'That 70s Show' Showed Us That Everyone's Going Through It

by 24USATVJan. 20, 2023, 3 a.m. 14
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I was 13 when I met the characters of That '70s Show. Eric, Hyde, Jackie, Kelso, Donna, and Fez, a team of basement-dwellers forever laughing about whatever mischief they caused. Back then, I had bangs, wore way too much eyeliner, and sprouted to a height that made all my pants rise above my ankles. While kids snuck out to parties, I snuck downstairs to watch Nick at Nite in the basement. That’s where I first heard of the iconic crew, who fronted the coming-of-age sitcom. That '70s Show tracked the life of Eric Forman, a typical Wisconsin teenager, and his rowdy friends and family. Each episode showed a glimpse of what life was like back in the bell-bottomed era—and to my surprise, it looked pretty similar to the life I wanted.

The characters of That '70s Show were cool without even trying to be. They drank beer and smoked weed in Eric's basement, while his parents supervised (that's one word for it, I guess!) from upstairs. They went on dates, talked about their latest hookups, and lived the full, reckless life that I dreamed of. They were high-schoolers. Big kids, in my tween eyes. After watching one episode, I was hooked. That '70s Show became a handbook for my fast-approaching freshman year, and one of my favorite television shows. I hummed the catchy theme that whole summer. Now, with Netflix giving the series the sequel-reboot treatment in That '90s Show, streaming now, I bet I'm not the only one remembering the summer I entered the Forman house—and never left.

If you somehow missed the thousands of That '70s Show reruns on network TV, let me catch you up. That '70s Show premiered in 1998, to near-instant fanfare. Thanks to the cast's charming performances, many of the actors went on to have lucrative careers—like Topher Grace, Laura Prepon, Mila Kunis, and her on-screen boyfriend, turned real-life husband, Ashton Kutcher. The series went on to produce eight hilarious seasons, 200 episodes in total, before wrapping production in 2006.

By the time I discovered the series a solid five years later, That '70s Show had already connected with a new generation of viewers. Somehow, the writers found a way to make a period piece feel timeless—and with that, they struck gold. Unlike other sitcoms, like Friends or Malcolm in the Middle, the writers of That '70s Show made viewers relate to a group of pretty oddball characters. (Joey and Rachel: not exactly breaking the mold!) By setting the show in the past, That '70s Show felt like one of the first shows to prove that certain coming-of-ageisms are actually timeless. The jokes about puberty, the tendency for teenagers to stir shit and drive their parents crazy—it was all relatable, because it felt real. We all know someone who’s awkward like Eric, dramatic like Jackie, or gullible but lovable, like Kelso. Even now, the reruns still feel fresh. Witty lines—like Kelso quipping, “Damn Jackie, I can’t control the weather!"—still make me laugh, and the gang's goofy friendship is still just as heartwarming.

That’s not to say That '70s Show aged perfectly. There are, of course, plenty of moments that wouldn’t fly today. Take Fez, played by Wilmer Valderrama, for example: he’s the only person of color. He’s not even given a real name — and his entire personality is about being an exchange student. Plus, he’s often inappropriate with women, making them the butt of the joke when he’s not getting picked on. He was a standout at the time, but looking back, it’s hard to reckon with his portrayal. Fez's characterization is something I hope Netflix manages to correct in That '90s Show. The reboot features a more diverse cast living in a much more accepting time. If they play their cards right, the writers might be able to make up for the original show’s shortcomings.

At its worst, That '70s Show, like many other sitcoms of the early-aughts, capitalized on tired jokes based on stereotypes. At its best, the show leaned into the funny and downright strange experience of growing up. That’s what reeled me in, anyway. When I felt uneasy about starting high school, That '70s Show was there to remind me that everyone goes through it. Like Eric, I also sat in horror while my mom gave me The Talk. And like Donna and Jackie, I gossiped about the mystery that is the teenage boy. (Who, I later learned, I wasn’t that into after all.) Despite its flaws, That '70s Show insisted we’d all be all right.

You bet I'll queue up That '90s Show, and happily trek back to the Forman family basement to see how the next league of friends finds their way.

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