That '70s Show: Season 1 Review

The Show

That '70s Show started life titled 'Teenage Wasteland' and then progressed to another reference to a song by The Who, 'The Kids are Alright'. However, after legal issues challenged both of these titles, it became 'Feelin' Alright' – not a particularly catchy name, true, but one that could have worked nonetheless. So why did its moniker change for the final time? Well, test audiences in focus groups kept referring to it simply as 'that '70s show' and (to their lasting credit) the creators decided to go with this 'suggestion'. So after a few bumpy naming moments, That '70s Show adopted its correctly-punctuated title and from this point on it went from strength to strength, becoming the only newly-introduced Fox sitcom to survive the 1998-99 season.

And with a title like that, it's not really that hard to work out what the series is like – That '70s Show is firmly rooted in sitcom tradition and is to the '90s what Happy Days was to the '70s – a humorous and oft-nostalgic glance over one's shoulder at life two decades past. Created by the same team behind 3rd Rock from the Sun, That '70s Show is set in Point Place, Wisconsin, a fictional suburb of Green Bay. The show focuses on the day-to-day lives of a fairly large core cast of characters, but the key protagonist is unquestionably Eric Forman (played by Topher Grace). Eric generally hangs out with his friends: Donna (Laura Prepon), his next-door neighbour and romantic interest; goofy Michael Kelso (Ashton Kutcher); paranoid pothead Hyde (Danny Masterson); the rich and spoiled Jackie (Mila Kunis); and foreign exchange student Fez (Wilmer Valderrama). Also occupying a deservedly large part of the spotlight are Eric's parents – nervous, pre-feminist wife and mother Kitty (Debra Jo Rupp) and stern dad Red (Kurtwood Smith) – and they have plenty of interaction with their son and his friends. To a lesser degree we also get to know Donna's parents, next-door neighbours to the Formans: prehistoric buffoon Bob (Don Stark) and bimbo/emerging-feminist Midge (Tanya Roberts). It's a fairly large cast to introduce quickly, but in the show we experience the characters not merely as their obvious stereotypes, but also as their individual storylines progress… so it's not quite such an ordeal to learn who everyone is as it might first appear.

As with many sitcoms – and as with Happy Days in particular – the series revolves around teenagers transitioning from childhood to an adult state. Issues dealt with include dating, sex, friendships, homosexuality, drugs, family values and responsibility. We don't see the teenagers at school often, which would only bolster the cast numbers, but we encounter them instead during those in-between times – after waking up and before school, after school and before bed, and of course at the weekends. Characterisation helps the comedy along admirably, as we get to learn the characters' quirks and see them react (sometimes quite convincingly) to all manner of different situations, such as Red Forman having to take a Christmas job at his neighbour Bob's electrical store because of job cut-backs at the plant he works in. The comedy is solid throughout and definitely funny… and not just because the show is set in the '70s (though it has to be said that the disco episode does employ amusing '70s dance moves to superb effect). Overall, the characters are amusing, the situations they get themselves into are both realistic and wacky (the perfect mix for any sitcom) and the era certainly doesn't hurt either!

The first series of the show consists of 25 episodes, and they're all included on this DVD box set. In order, they are:

1. 'That '70s Pilot'
2. 'Eric's Birthday'
3. 'Streaking'
4. 'Battle of the Sexists'
5. 'Eric's Burger Job'
6. 'The Keg'
7. 'That Disco Episode'
8. 'Drive-In'
9. 'Thanksgiving'
10. 'Sunday, Bloody Sunday'
11. 'Eric's Buddy'
12. 'The Best Christmas Ever'
13. 'Ski Trip'
14. 'Stolen Car'
15. 'That Wrestling Show'
16. 'The First Date'
17. 'The Pill'
18. 'The Career Day'
19. 'Prom Night'
20. 'A New Hope'
21. 'Water Tower'
22. 'Punk Chick'
23. 'Grandma's Dead'
24. 'Hyde Moves In'
25. 'The Good Son'

Honestly, it's hard to choose favourites from the list above as the episodes are all of a very good standard in terms of general sitcom comedy… but I'll give it a go nonetheless! The ones I enjoyed most included 'A New Hope' (where the gang get introduced to the wonders of Star Wars on its release), 'Grandma's Dead' (where reactions to grief are explored while Eric has a particularly bad day) and 'Eric's Burger Job' (which really speaks for itself). In fact the only thing I didn't find particularly appealing about the style and format of the show were the little graphical interludes to mark advert breaks – usually '70s flowers bouncing in psychedelic profusion around the screen, or '70s icons made to move their lips; I just didn't warm to those. But thankfully the actual content is what really matters and I'm happy to announce that it's funny, charming, well-performed, sharply-written and great fun to watch.

