Sunday, May 6, 2012

“Hello Wisconsin!”

Most classic TV fans, when asked to name a popular ‘50s or ‘60s sitcom that featured kids or teenagers at its core, would probably respond with usual suspects like Leave it to Beaver or Father Knows Best or The Donna Reed Show, to check off some of the best-remembered.  I’ve always argued that TV’s first real teenager was the titular character of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.  I identified strongly with Dobie (Dwayne Hickman), who seemed to have a lot of the same problems I did growing up in my teens.  He wasn’t the smartest kid in the class and didn’t always get the best grades; he hung around with weird kids (one of whom, Maynard G. Krebs [Bob Denver], was TV’s first beatnik); he didn’t have a lot of ambition (he’d often shirk his duties working in his father’s grocery store at first opportunity) and for the most part, he was content to spend most of his life chasing after women.  And when confronted with his teenaged angst, he’d sit in the park beside a statue of Rodin’s The Thinker and talk to himself.  (It’s a wonder somebody didn’t have him locked up.)  He daydreamed a lot, too.

Dobie’s father, grocer Herbert T. Gillis (played by Frank Faylen), was a blue-collar tradesman exasperated by the fact that his son was bone lazy and didn’t seem in a hurry to make anything of himself.  And he wasn’t shy about yelling at him or exacting punishment at the drop of a hat.  Sure, we suspected Gillis loved his son but in the first season of the show his familiar (and all-too-funny) lament was “I gotta kill that boy…I just gotta.”  When Dobie Gillis was renewed for a second season by CBS in the fall of 1960, however, the “suits” insisted that the creative minds tone down Herbert Gillis and make him a more sympathetic sort (beginning with the episode “You Ain’t Nuthin’ But a Houn’ Dog”).  Though it definitely took the edge off of the sitcom, the show still had enough elements to make it funny.

One of the reasons why I was such a fan of That ‘70s Show during its time on the air was that the father of that series’ sympathetic teenage protagonist, Eric Foreman (Topher Grace), was the patriarch Herbert T. Gillis could have become if the network had let him be (and if the standards dictating language and the like were a little looser back in the day).  Reginald Albert “Red” Foreman (Kurtwood Smith) became TV’s most likeably disagreeable dad.  He was a misanthrope, a man who could barely conceal his contempt for his son’s weird friends (“That kid’s on dope!” was one of his pet phrases) and often even had difficulty expressing affection for his son Eric, who had learned to ward off his father’s hostility with finely-honed sarcasm.

ERIC: This is the best water heater ever…God bless us, every one…
RED: Do you know why Tiny Tim walked with a crutch?
ERIC: Because he had a smart mouth?
RED: That's right…

Red Foreman’s irascibility was positively hysterical, calling his son “dumbass” (though he was flexible enough to use that term of endearment for other people who irritated him as well) and also frequently threatening to do him bodily harm (“How would you like your keen eye to watch my sure foot kick your smart ass?”).  But all this served to add a little spice to the man’s softer side; he could on rare occasions be a pretty good guy; in a fourth season ‘70s Show episode entitled “Eric’s Corvette Caper,” Eric takes his dad’s prized 1958 silver blue Corvette out for a spin to impress a high school cheerleader…and then is forced to eliminate all traces of his crime before his parents return home earlier than expected from their out-of-town trip.  Red is so pleased that his son didn’t disobey his order not to touch his car that he gives Eric the keys to take the vehicle for a drive…and that’s when Eric busts himself, because he’s forgotten he’s left the radio on in the “blare” position:

ERIC: …and I'm grounded
RED: For a month!  Why did you do it?
ERIC: To impress…this ... cheerleader...
RED: No kidding?  Well, then…make it two weeks…so…ah…you gonna see her again?
ERIC: Well…can I have the car again?
RED: Oh…she’s that girl…I know that girl… (After a pause) Stay away from that girl…

You’ve probably guessed by now from this post that I spent the past several days getting reacquainted with That ‘70s Show, thanks to a nice gift of both The Complete Third Season and The Complete Fourth Season from rep Barbara Pflaughhaupt.  It’s a little off-the-beaten path from what we normally do here at TDOY (it was cancelled about six years ago after a successful eight-year run from 1998 to 2006) but despite its contemporary pedigree I think the show’s time frame and reverence for classic films and movies (see the picture below) make it a nice fit.  (Plus, I have free swag to give away…but more on that in a second.)

