With the series’ finale just a few months behind us, it’s hard to tell how history will judge That ‘70s Show. Its popularity spawned tabloid fodder in the form of Ashton Kutcher, but even an army of Punk’d-watching, crooked hat-wearing fans did little to tarnish the show’s comedic shine. The ensemble cast proved formidable even during the show’s lackluster moments, only a few of which are included here.
Season Four found ‘70s beginning to rely on the sitcom clichés it had avoided during its first three seasons, including a new “hippie” character played by Tommy Chong, and Eric (Topher Grace) and Donna (Laura Prepon) “on the rocks.” Season Five improves on the previous one, beginning with Eric hitting the road to track down Donna and Kelso (Kutcher) in California to let her know how he really feels. Immediately, the show feels more like its old self, even with the inclusion of a ratings-bait guest star like Jessica Simpson.
With the Eric/Donna relationship mostly stable, Hyde (Danny Masterson) and Jackie (Mila Kunis) now become a couple after finding themselves with nothing to do but make out during their summer vacation. The strange coupling of Hyde, the pothead conspiracy nut, and Jackie, the materialistic glamour girl, creates an ongoing tension between Hyde and Kelso that culminates in Jackie having to make a decision late in the season.
Kitty (Debra Jo Rupp) is also the subject of an overhaul, believing herself to be pregnant for a two episode span early in the season. The pregnancy smacks of the classic “bring in a baby” tactic used by shows in trouble, but it turns out the rabbit didn’t die after all—she’s merely going through menopause. The remainder of the season finds Rupp performing as a psychopath, an over-the-top parody of a menopausal woman. These scenes are often funny, but wear thin quickly, reinforcing the idea that “female troubles” are of the mind. It feels lazy rather than offensive, which is worse.
The writers do succeed in being both offensive and funny with Red (Kurtwood Smith), notorious Commie-basher and hater of foreigners. When Fez (Wilmer Valderrama), a foreign exchange student of unknown origin, helps carry some luggage into the Forman house, Red says, “You seem to have a natural talent for handling luggage.” Unlike Kitty’s menopause, Red’s bigotry is called upon only on occasion, rather than being used as a go-to joke during slow scenes.
Like the previous ‘70s DVD sets, the fifth season offers little in the way of special features. A recap entitled “Season Five in 5 Minutes” comes alongside well clip-padded interviews with Masterson and Valderrama. While these brief interviews are little more than trips down memory lane for the actors, Valderrama’s offers more insight than the usual throwaway extra. He describes Fez as the “window through which [this] generation can see the show.” Fez helps 21st century kids understand the lingo of the American ‘70s, fashion trends, and any other strange goings on involving huge collars and bellbottoms. Throughout the series’ first four years, much is made of Fez’s desire to lose his virginity, and his ineptitude at the task. Finally, in the fifth season, Fez “does it” with a coworker at the DMV, as revealed in the episode “Whole Lotta Love.” Though the dream of losing one’s virginity is hardly exclusive to males of the 1970s, Fez’s perspective on the Holy Grail of youth is one of innocence and exaltation, something that might be lost on today’s over-sexualized youth.
The fifth season also marks the beginning of the series’ use of songs as episode titles. Here, Led Zeppelin provides the titles, with “The Battle of Evermore,” “Ramble On” and even “The Crunge” making appearances. Unlike the inclusion of strictly ‘70s themes (disco) and stereotypes, this subtle homage (the episode titles never appear on the air) draws inspiration from what made the decade great, namely, the music. Perhaps history will judge That ‘70s Show on the same grounds as the tumultuous decade that inspired it. There were ups and down, to be sure, but there were a lot of moments worth remembering.