I'll admit I've always been a sucker for "That 70's Show". There have been plenty of times where I have wanted to give up on it. Whether it be the almost inexcusable gaps in temporal logic (if it's 1979 in Season 8 how could Season 1 have been 1976 especially considering that the TV seasons usually have weather seasons--its winter during Christmas and warming up towards the episodes that air in April and May) or the "Happy Days" syndrome in which every character has become a caricature of his or herself (Kelso is Stupid, Red is hard ass, Fez is horny: ok, ok Fez has always been horny), I have stuck it out. But when it was announced that Topher Grace was leaving the show as well as Ashton Kutcher I was prepared to jump ship altogether.
Eric has been the center of the show since he got beer for Hyde and Kelso from his parent’s party way back in the pilot. To lose him was akin to bringing in Cousin Roger on "Happy Days", replacing Bo and Luke Duke with Coy and Vance Duke or putting Officer Nelson on Officer Jon Baker's bike on "CHiPs"--you just know it's not going to work. In my mind last summer the show was done and written off. But I am a true TV addict and I needed That 70's Fix and was curious to see just how quickly and horribly the building was going to burn to the ground.
Settling in for the 8th season premiere I was prepared to watch maybe 3 or 4 episodes that I knew were going to be so bad that I couldn’t watch anymore. I did not want to see my “friends” in Point Place treated that way. As it turned out, it wasn’t the school bus wreck I was expecting. Granted, there were some pointedly awful moments. They would have to find someway to invoke the spirit of Topher and having Kitty tape messages to send him in Africa is about as basic as it gets but it gets the job done. Though it made an excuse for one of the episode’s worst jokes: having Fez do a Porky Pig impression which wasn’t even funny in a Fez sort of way. (Though him singing “Doooo Iiiiit” was as good a Fez is a hornball joke as you could expect 8 seasons in.) Equally bad is the embarrassing new opening credits that has all the cast members mugging directly into the camera singing along to “In The Street” which, come to think of it, was already a bastardization of that tune even by Season 2. The lone exception is Red not singing along at all: his character defined.
The idea of Kitty getting stoned is a funny one and usually Debra Jo Rupp knows when to go over the top and when to rein it in for a laugh but her performance was a little too cornball for me though I am sure many thought it inspired. Not to mention, that this is the second time Kitty has been stoned in a season opener and seeing her as such only made me think of Red singing “Hippity hoppity, Easter’s on its way!” moments before he sold The Vista Cruiser in a happier time. One other small complaint: did anyone ever really buy Kelso as a cop even in a broad comedy situation? And do you think they will reference his daughter and his apartment with Fez ever again now that he is leaving too?
So where are the good nuggets in the steamy pile of faux 70’s nostalgia? There were actually more decent than dreadful moments in these 2 episodes. Congratulations on a network show making the death of a character a joke in the show. I was not expecting Charlie to shuffle off this mortal coil when he fell from the water tower but not only did he bite it but there were laughs too. Now, I’m not saying that death is always good for a chuckle but at least it’s maybe indicative of the fact that the writers of the show aren’t afraid to push a few buttons for laughs this year and without Grace around to turn any line into snarky comic gold they’re going to need as many laughs as they can get. Which is why it was wise to bring in (finally!) Tommy Chong full time as Leo. His rapport with Steven and the gang has always been entertaining but as the focus of the show moves away from the basement and likely toward the record store it’s going to be essential if the show runners are going to continue to hold an audience. The departure of Grace and Kutcher will also force the writers to rely even more on Kitty and Red who have, in the past few seasons, been underwritten. Hopefully, they will now get more airtime and the writing will reignite the effective dynamic they had in the first few seasons.
Danny Masterson, is now left the unspoken leader of the Point Place crew and will need to move beyond the bad attitude sonata he’s been playing thus far. The addition of Judy Taylor as Hyde’s stripper girlfriend could provide some interesting tension between her, Hyde and Jackie if they let it fester a little but more likely than not she will be cleverly dispatched of by episode 7 or 8 of this season. This leaves Fez, Donna and new guy Randy. Once again, Fez remains hapless and undersexed and I think that perhaps his character could use a shake up and they should give him a girlfriend for more than a 3 episode arc, if anything to keep Wilmer from trying to steal every scene he is in with diminishing returns. Donna will be difficult to keep fresh until the show completely lets go of the memory of Eric (which is virtually impossible). Even her struggling with other guys asking her out can only last for so long. Without Grace around as her foil there will be little for her to do without total character revolution. Finally, we come to Randy who as introduced seems like a contender for the spot in the group left open and if the second episode is any indicator is going to be the new snappy jelly to Hyde’s acerbic peanut butter. But with 2 short appearances under his belt it remains to be seen if he can effectively help bail water out of a boat, that no matter how sporadically funny, is well on its way to the bottom of sitcom sea.
Several other reviews have mentioned that this was the season that “That 70’s Show” has jumped the shark. In truth, it’s already jumped it a few times: Kelso becomes a cop, Kelso has a baby, Donna goes blonde, Hyde and Jackie get together, the list goes on. Season 8 finds the show in the water with the sharks circling so let’s enjoy hangin’ out for as long as we can before 1980 pokes it’s head in the Forman’s front door and they trade their bell bottoms in for Jordache jeans and Izod polo shirts. Until then I say good day.
I said good day!