In addition to sending up Hitchcock films like The Birds, Rear Window and Vertigo, many of the dream sequences on That '70s Show were homages to The Wizard of Oz and Night of the Living well as TV shows like I Love Lucy, I Dream of Jeannie and Happy Days
The premise of the sitcom—a decent if occasionally geeky kid named Eric Foreman who spends much of his teenage existence in Point Place, WI during the 1970s “hanging out” with his friends in his basement—originally inspired its creators, Mark Brazill and Bonnie & Terry Turner, to call the program in its early stages “Teenage Wasteland” and then “The Kids are Alright.”  These two ideas were scotched because of potentially thorny legal issues involved—namely, their connections to songs by The Who.  (Later, when the show became popular, the show’s creators didn’t worry as much…even titling every episode in its sixth season after Who compositions.)  “Feelin’ Alright” was also suggested as a title, but in the end That ‘70s Show was inspired by the positive response the pilot received among test audiences (as in “I like that 70’s show”).

In "Forgotten Son," Eric starts to worry when his ex-girlfriend Donna starts spending quality time with his mother...resulting in this hilarious dream sequence where he imagines that the two women are looking at his naked baby pictures. 
Despite the show’s occasional anachronisms, That ‘70s Show managed to be a fairly convincing representation of the era (the time frame was from 1976 to 1979, with the show’s final episode set on New Year’s Eve before 1980) with appropriate music, clothing, hairstyles, references and the like.  What I also thought clever about the series was that it attempted to show teenagers in a realistic light…including recreational drug use.  The creators of the show used a device they nicknamed “The Circle,” which would utilize a 360-degree camera pan that simulated the characters’ lighting up and passing along marijuana without actually showing it (though the present billowing smoke and mellow expressions on the actors’ faces made no bones about the activity).  Even in a more enlightened decade that sort of thing was persona au gratin on network TV—but it was a welcome relief from the way the subject was really addressed back in the 1970s, where “very special episodes” of TV shows would have some new kid move in town start selling weed and end up ostracized by the regulars by the installment’s conclusion (“Drugs are for losers!”).  (That ’70s Show even kicked off its third season with a wicked parody of the 1936 anti-marijuana feature film Reefer Madness.)

"One puff...and I'm completely, hopelessly hooked."  One of my favorite That '70's Show episodes, which shares the same title as the hilarious anti-dope screed Reefer Madness.

Regardless of its nostalgic trappings, That ‘70s Show wasn’t much different from the standard family sitcom, focusing on the complex relationships between family and friends.  In addition to cast members Grace and Smith, That ‘70s Show also featured Debra Jo Rupp as Eric’s doting mom Kitty (a throwback to Winifred “Winnie” Gillis from Dobie Gillis…though Kitty was a bit more edgy) and in the first three seasons, Lisa Page Kelly played Eric’s older (and promiscuous) sister Laurie.  Kelly vanished from the cast abruptly in the third season (Kelly has stated for the record that she had some personal problems that necessitated her departure) and returned briefly for a few shows in Season 5 before being replaced in the role by Christina Moore in a few episodes the following season.  The disappearance of Laurie from the series was a blow that, while the show was able to soldier on, was disappointing because the prickly relationship between son Eric and dad Red was mirrored by a similar one involving daughter Laurie and mom Kitty (who did not have a particularly high opinion of her daughter).  In a third-season Halloween-themed episode entitled “Too Old to Trick or Treat, Too Young to Die” Kitty cons Laurie into feeding some birds at a neighborhood by offering her a bribe of a sawbuck.  “I’ll do anything for ten bucks,” Laurie excitedly agrees, prompting her mom to crack: “And for once, that’s a good thing!”

The delightful Debra Jo Rupp gave her character of Kitty Sigurdson Foreman a memorable braying laugh that would have done Bea Benaderet proud…but also made her much more human in that in earlier seasons she struggled to kick a nicotine habit and she also wrestled with menopause in Season Five.  A nurse by profession, she was devoted to Eric (as well as his friends) but every now and then she’d blurt out a jewel like: “You know I love my family…it's just sometimes I just want to get in the car and run them all over.”  One of my favorite ‘Kitty’ episodes is a third-season outing entitled “Holy Craps!” that has her persuading Red and Eric to volunteer for the church bazaar:

KITTY: Okay, now, I have work assignments for everyone…Red, you're selling raffle tickets…
RED: I'm your man!
KITTY: And don't yell at the customers…
RED: I'm ...kind of your man…
KITTY: And smile…
RED: You need another man…

Red abandons the raffle booth to spend time winning big at the church’s craps table (“I'm the richest man in Church!”) and Eric does likewise with his responsibilities at the cakewalk, particularly after one of the participants warns him about getting ideas of marrying his high school sweetheart, Donna Pinciotti (regular Laura Prepon).  Two of Eric’s friends, nihilistically cool Stephen Hyde (Danny Masterson) and handsome idiot Michael Kelso (Ashton Kutcher), have also been enlisted to help out, but they wind up cheating at bingo in order to win all of the prizes.  Disgusted with their behavior, an exasperated Kitty remarks: “I can't believe that any of you can walk into a church without bursting into flames!”

