That ’70s Show took TV adolescence down into the basement (where it belongs)

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That ’70s Show took TV adolescence down into the basement (where it belongs)

Posted on: July 30th, 2014 by tommyj

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For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodes, we examine the shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced and reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity. This entry covers That ’70s Show, which ran for eight seasons and 200 episodes from 1998 to 2006.

Record geeks will always keep Big Star’s first three records in print, but the band’s music likely found its largest audience through a Fox sitcom. As re-recorded for That ’70s Show—first by Todd Griffin, then by Cheap Trick—Big Star’s “In The Street” makes an ideal introduction to life in fictional Point Place, Wisconsin. The words of the band’s dueling pop geniuses, Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, set a fitting scene of adolescent boredom in the suburbs: No plans, no car, no sex, no drugs (not even a lousy joint), no rock ’n’ roll. “Not a thing to do / but talk to you”—preferably in the circular camera setup that would eventually replace the show’s original driving-montage theme sequence.

That ’70s Show paid significant homage to the pop-culture sensations of its setting, but it’s perpetual underdogs like Big Star, Cheap Trick, and Todd Rundgren—a concert by the latter launches the road-trip plot in the series’ pilot—that are the true cultural avatars of the series. Though the show ran for 200 episodes, the time-capsule travails of a gawky Midwestern teen (Topher Grace as protagonist Eric Forman) and his friends made for only a modest hit on Fox, one that never found its way into the Nielsen Top 30. It was a sitcom set in malaise years whose true purpose was never lampooning disco cheese or outdated technology—though it did that, too. That ’70s Show is about the smaller stuff, the truly memorable moments of adolescence unseen in the history books. If it was just about playing “Remember when?” with historical milestones, it would’ve bit the dust as fast as its period-piece companion series, the ill-fated That ’80s Show.

The Happy Days Law Of Nostalgia Crazes states that two decades must pass before an era’s greatest contributions and fluffiest ephemera can be mined for present-day entertainments, fads, and fashions. As such, The 1970s were having a good run in the decade of That ’70s Show’s conception. Generation X’s own arrested adolescence dragged icons of its ’70s childhood into the ’90s, and amid the resurgence of retro kitsch—jellies, flares, Schoolhouse Rock!—there were works like Dazed And Confused. Richard Linklater’s un-nostalgic depiction of The Last Day Of School circa 1976 is something of a spiritual predecessor to That ’70s Show, one that debuted (and quickly faded from theaters to await discovery on home video) five years before Bonnie Turner, Terry Turner, and Mark Brazill introduced television viewers to the residents of Point Place, Wisconsin.

After graduating from the writers’ room that helped revive Saturday Night Live in the glory days of Phil Hartman, Dana Carvey, and Jan Hooks, Bonnie and Terry Turner also had a good run in the ’90s. While colleagues like Conan O’Brien, George Meyer, and Jon Vitti went west with The Simpsons (and then O’Brien returned to 30 Rock to reinvent Late Night with the help of Saturday Night Live vet Robert Smigel), the Turners’ first big breaks outside of Studio 8H came at the movies. But even as screenwriters, they clearly had TV in their DNA: They scripted features for the original Not Ready For Primetime Players (Coneheads) and the so-called “Bad Boys” of SNL (Tommy Boy), and scored a pair of sleeper hits by scripting big-screen spin-offs of “Wayne’s World” and The Brady Bunch. That ’70s Show plays like a hybrid of Wayne’s World and The Brady Bunch Movie: It pairs the former’s portrayal of adolescent time-killing in a fly-over state with the latter’s knowing sense of characters occupying a rerun purgatory. (In both The Brady Bunch Movie and That ’70s Show, it might be the ’90s outside, but it’s still the ’70s inside.) And what is Wayne and Garth’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” cruise if not a dry run for the beginning of every That ’70s Show episode?