Obviously a key element to this success of a show such as this is casting, and the actors of That '70s Show bring spot-on performances, great comic timing and a definite interpersonal chemistry to the show – and their work together on this series has certainly brought them plenty of subsequent opportunities. Topher Grace, who plays the 'everyman' character of Eric Forman, has since appeared in Win a Date with Tad Hamilton, Traffic and Mona Lisa Smile while Ashton Kutcher has made his name in Punk'd as well as appearing in The Butterfly Effect and Dude, Where's My Car. Other cast members may not have reached quite the same high profile yet, but they're certainly beginning to appear in more and more things, which is really a testament to how well they showcase their talents in this series. Of course, the adult cast were already more established, with Kurtwood Smith for example reaching almost iconic status for his portrayal of Clarence in Robocop. As someone more known for his 'hard man' roles, it's actually particularly nice to see him here as a stern but very-far-from-humourless father figure.

There's definitely both a gentleness and an edge to That '70s Show and I think it's that combination that makes it so appealing. Setting the series in the '70s gave the writers a milieu for depicting issues such as emerging feminism while also not being slapped on the wrist for their depiction of non-PC characters (such as Kitty as the über-hausfrau). The charm and humour aren't only from the innocence that seems so central to Eric Forman's life in the 1970s, but also from how many underlying issues remain the same today. Red's unemployment and need to look after his family is a well-accepted plot element, as are the emerging feelings and emotionality of the teens. Universal themes and good, solid comedy are the foundations of a good sitcom, and That '70s Show has all the ingredients in perfect proportion. It's no surprise then that the show became extremely popular in its original TV broadcast, and the release of the first series on DVD will indubitably widen its fanbase further.

Picture

That '70s Show is presented here in non-anamorphic 4:3 full-frame ratio, with the picture quality at least equal to – if not slightly surpassing – its broadcast quality. There's a lot of rich and wacky colours on display (well, it is the 1970s being depicted, after all) and they come through nicely with no obvious softness or bleeding. Both indoor and outdoor shots come across cleanly and although there's the faintest hint of pixellation from time to time, I didn't come across any particularly egregious video flaws on this 4-disc set.

Sound

As with many recent shows, the soundtrack here is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 surround with little obvious directionality. The quality of the audio is good for what it is though, with distinct music and dialogue. There's not much more to say about the sound here; the period-savvy music fits in well and helps to define the era the show is set in quickly and recognisably, but it never gets in the way of the story.

Menus, Extras & Packaging

The disc menus here are all quite professional-looking, fully-animated with smooth transitions and underscored by music clips from the show. Like the cover art gracing the DVD cases themselves, the various sub-menus give all of the cast members a chance in the limelight. So, a cheerful menu-browsing experience with fast response time all around.

On the other hand, the offering of special features is disappointing for a box set that is such a nice release in every other sense. There's a rather lean featurette called Hello Wisconsin!, which is more or less a 'making of' piece about the first season with interviews from cast and crew. (But don't be fooled by its 18-minute running time; most of this is merely clips from the show itself.) It's not a very in-depth look at anything, but I suppose that it's better than nothing.

Also included on these DVDs are a handful of Fox promo spots, none of which are very exciting, and a That '70s Trivia selection which was obviously aired between episodes during some theme night on US television, and which features the actors asking trivia questions about the show.

It's a shame that across no fewer than 25 episodes there are no commentaries provided whatsoever… nor anything about how the production crew imbued the set and costumes with an authentic '70s look and feel. One can only hope that Fox might bother to include meatier features on subsequent seasons as they get released on DVD.

Fortunately, the packaging of this box set is particularly nice, with four of those sleek-looking slimline Amaray cases tucked inside an eye-catching cardboard sleeve, making the entire series only take up the same shelf space as a hardback novel.

Overall

That '70s Show is an extremely likeable sitcom. The characters fit together well, the writing is very perceptive and funny, the situations mostly believable even at their most comedic, and the schtick, well, it just works. Whether you remember the '70s or not, there should be something here to tickle your funnybone and bring you a smile if not raucous laughter (sense of humour is so damn unpredictable!). The DVD boxset is nicely-packaged and the episodes presented well from a video/audio standpoint, albeit with disappointing extras. Still, this shouldn't put off anyone interested in watching and/or owning this show.

Film
7 out of 10
Video
7 out of 10
Audio
7 out of 10
Extras
3 out of 10
Overall

7

out of 10

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