to give a plucky young Midwestern girl with no experience a chance… The self-awareness doesn’t stop there; there are other nods to the classic MTM show here as well — shameful self-aware gags that I usually disdain, like a riff on “you’ve got spunk” and the inclusion of Gavin MacLeod in the Red subplot (with Dick Van Patten). Yet, despite the winks, which do affirm the show’s setting via gimmick, having Jackie work for Christine is a chance to evolve the former, and that’s why I think Moore’s use in Season Eight is the most effective of any guest star you’ll find this year, making all three of her excursions notable… But this is the least situationally predicated of the three and has the most narrative promise for Jackie, making it the easiest to enjoy. It’s also the least uneven with regard to the subplots; even the Donna/Randy thread has its moments — like with Fez and Hyde as Donna’s inner voices… Accordingly, with so little from which to choose, I’ve decided to make this one my MVE — there’s a memorable guest star and the chance for non-romantic character evolution with Jackie, all within a teleplay that doesn’t actively disappoint like so much of the last few years’. If only the rest of this season could use its gimmicks to the characters’ advantages.
06) Episode 190: “Killer Queen” (Aired: 02/09/06)
Jackie and Fez pretend to be a couple on Christine’s morning show.
Written by Mark Hudis | Directed by David Trainer
After the middle part of the MTM trilogy, during which the A-story found Kitty getting involved with Jackie and Christine, this entry has two main goals to accomplish: it needs to end this arc for Jackie, by presumably firing her from her new job, and it needs to keep building towards the explicit narrative use of Jackie/Fez as a pair. Thus, “Killer Queen” concocts an only somewhat buyable story in which Jackie and Fez pretend to be a couple on TV — it’s not great, but the idea is at least strategic — and then actually inverts our expectations by having Jackie and Christine bond… before the former is fired… Okay, it’s a sad end to what could have been a more promising storyline, but the show has always defined growth mostly by matters of the heart, so it’s got bigger fish to fry for Jackie, especially as the year starts to make the pivot towards its back nine. In fact, in preparation for the 13th episode the following week, Donna goes on her first date with Randy, setting the stage for the start of their romantic relationship in the next installment (and then with Kitty’s reaction in the one after that…)
07) Episode 192: “Son And Daughter” (Aired: 03/23/06)
Kitty has trouble dealing with Donna moving on with Randy.
Written by Ken Blankstein | Directed by David Trainer
Picking up on the narrative idea of the previous two, “Son And Daughter” is the point in the season where the show feels like it’s kept Donna faithful to Eric long enough that it can actually move forward with Donna/Randy. (Even though we don’t care about them and the show knows it, it’s still trying valiantly.) The teleplay is a little jokey and threatens some depictions, particularly Kitty’s, as her judgment of Donna is fairly harsh… but it’s not totally out of the ordinary. (We’ve seen instances last season — like in “Down The Road Apiece,” specifically — that matched this tenor.) And more importantly, it’s used to reach a great understanding between the characters, as Donna realizes Kitty’s not mad about Donna moving on with Randy, she’s mad at Eric for leaving. It’s believable, human character drama… Meanwhile, there’s a subplot with Hyde throwing a party at his dad’s house that somewhat evokes the very late ’70s setting — a guitar signed by Peter Frampton factors into a major plot point — and offers the chance for more easy laughs (primarily with Leo, who fixes the instrument like a surgeon).
08) Episode 196: “We Will Rock You” (Aired: 05/04/06)
The gang goes to an anti-disco rally.
Written by Chris Peterson & Bryan Moore | Directed by David Trainer
What I like best about this one is NOT the gimmicky subplot where Red and Kitty meet their new neighbors… who just happen to be gay… and just happen to be played by two of the former Brady Bunch (Christopher Knight and Barry Williams). The series has already portrayed ’70s attitudes towards gays with Fenton, and while the show has fun dashing expectations with Red, there’s not enough character meat here to overcome the ostentatious gimmick… However, what I do enjoy about “We Will Rock You” is that the rest of the outing takes place at a “Disco Sucks” rally and bonfire, where the show continues to explore the developing relationships — it tries to drum up a conflict based on Donna and Randy’s differences (it doesn’t totally work) and enjoys torturing Jackie, who’s since discovered that she has feelings for Fez. Obviously, the Disco Sucks bit is very 1979, and despite it screaming the era in a way I would have chided a story for doing back in the series’ first season, at this point in the run, again, I’m just happy when the show stops being soapy long enough to let us know that it remembers where it is. (Also, there’s some funny stuff with the Village People — another era-specific reminder.)