But That ’70s Show is much more of an ensemble piece than anything Wayne Campbell ever broadcast on Cable 10 in Aurora. The key was a balance of talented actors on both sides of the show’s generation gap, a cast that could play to the series’ boisterous studio audience (a 1999 Los Angeles Times profile compared ’70s Show crowds to the notoriously rowdy houses attracted by Married… With Children) and still keep it together during the show’s single-camera interludes. The younger side of that ensemble was already a lot to balance: Rounding out the original cast of kids were Ashton Kutcher as boneheaded hunk Kelso, Mila Kunis as small-town princess Jackie, Laura Prepon as girl-next-door Donna, Danny Masterson as burnout-with-a-heart-of-gold Hyde, and Wilmer Valderrama as foreign exchange student Fez. Terry Turner told the Times:

“The thing that I like about the show is that you can put Hyde and Kelso together and they are kind of a comedy unit. You can put Hyde, Eric and Kelso together and they are fine. You can put Kelso and Fez together and they work.”

That article also emphasizes the dynamic between Topher Grace and the two linchpins of the show’s run: Kurtwood Smith and Debra Jo Rupp. Smith’s dramatic chops gave a hard-bitten gravitas to Red Forman, one of TV’s all-time great no-nonsense dads. Rupp, meanwhile, was frequently all nonsense as Kitty Forman, a live-action cartoon whose golly-gee aversion to confrontation makes her no less compassionate or protective as a mother figure. With a cast as young and bright as That ’70s Show’s, the Turners and Brazill left themselves open to wandering eyes and future cast departures. Smith and Rupp—who stayed on for all eight seasons, along with Kunis, Prepon, Masterson, and Valderrama—served as solid anchors, always giving the show a place to come back to. Literally: The standing sets of the Forman house are the center of the

’70s Show universe. When one of those locations is threatened with remodeling in season four’s “Bye-Bye Basement,” Eric launches a campaign to save his “Batcave,” as if the show is staking out a sacred space from within.

It’s certainly the setting for the closest thing That ’70s Show has to a ritual. “The Circle” was the series’ major addition to the visual vocabulary of the sitcom, a break from proscenium staging that placed the cast around the camera, thus depicting characters’ marijuana use without actually depicting their marijuana use. “The trick was to stay one ahead of the pass so you wouldn’t see the joint on TV,” executive producer Dean Batali later told The New York Times. The game of implication was an attempt to counter what Bonnie Turner described as “clean” depictions of growing up, TV comings of age that elided the sort of anxious adolescent experimentation tackled by That ’70s Show (and its theme song, for that matter). That frankness helped place the series on the only Top 10 lists it would ever know—the Parents Television Council’s 10 Worst Shows On Network Television—but the conservative alarmists at the PTC failed to note that Eric and company’s dalliances were not without consequence. Season two ends with Hyde in jail for possession while Eric and Donna’s sex life becomes known to Donna’s father; in Grace’s final “Circle” as a series regular, Red steps into frame, launching a stern lecture and several psychedelic visual gags.

The Circle made That ’70s Show unique, but the basement granted the series authenticity. Eric’s first kiss with Donna takes place on the show’s beloved Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser, but the viewers see these crazy kids fall in love on the furniture that the Formans no longer want to keep above ground. The series has a distinct and fundamental understanding of a basement’s central role in Midwestern adolescence; Eric keeps all of his personal belongings in his room, but it’s downstairs that he has a place he can truly call his own, one where the snacks are always nearby and friends can pop in whenever. For comic effect, The Circle was occasionally moved out of the basement—as in the episode when Red, Kitty, and Donna’s parents eat Hyde’s pot brownies—but the fact that The Circle lives in the Forman basement speaks volumes about its importance. To the show, certainly, but to the characters as well.

