Not a Nostalgia Trip
That ‘70s Show is one of the better new sitcoms on television, yet it took me more than half a year to tune in and all because of the stupid name. To me, the show sounded like a half hour advertisement for bellbottoms and butt rock, not something I needed to see, after four years of college social events, too many of which were “‘70s Nights.” The truth is, That ‘70s Show is as much about the seventies as Family Ties was about the eighties which is to say, a lot but in ways that are more subtle and clever than its title would lead you to expect.
On the surface, That ‘70s Show appears to be a straightforward sitcom with a penchant for the occasional dream sequence or other bit of high concept fluff. But taken as a whole, its weekly story lines evince a considered cultural outlook. Episode after episode, the central joke of That ‘70s Show is that the kids who should be enjoying their post-sixties cultural freedom spend all their time hanging out in the basement of the squarest household on the block. Granted, part of the attraction is that they can smoke pot when no one’s home, but mostly, the show suggests, they just crave the staid, structured atmosphere that is missing in their broken, “modern” families.
In fact, if there was truth in advertising (and no copyright laws), Family Ties would have been a more apt title for this show, because, like that ‘80s program, That ‘70s Show always places the family first. Not that the Keatons of Family Ties didn’t have their own distractions: the series addressed illiteracy, teen pregnancy, alcoholism (thanks to a guest appearance by Tom Hanks), and all the other hot button issues of the day, but these troubles never overshadowed the characters’ personalities or their weekly hijinks. The Formans the lead family of That ‘70s Show have similar charisma.
Also like Family Ties, That ‘70s Show has faith in the central truth of the sitcom format that there is nothing so bad that family, real or surrogate, can’t get you through it. It’s a point that is made over and over. This past season, Hyde, the rebellious friend of teenaged son Eric Forman (Topher Grace), found himself in dire straits after his mother ran off and left the already fatherless adolescent totally alone. Even though they were low on cash due to factory scalebacks, the Formans did the right thing and took the boy in. It was a good move for the show, since it gave more screen time to gifted comedic actor Danny Masterson, who plays Hyde, but it was also totally in character for the Formans, as always a beacon of sense and solidity in the chaos around them. The name says it all. Forman: solid, all American like a construction chief.
Aside from Hyde, a literal refugee from permissive social mores, there is the rest of the gang, including Fez (played just this side of offensively by Wilmer Valderrama), the foreign exchange student with overly religious host parents; Jackie (Mila Kunis), the domineering rich girl whose folks are always busy; and finally, Jackie’s affable buffoon of a boyfriend, Kelso (played by Ashton Kutcher in full dumb-ass mode). Where Kelso’s parents are is unclear, but judging by the doofus they spawned, they aren’t exactly on top of things.
But the biggest whipping-persons for the sins of the seventies are the Formans’ swinging neighbors, the Pinciottis. Mom (ex-Charlie’s Angel Tanya Roberts) is an ex-party girl with Farrah Fawcett hair, and Dad (Don Stark) is a wannabe hipster, seventies style, with a bad perm and highly flammable clothing. From jumpsuits to new age hogwash, the Pinciottis try every trend, only to see it backfire and their daughter Donna (Laura Prepon) run next door to the Formans’ house to share her shame with her boyfriend Eric.
It’s nothing new for a sitcom to critique the culture that spawns it. All in the Family is the classic example, and Family Ties had endless fun at the expense of eighties ideals (as symbolized by proto-yuppie Alex Keaton and his airheaded mallrat sister Mallory); but it is unusual for a sitcom to go back twenty years and pick a fight. That the critiques still have bite says that That ‘70s Show has picked its target well. In fact, the seventies are far from ancient history. Although many of the decade’s practices and beliefs have since been discredited by the general public open marriages and recreational narcotics, for example many have not.
That ‘70s Show takes appropriately complex moral stands about the decade that launched much of what is still considered “progressive.” Sex before marriage is okay if two people love each other, like Eric and Donna. But it only leads to complications if it’s done for the wrong reasons, as is the case with Kelso, who has been forced to pay royally for cheating on his girlfriend with Eric’s sister, Laurie (Lisa Robin Kelly): she has since stopped sleeping with him and focused on blackmailing him with their dalliance. Light drugs, like pot or booze, are okay and even fun in moderation. Hard drugs are bad and lead inevitably to trouble. Feminism is a good thing. But, still, there’s nothing wrong with being a housewife.
It’s hardly Leave It To Beaver, but it’s not a paean to free love either. That ‘70s Show is a balanced view of a complicated decade which, as it turns out, is not terribly different from our own. But most emphatically, it is not a nostalgia trip. And that, combined with a winning cast and sly writing, makes That ‘70s Show worth checking out silly name and all.