The thing about TV shows (and movies, and so on) about the past is that they almost always tell you more about when they’re being made than when they’re set. This point is made again by That ‘70s Show, now in its fourth season on FOX, and its sort-of spin off, That ‘80s Show, which premiered January 23, 2002. Just as Happy Days is more interesting for what it tells us about the ‘70s (Scott Baio—what were we thinking?), so these two shows, especially That ‘70s, will tell future generations about what passed for entertainment around the turn of the century.
Both series exist in that airless sitcom universe in which everyone speaks and acts in setups, beats, and punch-lines. This might be fine—one can imagine the shows’ producers making the argument that their stories are universal and not tied to one period—if they were good sitcoms. Most comedy comes from surprise, exaggeration, or a combination of both. These two shows are all about exaggeration, and they have almost no power to surprise. They feature distorted taffy-pulls of characters and settings that offer nothing to laugh at and have no relationship to reality. You need that relationship if you want to make the audience care about your characters and the things they say and do.
Friends and Will & Grace are sometimes shallow or cold, but they have the saving graces (no pun intended) of actually being funny. By contrast, That ‘80s Show is like one, long Daily Show “moment of Zen.” You watch the images and hear the sounds, and your mind goes blank.
I take ‘80s pop culture seriously, and the creators of That ‘80s Show seem to regard it as a convenient frame to put around their snooze-inducing, standard sitcom plots, while scoring points on the decade in “Can you believe we were ever this stupid?” fashion. This makes That ‘80s Show about as funny as Milton Berle dressed up like Madonna, and it has as much to do with the ‘80s as Britney Spears’ vocal talent has to do with her success.
The series’ premiere episode begins at the “Club Berlin,” the series’ excuse to play music from the era, thus hoping to attract those of us who love it, while mocking the fashions and dances of the era. This is what is known has having your spoon and gagging with it too. And the laugh-track can’t wait to tell you how funny it all is, which is helpful, because I doubt you’ll be able to tell otherwise.
Our lead character, Corey (Glenn Howerton), approaches his ex-girlfriend Sophia (Brittany Daniel), in order to confirm that yes, she did leave him because she’s bisexual. Feel the comedy yet? Wait, it gets better. This is followed by the obligatory cocaine joke. All this is to set up the notion that Sophia is now interested in Katie (Tinsley Grimes), Corey’s sister. She shows this by throwing herself at Katie in the first episode and, in the second, acting like a possessive, clichid “dyke,” when Katie’s sailor boyfriend shows up. This “All gay or bisexual people want to convert others to their agenda” stereotype should be deader than any of the fashions worn on the show.
In other cardboard characterizations, Roger (Eddie Shin), Corey’s best friend, has swallowed the Reagan revolution hook, line, and sinker, and is given to shouting, “God bless you, Ronnie!” I don’t mind so much that the character says this without a trace of irony, but I’d like to know whether the writers intend us to laugh at or with him when he says it. Perhaps worse is the show’s rehearsal of the “unresolved sexual tension dance” so familiar from other sitcoms, between Corey and his coworker at a record store, Tuesday (Chyler Leigh), a young woman with a gelled-up, spiky haircut.
Then there’s Margaret, Corey’s boss at that record store, played by former standup Margaret Smith. Margaret is the ‘60’s and ‘70s rock casualty, observing her customers and employees while making incredulous, dry jokes. This will be familiar from films of the period (think Annie Potts role in Pretty In Pink). Smith is a talented comedian who deserves better material. One of the few jokes (one of the very, very few) that hits home in the pilot comes when a youth asks if the store carries any Miles Davis records. She looks at him for a moment. “You’re not ready,” she says, and sends him on his way.
Susan Skoog’s Whatever and Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused are examples of films that are both very much of their time periods (the ‘80s and ‘70s respectively) and universal in their stories. It can be done. Either by choice or inability, the makers of That ‘80s Show haven’t done it. And nobody messes with my decade.