That ’70s Show

A funny thing happened to That ’70s Show during its summer hiatus. The erstwhile ensemble comedy now finds itself with a bona fide star in Ashton Kutcher. Thanks to his romance with Demi Moore, hit show Punk’d, and starring role in the big screen bomb, My Boss’s Daughter, this was the Summer of Ashton. He joined Neo, Justin Timberlake, and the “Can you hear me now?” guy on 2003’s list of ubiquitous people.

And so, as That ’70s Show entered its sixth season, I was curious to see if it would become Ashton-centric. Would it have to be renamed Ashton Kutcher’s That ’70s Show? Fans of the show can breathe a sigh of relief as, surprisingly, the premiere made a good joke of all that stardom. Kutcher’s Michael Kelso, in training as he prepares to enter the police academy, starts drinking raw eggs, “just like Rocky.” But an allergic reaction swells his face to five times its normal size, making him look like the Elephant Boy. The risk of this gag — disguising his pretty face under pounds of putty — pays off, demonstrating the sort of humor that has been this durable show’s trademark since its first broadcast in 1997.

It’s hard to believe That ’70s Show has been around that long. Debuting with the flimsiest of premises — rural teens in the ’70s — the show has been consistently funny and clever. Ostensibly focused on 18-year-old Eric Forman, (Grace), who lives in Point Place, Wisconsin with his domineering father Red (Kurtwood Smith), high-strung mother Kitty (Debra Jo Rupp), and slutty sister Laurie (Christina Moore), the show has highlighted his friends, who spend most of their time hanging out in the Forman basement. The gang includes Eric’s fiancée and next-door neighbor Donna (Prepon), dim Kelso (Ashton Kutcher), his on-again, off-again girlfriend Jackie (Mila Kunis), conspiracy theorist Hyde (Danny Masterson), and foreign exchange student Fez (Wilmer Valderrama), who’s soaking up American culture like a sponge.

That ’70s Show initially seemed aimed at an audience of baby boomers wistful for the days of eight-tracks, streaking, and Led Zeppelin. Early episodes included “Me Decade” details (autoworker layoffs and gasoline rationing) and popular rock stars such as Alice Cooper and Ted Nugent made guest appearances. Tommy Chong became a recurring character during the fourth season, playing (what else?) a stoner.

But like Happy Days, the granddaddy of nostalgia sitcoms, That ’70s Show soon abandoned the retro focus. Now it has little to do with the ’70s, save for a soundtrack heavy on classic rock and occasional references to Star Wars, disco, and Gerald Ford. Produced by the teams that created Roseanne, The Cosby Show, and 3rd Rock from the Sun, That ’70s Show features strong characterizations, smart writing, and a silly point of view.

While all of the actors nail their roles, the standout is the underrated Rupp as Kitty Forman, consistently hilarious and touching as a loving mother who must referee between her husband and son. With her nasal voice and fussy demeanor, Rupp portrays an American matriarch much like previous TV moms, like June Cleaver, Carol Brady, and Marion Cunningham (Marion Ross, who played Cunningham on Happy Days for 10 years, also played Red’s mother in the first season of That ’70s Show). Rupp was at her best last season, when Kitty faced a pregnancy scare, menopause, and the prospect of Eric leaving home. Rupp delivered a convincing performance, as Kitty remained typically cheery on the outside while masking her own disappointment and frustration.

The romance between Eric and Donna has always been the series’ focus and last season saw her finally agree to marry him. A conservative everyman who wants a family and secure job, Eric’s goals are sharply contrasted by those of free-spirited Donna, who wants to become a rock journalist. The show has been building to the inevitable moment when these mismatched lovers must choose between their relationship and their dreams, and Grace and Prepon, like the rest of the cast, continue to bring poignancy and humor to their roles.

Season six picks up where last season left off, with Eric and Donna preparing to attend the University of Wisconsin together, Hyde and Kelso continuing their bitter feud for Jackie’s love, and Red recovering from the heart attack he suffered when he discovered that Fez married Laurie to avoid deportation. The 29 November season opener, “The Kids Are All Right,” included a series of difficult choices: Eric decided to stay home to help his parents, Jackie finally chose Hyde but learned he was dating other women, Fez discovered Laurie went on their honeymoon to Cancun with another guy, and Donna resolved to go to college without Eric.

While the show still seems intent on exploring themes of loss and regret, it has not yet become a teenage soap opera. That ’70s Show delivers more laughs than most sitcoms, thanks to dialogue premised on sharp one-liners (when Red feigns a heart attack after an argument with Eric and Fez, Kitty scolds him, “If you keep that up, you’d better be seeing a bright light and be surrounded by dead relatives”), and to signature gimmicks, like surreal dream sequences, the 360-degree basement scenes, and a classic ’70s score.

Each of this season’s episodes is titled after a song by The Who (last season used Led Zeppelin). This makes sense for a series about teen angst, which Pete Townshend explored to great effect on albums like Tommy (1969) and Quadrophenia (1973). But unlike the heroes of Townshend’s songs, who tended to be loners and outcasts, the Point Place gang gets by with a little help from their friends. The kids are all right, and they will likely get more complicated as they go their separate ways.