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Series
Living in America, and having access to a television with cable TV, I was, of course, familiar with Fox’s primetime situation comedy known as That ‘70s Show. I found myself disinterested in the series during its infancy, but thanks to the modern marvel that is television syndication I have since caught several episodes in reruns (albeit out of order). Usually I don’t find myself watching non-animated sit-coms, and would rather watch more cartoons, or perhaps a nature documentary. What I’m trying to say is that I am not the most susceptible audience for this particular brand of entertainment. However, I’ll admit That ‘70s Show is one of the most clever and consistently well-written shows on American television. I actually think I like it, and coming from me, this means quite a bit.

Can you fly Kitty?
Set in late 1970s rural Wisconsin, the series concerns the misadventures of a small group of High School students. Though obviously as angst filled and disillusioned as most kids their age, they get by mostly on a common sense of wit and humour. The first thing I noticed was that That ‘70s Show really could be taking place in any post-WWII decade and in any Midwestern town. It’s remarkable, actually, how similar the popular clothing and hairstyles are to those of the year 2005. If the show had been unleashed during the early ‘90s, reactions most likely would’ve been different (“I can’t believe people dressed like that.” the audience would most likely state before dressing up in fluorescent parachute pants and Hypercolor shirts.). Unlike The Wonder Years, which took place in 1960s rural America, That ‘70s Show usually only dates itself through occasional mentions of pop culture references, music and entertainment. Events surrounding the titular decade are commonly ignored in favour of gags. The Wonder Years (which to be fair, did have a stronger drama quotient) was squarely aimed at nostalgic Baby Boomers, whereas That ‘70s Show seems to have been aimed at a younger and more modern audience. And to be fair, the ‘60s were a more turbulent time in America, as well as being generally more interesting.

The key ingredient to That ‘70s Show's success is its cast. When the show started back in 1998, the majority of the players were young and unknown, but most have experienced some form of breakout success sense. Topher Grace (Traffic, In Good Company) stars as Eric Forman, the main focus of the series and for most early episodes its consonant straight man. Eric is often in the company of his strong willed and fun-loving girlfriend Donna, played by the lovely Laura Prepon (Slackers). The couple is joined in Eric’s family basement by a rogues gallery of archetype friends: the cool troublemaker, Hyde (played by Danny Masterson, who was beaten silly by John Travolta in Face/Off), the goofy, good looking guy, Kelso (the now infamously famous Ashton Kutcher), the ditzy shallow girl, Jackie (Mila Kunis, who also voices Meg Griffin on Family Guy), and the clueless exchange student with the funny accent, Fez (Wilmer Valderra, who unfortunately does not have the funny accent in real life).

The others wouldn't help Kelso find his missing finger.
During these early episodes, the somewhat inexperienced cast can often be seen visibly chocking back laughter, giving a glimpse into how much fun filming process was. Visibly verging on laughing during dramatic sequences is normally perceived as a negative, but here the cast’s general unprofessionalism is actually quite affecting. These flubs help enforce that there averageness, the kind of kids the viewer might find themselves sharing company with in their real lives. This familiarity with the main characters helps humorous group scenes become more infectiously funny. When surrounded by friends in reality, one is more likely to develop a severe case of the giggles.

My personal favourite members of the cast are Eric’s parents, Red and Kitty Forman. Kurtwood ‘Robocop’ Smith is Red, a Korean War vet who wants the best for his family, but just can’t seem to express his love in constructive ways. He often comes across as dangerous to the younger cast members, but is actually just content in disability to understand them. Debra Jo Rupp is Kitty, a sweetheart mothering on the outer cusp of the women’s feminist movement. Often Kitty is the only voice of reason, though her nervous pleas often fall upon deaf ears. Red and Kitty also get some of the best lines in the series, and have the most endearing character traits (shouting “dumb ass” and nervously laughing, respectively).

Star Was: Episode VII: Luke the Schmuck
That ‘70s Show is usually funny, and has some great dialogue, but isn’t as endlessly quotable as some of the better shows in television history. In a way I mean this as a compliment, as I’m comparing it to classic programmes like I Love Lucy, and All in the Family, not simply its modern counterparts. If contrasted with the majority of current TV, I’d have to say that this is one of the finest comedies of the last five years. That’s not saying much though. That ‘70s Show is worthy of your attention, but ultimately forgettable.

For this review I was only given one of the four discs in the season one set. This opinion is based on the six episodes found on the first disc and my vague memory of other episodes I’ve viewed in my spare time. Had I watched all four discs in the series my opinion may have differed, as each episode did build well upon the last one. Given the large price tag that accompanies most TV DVD collections, I’m going to assume that most of the consumers that purchase That ‘70s Show will be series fans, who know what to expect.

"Just remind him that he can't kill you because he's a cop. Works every time"
Video
It appears from this transfer, that That ‘70s Show was actually filmed in the '70s. It looks pretty bad. I’m not sure if the original masters of the series were generally unkempt or what, but frankly the show looks better on digital cable. The image is grainy and shows compression problems throughout. Night scenes are particularly dirty to the point where it almost seems purposeful, as if filmed by Abel Ferrara between Christopher Walken movies. Day scenes and properly lit indoor scenes come across all right, but we’ve all come to expect a lot more from digital technology. It seems that some basic maintenance was needed, though probably not absolutely necessary.

Audio
Allow me preface this by saying I hate laugh tracks and studio audiences. I really, really hate them. I am most thankful that American network sit-coms seem to finally understand that their audiences actually know when it’s appropriate to laugh. I hadn’t experienced a laugh track in true surround sound before, and I did not find it a pleasurable experience. That ‘70s Show is presented in Dolby 2.0 Surround, and through the lack of need for these extra channels, sound engineers have decided to allocate most of the laughing to the rear channels. I’m sure other DVD fans reading this have already experienced the unnerving effect of being assaulted by maniacal laughing people from behind, but this is all new to me. I suppose my discomfort is in compliments to a rather effective mix. Beyond the horrors of canned laughter, character dialogue is clear, and music is effective. I recommend turning off your rear speakers while viewing this otherwise fine audio track.

Kelso has girl arms
Extras
I’ve discovered in my relatively brief time reviewing for DVD Answers that screener DVDs are occasionally faulty. Though I’m happy to report that the main features (i.e.: the series itself) played without incident, I must report that the extra features froze my player, to the point where I had to actually unplug it to reset it. This was unfortunate. The only feature that worked was the decent cast profiles. I’m sure that this problem will be fixed for the public release, and I’m sure that the promo spots and featurettes are fine entertainment.

Overall
A decent American sit-com gets a decent UK release. I’m pretty sure my personal opinion hasn’t swayed the opinions of series fans nor critics. Those wondering what the series is really all about, I’d recommend catching a few episodes on the tube before shelling out the cash for it. I think I’d attach that advice to any TV series on DVD; they’re usually not worth owning on a whim. Fans of the series will no doubt be thrilled with its DVD release, and will probably find they are able to over-look the video problems.


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