For a program about a decade that ended over a quarter of a century ago, That 70s Show has never been overly nostalgic. Having an intricate knowledge of ’70s culture or politics has never been critical to understanding the decade-specific indicators or otherwise enjoying the show. And though the inevitable references to disco and drugs almost always pop up, they’re filtered through the ironic lens of the 21st century, and never treated as anything more than set pieces for the show’s characters.
It was strange, then, when the series ended a few weeks ago, that viewers were treated to what amounted to a clip show that reminded us of Red Forman’s (Kurtwood Smith) fondness for the term “dumbass”, and how stupid Michael Kelso (Ashton Kutcher) really is. Finally, after teetering on the edge of nostalgia and even playfully mocking it for so long, the show succumbed and took the easy way out. It was a weak ending to a show that featured one of the best ensembles on TV, and at its best, subverted sitcom clichés while at the same time embracing them. Thankfully, there’s always DVD.
Season 4 picks up where Season 3 left off: Eric (Topher Grace) and Donna (Laura Prepon) have split up, creating tension among the ranks of dumbasses hanging out in the Forman basement. The Eric/Donna romance falling in love with the best friend next door who just so happens to be the girl of one’s dreams has always been an American myth and central to the show. Keeping the two lovebirds together throughout the entire run of the series would have been a mistake, so it was inevitable that they split up, even if they were to get back together (which they did).
Season opener “It’s a Wonderful Life” finds Eric moping about the house and wishing he and Donna had never kissed. Cue a guardian angel (Seinfeld‘s Wayne Knight) to guide Eric through what a Donna-less life would have been like, in a scene that manages to parody not only the classic Frank Capra film of the title, but also Men Without Hats and Leo Sayer.
Transferring the kids of Point Place into the roles of classic film characters is a recurring theme on the show, dating back to the first season when Eric dreams of Donna dressed as Star Wars‘ Princess Leia and continuing later in Season 4 when a tornado threatens the prom and Jackie (Mila Kunis), Kelso, Fez (Wilmer Valderrama) and Eric become characters from The Wizard of Oz. This is why That 70s Show works so well: these characters are archetypes of American teenagers (not to mention sitcom characters) from any generation. Their problems, fears, and ideas all easily translate to other characters and events embedded in popular culture, making their appeal universal and timeless.
Season 4 continues to explore the pitfalls of Eric and Donna trying to stay “just friends” in “Uncomfortable Ball Stuff”, in which the former couple attempt to escort each other to the Pricemart Ball, and “Donna Dates a Kelso”, featuring Luke Wilson as Michael’s older brother, Casey. Though he is something of a Chuck Cunningham character (much like Donna’s older and younger sisters, Valerie and Tina), Wilson’s Casey, who returns near the season’s end, provides an excellent foil for Grace’s Eric, without disrupting the delicate doufus-antics of Kutcher’s Michael.
As a series approaches its fourth season it’s entering tough territory. A rhythm has been established among the actors, their characters deeply ingrained in the actors’ and audience’s mind. Repetition and stagnation are a constant threat. Whether it’s actually required or not, network executives, bored writers, and TV traditions demand that new blood be infused to ward off any threats of decline in quality. Of course this tactic often backfires (see the late additions of Leonardo DiCaprio to Growing Pains, or the constant heaping on of infants to an already full Full House). That 70s Show balances this problem with a modicum of success in the person of Leo, the stoner manager of the Fotohut who appeared in Season 3 and became a regular by the Season 4.
Essentially his same character from the Cheech & Chong films, Tommy Chong’s Leo manages to complement the cast, particularly when paired against hippy-hating Red (as in “Leo Loves Kitty”). In the Special Features, director David Trainer says the show is “set in the 70s, but it’s not about the 70s. It’s stories about people of a certain age in a strong family setting.” Up until Season 4, this may have been true, giving the show ample charm. Unfortunately, the increasing prevalence of Leo serves to dilute the timeless aspect of the series by playing up the ’70s burnout stereotype for cheap laughs. While the inclusion of Leo as a recurring character hardly constitutes “jumping the shark”, it does provide a definite line of demarcation, creating the point where That 70s Show began to fall back on aspects of the ’70s as a crutch, rather than a catalyst.
Which isn’t to say Season 4 is bad. In fact, some of the show’s finest episodes are included here, such as “Red and Stacey”, in which Red is the object of a Pricemart clerk’s (played by Erika Christensen) and “Eric’s Hot Cousin”, featuring more jokes about incest than a stop on the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. Season 4 marks when That 70s Show stopped being great and started being good.
For fans of special features, there’s little here. An abundance of clips from the season pepper David Trainer’s insightful if somewhat saccharine thoughts on the show’s progression and the joy of working with the cast. Interviews with Laura Prepon and Mila Kunis are throwaways, again loaded down with clips to beef up their running time. Director commentaries and promo spots serve only to take up space on the DVD menus.
The steady decline of the series culminated last year with the exit of Topher Grace. Grace provided That 70s Show‘s romance, jokes, drug references, and dream sequences with an emotional and comedic core that maintained the show’s durability. With Grace gone, replaced by the feathered hair of Josh Myers, the show continued to fall back on the sitcom standards and ’70s clichés. Thankfully, Season 4 remains as a reminder that even the most tarnished of series once shined. Thankfully, there’s always DVD.