Why That '70s Show is the Most Typical Sitcom Ever
Since Netflix has come along, I've watched a lot of TV, and my favorite type of show is a good sitcom. The mixture of sweet and silly is too enticing for me to pass up. My latest show was That '70s Show. After watching and analyzing the series, I've realized that the show, although good, is the least innovative and creative sitcom I've ever seen.
The sitcom stars a cast of teenagers in the 1970 suburbia of Point Place, Wisconsin. Starting from 1998 and running till 2006, the show was one of the most successful of its time. If you drop the outlier season (the final season, which didn't feature Eric Foreman) the show averages an impressive 9.87 million weekly viewership. The only sitcoms that could compete with that while the show was running were Friends and Malcolm in the Middle. Underscoopfire.com recently put the show in its list of "The 50 Greatest Sitcoms of All Time."
The overwhelming accomplishment of the show begs the question : why was this show so successful?
My answer - the show was almost completely constructed out of previous sitcom elements.
To be fair, everything does this. Nothing is completely innovative; all art and entertainment takes from works that succeeded beforehand. However, the show is blatant in its copying and provides very little creation. It simply takes pieces from an array of shows, throws them together in a bowl and churns out a typical sitcom. It does nothing for advancement, it takes no risks. It's formulaic.
Overall, I liked the show (except for the 8th season, but that's for another post), but it was a guilty pleasure. What the show does best is create small elements. Supporting and reoccurring characters are where the show shines. Memorable tropes like "the Circle" and the stupid helmet gave the show its little uniqueness, but they were strong enough to make me like the show. What I'm mostly criticizing are the larger parts of the show, the one that make up most of its composition. Let's start with our core cast.
The core of That '70s Show is a group of 6 teenagers. Eric Foreman is the closest thing the show has to a protagonist. His childhood best friends, Steven Hyde and Michael Kelso accompany him. Donna is the girl next door with whom Eric is desperately in love with. Fez is a new transfer student who has just joined the group. Jackie Burkhart is introduced into the cast by dating Kelso. These six individuals are the heartbeat of the show, and most scenes involve at least one of these characters.
Here's a creepy fan-made video that gives you an image for the characters:
Favorite Character Poll
Who is your favorite character from That '70s Show?
Eric Foreman is the closest thing the show has to a protagonist. Most of the show takes place in his house. Eric is a sensitive nerd with a smart mouth and a lanky body. Throughout the show, he's helplessly in love with Donna Pinciotti. The couple adds some flare to the show, but it serves more as a stable rock instead of an explosive plot point.
Steven Hyde is a sarcastic rocker. He lives with Eric and is arguably his closest friend. His relationship with Jackie makes him part of the secondary couple in the show. Most of his appeal comes through his wise and sardonic whips at other characters.
Michael Kelso is another close friend to Eric. He's the dumb but lovable, dog-like character of the show. Attractive and sex-driven, Kelso knows about little besides superficial physicality.
These three characters, Eric, Hyde and Kelso, are nearly a direct rip off the of the three male characters from Friends. Eric and Ross are both the sensitive, nerdy men that are in the primary couple of the show. Hyde and Chandler are the sarcastic characters who poke jokes at other characters and are in a less central relationship. Joey and Kelso are both self-obsessed, shallow, and dumb but still cherished. You could rightfully argue that these archetypes aren't original to friends, but the mimicry feels too transparent. That '70s Show took all of the male characters from the most popular show running at the time, Friends.
Moving on past the those characters, we have Donna Pinciotti. Donna is Eric's love interest, the typical girl-next-door. The little personality she has is as a tom boy, which also isn't horribly original (Darlene from Roseanne come to mind) Mostly, Donna serves as Eric's idol of interest and as the straight man for the more ridiculous members of the group. Laura Prepon is a talented actor, but her character carries very little of the show.
Jackie Burkhart comes into the group as Kelso's girlfriend. She's a spoiled brat who is just as self-involved as Kelso. Eventually, she becomes Hyde's girlfriend. One of her best purposes is to provide insight to the inner-workings of the group, like inside jokes and people from the group's past.