Another one of my favorite Kitty performances can be found in a fourth-season episode, “Prank Day.”  In an effort to give friend Kelso payback for some pranks pulled at their expense, Eric and friends jerry-rig a bucket of oatmeal to fall on Kelso’s head…but Red ends up on the receiving end of the gag.  Looking at her oatmeal-covered husband, an upset Kitty pleads with her son: “Eric…how many times have I told you: ‘Don’t poke the bear!  Don’tpokethe bear!’”  Later, when Eric asks his mother if his dad is still angry she tearfully tells him: “Eric…I put him in his Corvette…tuned the radio to a hockey game and handed him a beer.  I’ve done all I can!”

Red and Eric forget Kitty's birthday in "Kitty's Birthday (That's Today?)" and must pay the ultimate penalty...accompanying her to a square dance.
Rounding out Eric’s “gang” on the show were spoiled rich girl Jackie Burkhart (Mila Kunis—who was only 14 when the series started; she told the producers when they hired her she’d be “18 on my birthday” which was technically not a lie) and a foreign exchange student (Wilmer Valderrama) who answered to “Fez” (an anagram for F.E.S.—Foreign Exchange Student) because no one really knew his real name (which became a running gag on the show, in addition to the fact that no one knew his country of origin, either).  Fez was a naïve, horny individual who got big laughs by swearing (“You son of a bitch!”) in a sibilant foreign accent.  Other cast members on the show included Donna’s parents, Bob (Don Stark) and Midge—who was played by former Charlie’s Angel Tanya Roberts;  like Laurie Foreman, Midge Pinciotti also disappeared from the series for a while (it was explained that she had left the toad-like Bob) before returning for a few episodes in Season Six.  The other ‘70s Show regular was Tommy Chong as Leo Chingkwake, an ex-stoner and Hyde’s FotoHut employer.  Chong’s character, introduced in a second season episode, made such an impression on viewers that he was promoted to the opening credits at the start of the fourth season…and then Chong’s real-life arrest for selling drug paraphernalia (water pipes) necessitated his exit from the show until midway through Season 7.  In Season 8 the show’s producers relied on him to fill the “idiot” void left by Ashton Kutcher’s departure.  (Chong was later mystified that they didn’t use his real-life troubles as plot fodder for the series.)

In "That '70s Musical," Fez imagines his friends performing in a series of musical numbers including this split-splitting homage to the Turtles' Happy Together

From its debut in the fall of 1998, That ‘70s Show became one of Fox’s most popular sitcoms—a show that despite its period setting remained hip and entertaining due to its sharp writing and splendid ensemble cast.  It made stars of its rookie young ensemble (with Kutcher becoming the most prominent, though Grace had embarked on a movie career that kept him out of the final season save the finale) though I would argue the show yukked on a little longer than it should have (it was almost as if they had little to do after graduating from high school, the same curse that befell Buffy the Vampire Slayer).  It lives on reruns (one of the local MyNetwork Atlanta stations carries it, as does Nick at Nite, MTV and ABCFamily) and has been released to DVD—Fox Home Video made the series available on Region 1 discs from 2004-2008, with a Complete Series in October of 2008.  Because of copyright entanglements, however, much of the period music that was originally telecast in the episodes got replaced by stock compositions…but the announcement on May 4, 2011 that Mill Creek Entertainment had obtained the DVD rights to the series brought the good news that despite the need for music replacement their copies would contain the original full broadcast edits.

And so I’ll segueway to the free stuff.  I have free copies of both That ‘70s Show: Season 3 and Season 4 to give away to a lucky Thrilling Days of Yesteryear entrant who’s only required to send me an e-mail (with “’70s Show Giveaway” in the subject header) at igsjrotr(at) before 11:59 EDT next Sunday (May 13) with their name, address and e-mail.  (I also need to limit this promotion to U.S. residents only.)  If you’re not feeling that luck is on your side, you can also purchase these two sets by your lonesome by going to (where they’ve also got Seasons 1 & 2 available)…and they’ve even generously provided a discount code for you to use on this page right here.  Monday, May 14 I’ll draw a winner via and get their prize out to them as speedily as I can.  They’re really superbly done sets, with all the episodes from each season and bonuses like commentaries on selected outings, interviews from cast members and promos.  If you’ve already won something off the blog within the past 30 days you might want to graciously sit this one out but the rest are encouraged to enter (one entry per household please).  Thrilling Days of Yesteryear—where the winning tradition continues!

1 comment:

Kimberly J.M. Wilson said...

Ivan, I was never a big fan of the show, but when I did watch it Red and Kitty were my favorites.