Furthermore, the basement houses a TV that the kids have total control over—though in the days of three broadcast networks and over-the-air local stations, they mostly wind up watching syndicated repeats of Petticoat Junction, Gilligan’s Island, and the like. That ’70s Show played with primetime taboos and broke from sitcom conventions, but it understood and respected its television lineage. From the start, the show felt like it could rerun forever, reaching syndication numbers ahead of the last generation of multi-camera programs likely to hit that milestone. While Everybody Loves Raymond, Friends, and other ’90s hits elbowed older favorites off of Nick At Nite, That ’70s Show kept a whole generation of programming in the TV conversation. A Jeannie-versus-Samantha debate between the guys raged (and appropriately warped with age) within The Circle, and stars of shows the characters would’ve watched in first-run turned up for one-off cameos and recurring roles. At opposite ends of the series, Marion Ross and Mary Tyler Moore played against type to terrorize the residents of Point Place; Tim Reid came over from WKRP In Cincinnati, playing Hyde’s biological father, the wealthy owner of a record-store chain. (Hyde waves away the obvious ethnic difference between Reid and Danny Masterson: “My ’fro, my coolness, my suspicion of The Man—this explains so much.”)

The great irony of its guest-casting tendencies is that That ’70s Show wasn’t a sensation like Happy Days or The Mary Tyler Moore Show—or even WKRP: The dark horse of the MTM Enterprises stable managed to crack the upper reaches of the Nielsens in its second year on the air. That ’70s Show’s endurance could be a question of timing as much as anything else. The ’70s still had some cultural cachet when the Turners brought their pitch to Fox, which the executives praised as “daring and distinctive” (“daring” as in “Grace had no prior TV or film experience”). But that pitch came to the network at a time when it could afford to take a risk. The show debuted on Sunday nights, airing between two Fox staples whose creative waves were beginning to crest: The Simpsons started its 10th season that fall, while The X-Files entered its sixth. Still, the network was on a roll following Ally McBeal’s big breakout, and for three months during That ’70s Show’s second season, it formed a Monday-night comedy block with Ally, the infamous half-hour, no-courtroom edit of David E. Kelley’s legal dramedy. As the heat from Ally McBeal fizzled, American Idol fired up. And whatever That ’70s Show lacked for blockbuster ratings, there was always a 24 or an O.C. (which capped the Tuesdays and Wednesdays ’70s Show led in the fall of 2003) to pick up the slack.

Elsewhere, the sitcom climate was undergoing a change. While development executives learned all the wrong lessons from Everybody Loves Raymond, prizing the Barones’ nastiness above all else, the multi-camera sitcom got straight-up mean. Thus the rise of Two And A Half Men and its creator, Chuck Lorre—but That ’70s Show isn’t totally innocent in this regard. Many of its sharpest punchlines are insults; the writers gave Red his own “to the moon, Alice” in the form of his ever-evolving threats to stick his foot in other characters’ asses. To the show’s credit, the catchphrase never lapsed into rote recitation, and Smith is a master painter in profanity, as evidenced by the similar range he brought to simple grumblings of “dumbass.” Dropping the social-commentary conceits of season one—the gas shortage, the economic slump that forced Red out of the factory and put an added financial strain on Kitty—opened a wider berth for cheaper jokes and gimmicky premises, something critics noticed as early as season four.

But as nasty as That 70s Show could and would get, it was always the sort of quintessentially Midwestern nastiness born of affection and a little frustration—busting a friend’s chops between commercials, or ribbing a neighbor during a cookout. These characters are stuck, literally and figuratively: Stuck because of age, stuck because of a job, and stuck in the 1970s. (The series finale ends on the final second of 1979, forever preventing Star Wars fanatic Eric from seeing The Empire Strikes Back.) No matter the viewer’s age, there’s truth in that sensation: Adolescence seems to last an eternity, until you’re over it and the only thing that seems to last that long is the time that passes between sleep. That ’70s Show gets that, and it also gets the significance we bestow on places and events when we haven’t traveled around enough or experienced enough to know better: basements, kisses, water towers, stupid things we said or did while intoxicated. For a show that never found a huge audience, That ’70s Show was granted an awfully long time—plenty of doing the same old thing it did last week—to show how much it understood this.

Next time: Phil Dyess-Nugent can feel it coming in the air tonight. What is it? Miami Vice, of course.

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