The bouncingly animated, bright yellow smiley-face buttons that serve as between-scenes punctuation for That ’70s Show are a signal to us that this new sitcom will treat the decade of the title with the same campy mock reverence as, say, the recent Brady Bunch feature films did. (And by scant coincidence, the first flick was cooked up by the same people, writer-producers Bonnie and Terry Turner.) In order to parody them, the ’70s are positioned as the last gasp of pop-culture innocence, a prelude to the deluge of slick, debilitating irony that would grease our way into the ’80s. This is a willed misunderstanding of the period.
The particular year in which the series is set, 1976, was, to be sure, the year of Barry Manilow’s ”I Write the Songs” and Frampton Comes Alive! (and, is it therefore any wonder, the year Phil Ochs hanged himself). But it was also a year of self-conscious gestures: Bob Dylan hymning the imprisoned boxer Rubin ”Hurricane” Carter in the hope of sparking a retrial; Bruce Springsteen hopping the fence at Graceland in the hope of powwowing with Elvis Presley only to be thwarted by cops who weren’t impressed that the nascent Boss had recently appeared on simultaneous covers of TIME and Newsweek. And the very next year, both Saturday Night Fever and punk rock in the form of the Sex Pistols would officially arrive, at which point all rock-cultural hell would break loose.
That ’70s Show is best when the volatility that truly characterized this period — the sense that the times they were a-changin’, to a funky beat — seeps into its golden aura of fun. In the suburb of Point Place, Wis., we find 17-year-old Eric Forman (the wonderfully deadpan Topher Grace) using his family’s basement rec room to watch TV, guzzle smuggled beer, and smoke the rare joint in the company of pals. These include the handsome goofball Kelso (Ashton Kutcher); a blissfully baffled exchange student, Fez (Wilmer Valderrama); and Eric’s next-door neighbor and lifelong pal, Donna (the if possible even more wonderfully deadpan Laura Prepon), a lanky redhead whose charms have suddenly, confusingly, been made manifold now that Eric’s hormones have kicked in. Eric and Donna are, as a consequence, conducting the most touchingly awkward yet funny courtship on current television.
Eric also comes equipped with a pair of prickly parents — a nervous, giggly mom played by Debra Jo Rupp (Friends) and a cranky, cynical dad played by Robocop’s Kurtwood Smith. Their cartoonishness — the way they fuss and snipe and worry over their son — would be excessive were it not being played against Eric’s poker-faced incredulity (really, I cannot praise enough the deftness of Grace; this is his first series, and so far, he’s uncorrupted by the snarky school of sneery-teen TV acting).
The show was cocreated by the people who brought us 3rd Rock From the Sun, the Turners, but ’70s is, mercifully, more grounded than that silly silly-alien sitcom. As in the ”Wayne’s World” sketches the Turners wrote for Saturday Night Live, the basement rec room becomes a breeding ground for adolescent rebellion, a dank dream factory where the kids plot to sneak out and drive all the way to Milwaukee to see a Todd Rundgren concert because they’re so into ”Hello It’s Me.”
That their car, of course, breaks down and their petty infraction is endangered is a plot turn that could have come out of an episode of the original Brady Bunch show. In subsequent weeks, Eric has tried in vain to forestall a surprise birthday party, and grapples with mixed masculine feelings when Donna beats him repeatedly at one-on-one basketball. What ’70s possesses that 3rd Rock never will is a heart; it is unafraid to venture into sentimental territory and emerge with something more solid than cheap-shot jokes and sniggering slapstick.
If the show sometimes gets things a tad wrong (as my colleague Chris Willman points out, Todd Rundgren was by this time a few years past his pure-pop phase and well into more insufferable experimental rock with his band Utopia), well, the season is still young, and so is 1976. Isn’t there an entire episode to be written about the kids’ discovery of Rick Dees’ ”Disco Duck”? And will Eric and Donna do their first slow dance to Rod Stewart’s ”Tonight’s the Night” or to something from Boz Scaggs’ Silk Degrees? On Sunday nights as a pre-X-Files pleasure, That ’70s Show is out of this world. B+