Jackie and Donna are slightly more original than the first three males, but they lack any depth. The characters represent two extreme ends of a spectrum; while Donna is a tomboy, Jackie is a girly girl. They're more like two hyperbolic caricatures rather than characters or humans. Their levels are past the point of rational operation. Most of their character development is towards a more plausible balance. Donna tries to become more feminine, Jackie tries to become more masculine. They aren't rip-offs, but their personalities are radical but boring, and because of that they are hard to relate to.
I've saved Fez for last because he's the most original character, as well as my favorite personally. The group accepts the foreign-exchange student at the start of the show. He's what I would call The Wildcard; he falls under no archetype. Another example of a Wildcard is Phoebe from Friends. The Wildcard gives the writers an outlet for randomness or an offbeat joke. Fez is a goofy, uncultured sex addict with a ridiculous sweet tooth. He's the most innovative element of the show, and because of that, the show placed ends up placing too much weight on him. He went from a pleasant surprise to a crutch. Once he has a popular catchphrase ("I said good day"), the show spams it and all of the originality becomes background noise.
That '70s Show's main characters are all unoriginal, uninspired or exploited. The peripheral elements are where the show improves, but there are still some weak ends.
The show is set in the 1970s. I'm not old enough to positively say whether this representation is done realistically, but it seems to be rendered well. The past setting isn't entirely unique (Happy Days, Mad Men, The Wonder Years) but it does add a creative flavor to the show. It expands the viewer demographic to those who are nostalgic for the 70s.
Eric's father, Reginald "Red" Foreman, is the tough father figure that bullies his son around incessantly. Eric strives for Red's approval, despite his father's constant jokes about his disappointment in Eric and his threats to stick a foot up Eric's ass. This is a dynamic we've seen in Uncle Phil from Fresh Prince and or Carl Winslow and Urkel in Family Matters. It's a classic dynamic that continues to be used - Scrubs uses it with J.D. and Dr. Cox. It gives the character something to strive for. But That 70's Show executes the classic in the most typical way possible. There's very little zest. When Red actually compliments Eric, it always falls flat.
The same could be contended about the sentimental moments of the show. The show has a tear-jerking scene slightly too often for them to invoke any real stored feelings.
Also on Red - the show gives him a catchphrase: "I'm going to stick my foot up your ass." The joke isn't too weak, but it's over-utilized as a crutch, just as Fez is. The catchphrase appears what feels like every episode. This abuse drains all humor from the catchphrase and establishes it as a frequent reminder that the jokes are overplayed and entirely character-based comedy, which brings me to my next point.
Foot in your Ass
Two of the most used types in sitcoms are character-based comedy and smart comedy. Smart comedy is any joke that can stand on its own or is unique or clever in its set up or delivery. Character-based comedy revolves around jokes that make light of a characteristic. This type of humor isn't inherently bad; it relies on your attachment to and knowledge of the characters, but it gives you a familiar laugh, as well as further defines the character. Every sitcom has its own mixture of comedies, but That 70's Show develops into an almost entirely character-based comedy:
Eric is weak and nerdy. Hyde is poor, sarcastic and a stoic stoner. Kelso is stupid and pretty. Donna is tall and manly. Jackie is spoiled and egotistical. Fez is creepy and weird. These are the punch lines of almost every joke. At some point, the jokes start falling flat, but the show fails to develop or surprise.
Finally, I want to reiterate that I do like the show. The characters progress through life in a realistic way; the teens face real teen problems that can usually be related to. Characters face relationship and career problems that I could empathize with. Kitty Foreman, Eric's mother, is one of my favorite characters, which makes it even more sad when the writers devolve her role into spitting out weak alcoholism jokes.
All I have in regards to credentials is a heaping load of hours logged on Netflix. I've watched a lot of television, and I like to analyze it. If my analysis/opinion doesn't align with yours, then so be it. Like whatever you like. I merely wanted to share my observations about the show. I watched the entire series and enjoyed it, I just felt as if it was a bit unoriginal. If you think I'm wrong, I'm open to discussion, and if you haven't seen the show, I'd suggest watching it before taking my opinion.