Fox will air the final episode of That 70s Show on Thursday night. Being the 70s geek that I am, I wanted to like this show when it premiered in 1998, and I did, for a while, but not for very long.
It started with the title. That 70s Show works as a post-modern self-referential wink at the very concept of titles–but damn, there must be 50 or 100 song titles from the 1970s that would have worked as well or better to capture the 70s vibe. The IMDB site for the show lists four discarded working titles, any of which would have been better: “Feelin’ All Right,” “Reelin’ in the Years,” “Teenage Wasteland,” and “The Kids Are Alright.” Before sitting down to watch, a viewer (all right, this viewer) might ask, with some justification, how creative is this going to be if that’s the best title they can come up with?
The fumble of the title foreshadowed another of the show’s problems. For a show set in the 1970s, it seemed to have only the most tenuous grasp on the decade’s music. The first promos that Fox ran in 1998 used the B.J. Thomas song “Hooked on a Feeling,” which didn’t make a lot of sense given that the show was set in 1976 (and that “Hooked” was a hit from 1969). The show’s theme song, “In the Street,” originally recorded by 70s cult icons Big Star and later covered for the show by Cheap Trick, never worked for me either–again, mostly because I could imagine a lot of better choices. And while the show featured plenty of 70s music, I never really got the feeling that these kids lived and died by it the way lots of real 70s kids did.
Those problems aside, the show was funny at first. I still have trouble believing those scenes in the basement, marijuana smoke in the air, ever got on TV to begin with–although the amount of smoke was toned down a lot after the first couple. The two most believable characters, Eric and Donna, were always the most fun to watch, because they were played closest to the typical Wisconsin teenager I was, and the ones I knew. Eric’s parents were pretty believable, too–not like mine, but like some I knew. However, because the show was on Fox, Ashton Kutcher’s Kelso–loud, brainless, charmless–became the breakout star. (In my 70s, we all knew guys like Kelso–but the Erics and Donnas would never have hung out with him.)
After a while, the show became less about Wisconsin kids in the 1970s and more about life in a parallel universe decorated with 70s kitsch. Where a show like The Wonder Years was forever grounded in its times–east-coast suburbia around 1970–That 70s Show eventually became generic. From small-town Wisconsin in 1976, it morphed to anywhere, anytime, except for the clothes. And at that point, I stopped watching. And in fact, I was surprised to learn last week that it was still on.
It occurs to me that between reruns of The Brady Bunch (like the 48-hour marathon TV Land ran this past weekend) and That 70s Show, a lot of people who were born in the 80s and 90s think they know what the 1970s were like. They don’t. Clothes and music do not a decade make. You really had to be there. And even though some of the producers of That 70s Show were there, they never figured out how to bring the time truly alive.