Back to the Future
That ‘70s Show is punchy comic elegance wrapped in a polyester bow. Mixing sublime stoner humor and a smart family sitcom framework, it transcends its set-up. We can revel in ‘70s styles and states of mind (Ted Nugent, bellbottoms, feathered hair, unicorns and rainbows, Star Wars and disco). The authenticity is helped by great cameos: Nugent in concert, Tommy Chong stoned, Tanya Roberts as a cheesecake mom. But it isn’t all about nostalgia for leisure suits. We chuckle at ‘70s innocence and fads with currently fashionable irony, but the kids here are equal parts snarky and earnest. As the That ‘70s Show: Season Three DVD showcases, we get both madcap romps and convincing emotional lives.
In a short but illuminating featurette, “A Look Back at Season Three,” we learn that this dynamic is by design. As Kurtwood Smith (who plays feisty, tough love father Red Forman) notes, “the ‘70s is just an interesting trapping” for the show’s central interest, “family.” The featurette includes clips and interviews with director David Trainer and most of the cast, with the notable exception of Ashton Kutcher (who exhibits physical-comedic genius as Michael Kelso). Camaraderie among the actors helps solidify the show’s warm gooey heart. Wilmer Valderrama (Fez) notes that by Season Three, the cast thought of their tv stage as a “second home.”
The series works slapstick bits, snappy dialogue, and typical sitcom themes that can flip over into light drama. We get some standard teen antics, like when the boys go to Canada for beer and get stuck because Fez can’t find his green card. Or when Kelso instigates a “dine and dash” that leaves Eric (Topher Grace) to deal with a huge restaurant bill (as Kelso says, “The only thing better than eating lobster is eating lobster and haulin’ ass”). But we also get heartwarming, when the Formans take in Eric’s pal Stephen Hyde (Danny Masterson) after his struggling single mom abandons him.
This balance of frolic and emotion is particularly evident in key character relationships. As Trainer notes, this season focused on complicating two relationships. Central stable couple Eric and girlfriend Donna (Laura Prepon) go through what Trainer calls more “real life” issues in their relationship, like jealousy and fears about their future. Meanwhile, our comic relief dimwits, superficial couple Jackie Burkhart (Mila Kunis) and Kelso, go through an intricate roller-skating hustle (sometimes literally) of break-ups and make-ups. While Donna struggles to reconcile her independence and strong spirit (she is something of a ‘70s feminist) with Eric’s more traditional goals, Jackie realizes that her dreams of being a stay-at-home wife who shops a lot (or a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader) may not make her happy. The show launches a love triangle that has her choosing between Kelso and paranoid, counter-culture cynic Hyde. As Jackie tries to get close to Hyde, he rebuffs her with that ultimate cut-down, a haiku of hatred: “My heart aches with pain. / When I see you, I vomit. / Die away from me.” Buoyant Jackie takes the creative output as a sign of his secret affection and soldiers on.
The issue of how to negotiate not just their personal futures but also evolving gender roles makes for some witty drama between Eric and Donna. In the episode “Radio Daze,” Donna gets a job as a DJ for a local rock station, and Eric worries he won’t be cool enough to keep “Hot Donna.” She reassures him that she loves his nerdiness and doesn’t want a rock star, but we can see Eric adjusting to the idea that his girlfriend has bigger career aspirations than he does. This issue comes to a head in “Baby Fever,” when Eric tells Donna she’ll make a great stay-at-home mom, which enrages her. Eric replies he only said that because women have been doing that for generations, saying, “Don’t be mad at me, be mad at your foremothers.” They kid around with each other, but they worry about how they’ll work it all out.
As Don Stark (who plays Donna’s father) notes in the featurette, one of the show’s strengths is that the adult and kid issues interweave in provocative ways. The teens’ real-life struggles over relationships and life stages are mirrored in the adult storylines with the parents. It is Eric’s mother Kitty (Debra Jo Rupp) who sparks his spat with Donna, or more specifically, her desire for another child. When Kitty learns that instead of being pregnant, she is going through menopause, we see her launch into comical hysterics while an exasperated Red is happy not to have another “dumb ass” kid like Eric. But the point is that the show encourages us empathize with her sense of loss.
Beyond the deep stuff, the series is also just kick ass fun. Especially when it offers visual inventiveness and creative pop culture parodies. The signature scene for most episodes is a 360-degree camera pan of the kids sitting in a ring smoking pot, each talking directly to the camera as it circles, delivering goofy non sequiturs. In “Reefer Madness,” a parody of the anti-drug film, Red catches the stoners and he and Kitty lecture them. We see them pontificating in direct address to the camera, from the kids’ point of view, while the wallpaper wiggles and moves behind their heads because the kids are high. Each storyline features fully imagined, intercut fantasy sequences, like Eric imagining Donna leaving him for Nugent. In a Hitchcock parody episode, Kitty has a fantasy sequence where she spins around tied on a huge black and white, wavy-striped wheel to visualize her Freudian freak-out after everyone watches a Hitchcock marathon on TV.
The show is consistently clever about the ways that TV shaped experience in the ‘70s. It picks up on the aftermath of ‘60s revolutions and the Vietnam war, as well as the new decade’s kitschy playfulness. Eric’s family gathers in front of the TV and fights over what to watch, Fez learns a garbled version of American culture from TV, and Jackie dreams of being Mary Tyler Moore and throws her beret in the air. As Trainer notes, “The show is set around a television set. And Bonnie and Terry Turner, who are two of the creators of the show, said, it was set at a time when the television set had taken the place of the fireplace or the hearth as the center of the household.” The series peers back through TV history to find a time of greater innocence. In the process, it inevitably mines an earlier media culture moment for commentary on the present, snappily combining our current postmodern irony with some groovy ‘70s vibes, man.