Last early Saturday morning (June 9, to be specific. I consider 2:30 to be the morning), I had a dream fueled by watching the series finale of That ‘70s Show with my sister off our living room Tivo the evening before. I’d seen it many times before, but Meridith hadn’t, and I didn’t mind watching it again. The final season has always and will always engender controversy because there was a marked change in the characters, and not for the better, engaging in actions that were far from what viewers knew and loved. The departures of Topher Grace and Ashton Kutcher didn’t help matters and the series drifted afterward because the dynamic of that tight-knit group of friends was irreparably severed. There were still some funny moments, but they didn’t feel like the same show. I liked some of the episodes in that final season, and I was touched by the moment in which Donna (Laura Prepon) remembers her romantic times with Eric (Grace), before he appears toward the end of the final episode for her to have closure, even though he doesn’t want closure, but reluctantly understands that things have changed.
In this dream, I was with Mila Kunis (Jackie), Danny Masterson (Hyde), and Laura Prepon, and they were having a discussion either in front of an audience or just a group of passionate fans, who were not pleased with how the series had ended, but were respectful toward the three. They talked about how even though everything seemed amicable at the end, actors pleased with how the show ended, it wasn’t the truth. Masterson talked about how the writers had just done whatever the hell they felt like, ignoring the history that had come before, and the three agreed that while earning the money was nice and necessary, they stayed because they wanted to have the show end with some measure of dignity, if not full dignity.
Then Prepon asked whoever wanted Eric and Donna together forever to raise their hands, and the entire audience raised their hands. Masterson asked who wanted Hyde and Jackie to be together instead of Jackie and Fez (Wilmer Valderrama), and the majority raised their hand. I agreed with Masterson because Fez was a foreign exchange student, who was learning about the culture and customs of our country, and should have been allowed to forge his own way, to find his own love not connected to the group, the Circle, as it was. Having him end up with Jackie felt too easy. First Michael Kelso (Kutcher) and then Hyde and then Fez? Sure it’s exploration for Jackie, to figure out who she is and who she wants, and maybe even grow from the bitchy, spoiled life she had, but I didn’t feel that way in that dream. In that final season, the writers had wronged the show in so many ways. There was no longer any sense of adventure in the parodies that used to line the show, in the ‘70s stars who gracefully and agreeably guest-starred, in jokes that didn’t feel like they followed a certain form, written just for the punchline instead of also seeing that the characters grow. That was apparent in many episodes of the final season.
Kunis didn’t say much during this discussion, but she did nod her head in agreement many times, at least toward the final season, since this series is where she got her start, so obviously she’d have a great appreciation for it, to the extent of not only two episode introductions on this third-season DVD set (The Halloween episode “Too Old to Trick or Treat, Too Young to Die” and “Backstage Pass”), but also appearing in the Fox 25th Anniversary special which aired earlier this year.
The third season is one of That ‘70s Show’s strongest, where it is observed that this is a sitcom, but characters need to develop further, and they do, with Eric and Donna now in a relationship, navigating the complexities of it, and Jackie still with Kelso, but thinking that maybe Hyde’s the one she wants to be with, and of course Red (Kurtwood Smith) being Red, and following the dynamics of his marriage with Kitty (Debra Jo Rupp). In an overview of season 3 on the third disc, Rupp exclaims that she loves that “Red is secretly afraid of Kitty.” He’ll do anything for her. The garage remains his sanctuary for those times when he needs to recover. But it’s not that bad. It’s truly one of the most interesting relationships the series has, whereas the Pinciotti marriage (Don Stark and Tanya Roberts) is interesting only in parts, especially when the Bargain Bob store goes out of business and Bob (Stark) goes bankrupt. It’s mainly there to show how Donna develops in her life, gaining strength from her ditzy, feminist mother (Roberts), and becoming her own woman, strong, independent, to where it rankles Eric because he thought they’d go to college together, get married, and she’d stay home with the kids. She doesn’t want that. She wants a life that fulfills her entirely and can’t stand that Eric doesn’t get that, leading to tension that stretches all the way to the season finale, “The Promise Ring,” and that quietly devastating final scene.
Besides being the last great sitcom of the ‘90s, That ‘70s Show is impressively skilled in juggling different storylines. Some episodes have the requisite “A” and “B” stories, and then there are others that have a “C” story, and ample attention is given to all of them. Nothing is short-shrifted. And the famous staple of That ‘70s Show, the marijuana-infused Circle (360s, as they’re called), is as equally well-done here as they are in every other season, my favorite being the one in “Dine and Dash,” after Kelso, Hyde, Jackie, and Fez have ditched Eric and Donna at the restaurant. Kelso’s reaction is priceless, and the timing is so sharp.
Speaking of Kelso, Ashton Kutcher was great once, and it was here, as the dumb Kelso. His run on Two and a Half Men shows that there’s not much for him to do, but in That ‘70s Show, he throws himself so joyfully into the role, becoming one of the great sitcom characters, even though he’s not my favorite. That honor goes to Donna, with the admirable strength she has to stand up for herself and what she wants, the strength also coming physically since she’s very strong there, which is joked about occasionally.
