Sunday, June 1, 2014

Sunday Best: TV Sitcoms of All Time #23 - That '70's Show

8 Seasons (1998-2006)

This show should not have worked.

It was a show built around a gimmick that could not sustain itself:  making fun of the 1970's.  Don't get me wrong, that was a weird and far out decade that was very open to mockery.  But shows like this often never rise above their central conceit.  Jokes would typically go like this.

Character 1:  And why is that?
Character 2: [insert reference to the 1970's here]
[insert laugh track]

And if you watch a lot of episodes from the first season, that is what That '70's Show was.  Even the title implied how generic it should have been.  In fact, the show begins in 1976, implying that the creators did not believe that it could go more than 4 years.  200 episodes later, the show doubled its implied shelf life.

The show centered around Eric Foreman (Topher Grace), an average Wisconsin every-teen with sharp sarcastic attitude.  He has a circle of friends that included Hyde the rebel (Danny Masterson), Kelso the moron (Ashton Kutcher), Jackie the spoiled, rich girl (Mila Kunis), Fez the exchange student (Wilmer Valderama), and Donna the girl next door (Laura Pepron).  They hang out mostly his basement, much to the chagrin of his no-nonsense father Red (Kurtwood Smith) and over-involved mom Kitty (Debra Jo Rupp).

Again, this show should have failed miserably.  In fact one of its "spin-offs" was a series with the same conceit called That '80's Show did crash and burn miserably.  What made that show fail and this one succeed?

2 things.

1.  The Cast.
I don't know who cast the show, but they deserve most of the credit for the show's longevity.  The actors were charismatic and funny.  They didn't just play the punchlines, but they inhabited the characters to wring as much humor out of them as possible.  Each character hit just the right tone.  And their chemistry was superb.  They played off of each other so well, especially in their little cruelties.  Its often very hard to capture just how mean your closest friends are, because from the outside it often looks like disdain.  But the cast was able to capture the social rough-housing that goes on inside any social circle.

2.  The Writing.
As I wrote earlier, the were way to many gimmicky jokes in the beginning.  But the writers let the characters develop.  And the more they understood that the '70's was simply the set up, not the joke, then the writing really began to sharpen.  The humor moved away from being era-specific into something more universal.  This is why the show lasted beyond a season.

I have to admit, though, its biggest detriment, was in the portrayal of vices prominent in the '70's, particularly casual sex and drug use.  The hook-up culture of the decade was in full view on the show, but the characters rarely saw any real negative consequences (yes there were some pregnancy issues, but they were resolved very happily).  The show's producers admitted that they show so much marijuana on the show so that they could try to affect the modern culture by normalizing it.

I've often written about my conflicted relationship to the popular culture.  Here, it is on full display.  There is much to admire about the show in terms of the craft of televised story-telling.  But they promote a lifestyle that is often very much at odds with what is good and true.

Nowhere is this more apparent than with cast member Lisa Robin Kelly, who played Eric's older sister.  During the filming of the third season of show that glorified recreational drug use, Kelly became and addict.  Her situation was so bad that she was later fired, re-hired, and fired again.  She was never able to fully recover and she died in rehab at the age of 43.  I am not positing that the show caused her to get into drugs.  But the lifestyle she embraced is parallel to the immoral lifestyle promoted by the main characters on the show.

But what brings the show back from this immoral cesspool is the character Red.  He is tough as nails, but he is the perfect pushback to the permissiveness that the teens embrace.  He does not mince words or play around.  He is a father that would rather be feared than loved.  But he did everything he did out of a sense of love and duty to his family.  Red, of course, is not perfect.  He chooses not to go to church until Kitty brow-beats him.

Check out Red's greatest hits below (warning, mildly offensive language)


Hyde Moves In (1x24)

Here is where the show really moved away from the simple decade motif and into more character-based storytelling.  The gang goes to hang out at Hyde's place, only to discover that he has been abandoned by his parents.  At first it seems like a teen's dream of no supervision.  But only after a little while do they begin to see the downside.  It is also solidifies the role Red has in the group dynamic.  He is the one who will hold their feet to the fire, but he will also be the one who man's up and takes care of them.


Baby Don't You Do It (6x14)

Eric and Donna go to see a pastor (Billy Dee Williams) to prepare for marriage.  Not only does this episode have some fantastic jokes and Star Wars references, but the pastor has some fantastic things to say about marriage that these two immature characters never considered.  It ends with Donna deciding that they should stop sleeping together until they are married.


The Seeker (6x25)

Donna and Eric have a constant on-again-off-again relationship.  But when he breaks off their engagement, the show feels like it turned a corner.  The two reconcile, but it felt like after that point, their relationship was simply treading water, neither going forward nor backwards.  After that, it became harder to invest no only in their relationship, but everyone else's.


If anyone objects to the quality of this show based on its moral outlook, I cannot argue.  There is a lot of bad to be seen.  But underneath that, there is a touchstone on the nature of friendship and family that let the show run for 8 seasons.

No comments:

Post a Comment