09) Episode 199: “Love Of My Life” (Aired: 05/18/06)
Hyde gives up marijuana as the Formans prepare to move.
Written by Gregg Mettler | Directed by David Trainer
Broadcast in an hour-long block ahead of the finale, this installment takes care of a lot of the story stuff that must occur in advance of the last episode. Not only does it have to reverse the previously introduced idea that Red and Kitty will be joining Bob down in Florida and therefore selling the house, it also has to stop the necessary, but contrived roadblocks that are keeping Jackie and Fez from being together. (Donna has already dumped Randy and decided to go off to school.) The entry chooses to be silly about everything — like in its use of Fez’s old friend from home (Justin Long) — but I think the teleplay, as a whole, does a fine job of mixing its hahas with its serious moments. That’s best evidenced in the terrific Hyde subplot, which is what actually earns “Love Of My Life” its place here, for after Hyde has a bad trip — compounded by all the recent change around him, including his father’s decision to sell the record store chain — he decides to go clean, giving up marijuana (i.e., the circle). This leads to a fun “intervention” scene that uses a fundamental part of the show’s identity to its comedic advantage… And then, Hyde returns to normal and the show gives him his happy ending: his father has saved this last store and given it to him. That’s not a bad wrap-up for his character.
10) Episode 200: “That ’70s Finale” (Aired: 05/18/06)
The Formans prepare for the New Year… and Eric’s return.
Written by Gregg Mettler | Directed by David Trainer
The series’ actual half-hour doesn’t have much story. It’s building up to Eric’s return in advance of the New Year and also brings back Kelso, but other than officially confirming that Kitty and Red won’t be moving, it’s only about Donna and Kitty’s wait for Eric to come home and the ’70s to end… Now, I like that the plot is light, and think the series had to end with the birth of 1980 and Eric’s return to the people he never should have left, especially Donna, his endgame. The problem? He doesn’t actually return until the last few minutes, during which he shares a single scene with Donna that is optimistic without being definitive, and a final circle that’s nice but not spectacular. And it all comes after a plot that, in saving his return for the end, further annihilates his characterization — just like the last few years did — not because it helps anybody grow, but because it’s convenient. As a result, this isn’t the proper series finale where Eric comes back and owns up to his past mistakes, demonstrating his evolution and restoring for the show its sense of purpose. No, this is a finale where Donna maybe gets a happy ending and Kitty, who’s seemingly positioned as the proxy anchor, gives a speech where she tells everyone how special they are… you know, the same thing Eric did individually at the end of Seven, even though he hadn’t enjoyed the emotional maturation necessary to motivate it… So, ultimately, while there are moments of earned sweetness here (and leaving the ’70s is sentimental), That ’70s Show doesn’t really get the closure it needs… Perhaps that’s fitting; Season Eight doesn’t deserve any better. It foolishly existed sans Eric. And for the most part, so does this offering.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Spread Your Wings,” in which Donna allows herself to start dating Randy as the season moves away from Eric, and “Keep Yourself Alive,” which has a situational story that nevertheless strategically gets the audience ready for Jackie/Fez by proving to everyone that Jackie/Hyde are not romantically salvageable. Of more Honorable Mention quality, meanwhile, are: “Good Company,” for the funny idea of Kitty and Fez having a special bond, “Sheer Heart Attack,” for the funny idea of Red and Hyde selling heart pills to his pals (Gavin MacLeod and Steve Landesberg), and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” for the funny idea of having Tom Bosley play Jackie’s new therapist.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Eight of That ’70s Show goes to…
Come back next week for Will & Grace! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!