That '70s Show: Season 1 Review
What does it say about nostalgia on television that nothing seems quite right. Not the references, not the music, not the clothes and not the hairstyles. And it all seems so very jumbled up. If That ‘70s Show was to the nineties what Happy Days was to the fifties, one wonders what the children of the late-forties and early-fifties thought of events at Al's Diner and at the Cunninghams. Whatever they made of the Fonz goes, I'm assuming, unrecorded.
The first episode of That ‘70s Show is a fine example of how it frequently stumbles - Eric, Kelso, Donna and Hyde are sitting in the basement and like any set of thirteen-year-olds, get embarrassed when Hyde mentions Donna thinking that Eric is cute. Except Donna's not thirteen, she's sixteen, maybe seventeen and these kids give the impression of being as sexually experienced as a busload of nuns. But, oddly, drug jokes abound as Eric, Kelso and Hyde sit about a basement table and get stoned. Even on his seventeenth birthday, Eric's heart is all a flutter over a kiss from Donna, has a birthday party where they're all out of luck on beer but drugs are freely available. On this side of the Atlantic, where, post-Janet Jackson, we can smile at the prudishness of American network television, the morals of That ‘70s Show can appear to be a little askew.
In other respects, though, it has an odd appeal. Whilst it scores high for casting Tanya Roberts - men of a certain age will be lost in thoughts of both Sheena and The Beastmaster, where a children's fantasy film took a memorable diversion about a lake - as well as using Big Star's In The Street as a theme song, the central relationship between the cast is very strong and there are some wonderful flights of fancy. Some of the better moments are when it captures teenage stupidity - who hasn't imagined taping onto cassette or video their drunken/stoned conversations in the belief that they'll be just as hilarious the next morning. It also captures that essence of youthful freedom that, over here in Europe, we've always been quite envious of, through which seventeen-year-olds have a car, a basement hideout and easy access to alcohol via dim-witted liquor store owners. Similarly, it has that touch of suburban loucheness that, like The Good Life, hinted at everyone only being but another cocktail away from falling into bed together. The Confessions... movies may have shown suburban swinging to be a grotty affair conducted in red Y-fronts whilst The Ice Storm may have shown it to be drowning in guilt but those who grew up watching Tom, Barbara, Jerry and Margo will realise that it's only a Cinzano away.
What That ‘70s Show does best, though, is to feature the rather sweet relationship between Eric and Donna. Despite it being far too innocent for anything other than network television, the gentle attraction between them, if not convincing, then sits nicely at odds with the rest of the show. In many ways, it's similar to how the relationship between Joanie and Chachie grew out of Happy Days although, here, it all happens just too quickly. Within minutes of the pilot episode, there's mention of Donna having a thing for Eric and rather than letting the relationship form once the characters are established, the makers of That ‘70s Show are much happier to feed the viewer a kiss or a hug every second or third week and almost have the relationship be the show. Sweet though it is, you do wish Donna and Eric would just, in the words of that star of the seventies, Marc Bolan, get it on and that, for his seventeenth birthday, that she would give him the 'big gift' that so obsesses Ashton Kutcher's Kelso.
However, like most comedy shows, That ‘70s Show plays too hard to really please and never lets a subtle gag pass when a really obvious one will suffice. Just in case the setting of the show passed anyone by - and, really, it shouldn't given the loud, loud colours of Ashton Kutcher's clothing - there's more references to the politics of the time than anyone this side of the Atlantic could possibly get. There's much talk of gas shortages, of a pardon for Nixon and that disco sucks. Whilst all this may be a boon for someone now in their mid-forties - a similar age to Donna, Eric, Hyde and Kelso as they would be in 2005 - you do wonder if Tanya Roberts is somewhat lost on them or if they'd have preferred Peter Frampton to the cultish and little-known Big Star on the soundtrack.
But all this authenticity gives certain things a ring of truth that they might not otherwise have had. Was there an oral contraceptive called Ortho-Novum? I don't know but it certainly sounds convincing and given the nature of the show may well have been involved in a major pharmaceutical scandal that we were spared word of.
It's quite a funny show, though, at times but it really doesn't provide a constant stream of great jokes. Similarly, with there only being six main teen members of the cast, it's easy to predict that Hyde will eventually fall for Donna, which is just what happens late in the season. In that sense, it suffers from the same problem as Friends, which saw Rachel struggle to find a boyfriend outside the main cast that eventually saw her pair off with Joey and Ross at different times. It did, though, last long enough to produce eight seasons, which I was genuinely surprised about and launched Kutcher into Punk'd and a marriage to Demi Moore. It's not often that you that say that a role prepared an actor for real life but one suspects that brushing up against the strangely artificial plastics of the seventies prepared Kutcher well for getting close to Moore's body.
That ‘70s Show doesn't look bad but, equally, isn't awfully good either. Rather, it's a functional transfer with a clean picture that's a little too fuzzy on a bigger screen but shows the colours off well. Up close, the quality isn't great but, with colours as garish as they are here, you really want to keep your distance from the screen.
Similarly, the soundtrack is fine but nothing out of the ordinary. Separation between channels is good and there's very little noise but it really only serves its function.
Out of the four DVD's, all of the extras have been bumped onto the final disc and include a short feature on Season 1 - Hello Wisconsin! - as well as a trivia quiz and a set of promos. Unfortunately, we didn't receive the extras on our check discs so you will have to suffice, I'm afraid, with that brief description.
They did get the hair right, though, and the fashions look to be that mix of what was in-season and what had been left over from previous years that I remember from the seventies. Flared dungarees and platform shoes? Stripey socks and a patterned V-neck? Men with perms? Anyone who is now in their twenties will look on That ‘70s Show with alarm at the fashions but, as one who was there, I like to think that it prepared one for being unembarrassed when looking ridiculous.
That said, it's not a particularly good show and certainly not as funny as eight seasons would suggest. After all, the British rewrite of the show, Days Like These, lasted less than ten episodes on ITV despite having the original writers and producers involved. It may just be that here, we've overdosed on nostalgia and that if it doesn't feature Peter Kay, Stuart Maconie and Lucy Porter speaking fondly of Spangles, Evel Knievel toys, the Ford Capri and Hot Gossip's (I Lost My Heart To A) Starship Trooper, then we're not really interested. Indeed, the one thing in the show that will be most reminiscent of the seventies for a British audience will be the portrayal of the Venezuelan Fez, which isn't very far away from the treatment given to immigrants on Mind Your Language.
That ‘70s Show really doesn't have enough jokes, the canned laughter grates and Tanya Roberts isn't in it quite enough. Whilst sweet, it's not quite enough and certainly doesn't provide the kind of rewatch value one would hope for from a DVD.