Most importantly, all these episodes make you pull for the main characters (including the laid-back Hyde when he’s dealing with encountering his deadbeat father), and make you more curious about others, including Tommy Chong’s perpetually-stoned Leo. I have this habit of feeling embarrassed for characters I watch on TV or in movies that, if I’m watching a DVD, I fast-forward a bit through those parts, as if to save them from the trouble ahead. That’s a sign that I really like a movie or TV show, and that happened at the beginning of the episode “Eric’s Drunken Tattoo,” when Donna goes downstairs to get sodas and make popcorn, and Eric spots her diary and reads it. I fast-forwarded through that, embarrassed for him, especially when he acts very guilty when she comes back upstairs and doesn’t know yet what’s going on. What he did is pretty despicable anyway, but it’s my way of pulling for these characters, hoping for the best for them, even when the worst is coming.
The best special feature in this DVD set is also the worst. The episodes “Too Old to Trick or Treat, Too Young to Die,” “Eric’s Panties,” and “Dine and Dash” have audio commentaries by director David Trainer and producer Patrick Kienlen, Kienlen being the greatest asset to fans of the series. Their voices are mostly indistinguishable, but from Kienlen, you get the most information about the actual making of the season, what they did to prepare for the Halloween episode in watching many Alfred Hitchcock movies to learn how Hitchcock did all that (my question, which remains unanswered, is how they managed to do that research when this was just one show amidst many episodes and there was likely so much to do every week), how the main title sequences were shot, how the fantasy panties sequence was shot, on what show the Pinciotti kitchen set was previously used, when the 360s are shot, and the intricacies of the Forman garage set.
Without Kienlen, the remaining audio commentaries are utter disasters, as with “Radio Daze,” “Eric’s Drunken Tattoo,” and “The Promise Ring.” Trainer has absolutely nothing to say about the making of each episode, or even how he directs. It’s known that justifiably famous and preeminent sitcom director James Burrows doesn’t not direct by staring at a quad (usually a flatscreen TV with split views of what all four cameras are seeing). He calls “Action!”, and then walks the floor with his head down, arms folded, listening to the dialogue, occasionally kicking a camera a few degrees off where it was for the camera angle he wants. Burrows knows instinctually what he wants, and will call “Cut!” in the middle of a scene if he’s not satisfied with the rhythm of the dialogue, not wanting the audience to hear the joke just then because he wants their reaction to be fresh, and he wants it done right. This is not ego. Nearly all the sitcom pilots that Burrows has directed have gone to series, and he also directed nearly every episode of Cheers, as well as every episode of Will & Grace. His career has made him so rich that he doesn’t have to direct anymore. He could retire if he wanted. But he doesn’t, and so the pilots that he chooses to direct are the ones that genuinely interest him. He has that option.
This is what I hoped for from Trainer, to learn what he looks for in a scene, the adjustments that he makes during rehearsals and production. What does he want from his actors? Obviously he wants the funniest moments that he can get, but what’s the process involved in that? I don’t think that kind of insight would make the jokes less funny because it takes a lot of skill to do what this series has accomplished. During the commentary for “Radio Daze,” Trainer says that The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Roseanne, Gilligan’s Island, and WKRP in Cincinnati were shot on the same soundstage as That ‘70s Show, and that “you feel very close to that past.” Instead of contributing to that past by giving more insight on what it took each week to make this show, Trainer just recounts what happens in the episode as it happens! We’re seeing exactly what he’s talking about, so why is he wasting such a potentially valuable audio commentary? When he’s with Kienlen, you get such terrific audio commentaries that make you wonder who actually directed the show when it’s just Trainer talking alone on those audio commentaries. The audience for these audio commentaries is obviously the fans, including me. They’ve seen these episodes, most likely more than once. They know what happens. So give us what we don’t see.
That task falls to other episodes introductions, most notably by Debra Jo Rupp for the episodes “Red Sees Red,” “Eric’s Panties,” “Kitty’s Birthday (Is That Today?!),” and Don Stark for the episodes “The Trials of M. Kelso,” and “Fez Dates Donna,” Stark for the entertainment value and Rupp for more insight. The rest, including Kunis, Wilmer Valderrama (on “Roller Disco,” “Fez Gets the Girl,” and “Canadian Road Trip”), Danny Masterson (on “Reefer Madness,” “Hyde’s Father,” and “Hyde’s Christmas Rager”), and Kurtwood Smith (on “Jackie Bags Hyde,” “Who Wants It More?” and “Romantic Weekend”) add their own distinctions, including Kunis being charming, and Smith not being able to talk smoothly on camera, although he does have a great story about the robe in “Romantic Weekend,” that stretches into “The Season 3 Overview.”
“The Season 3 Overview” featurette covers the different story arcs of the season much better and quicker than Trainer does in his audio commentaries, as well as funny moments, and that the show at that point was picked up for two years, so they had security and were much more comfortable with each other. Rupp and Smith are wonderful together, with Smith recounting the robe story and Rupp hilariously mouthing her comments about it. You can see that the Formans’ marriage is not only strong because it’s required. Rupp and Smith are very close to each other. It’s said in this featurette that the show is a combination of acting as required and the personal relationships that developed during the making of the series. It shows. And that’s why it sucked for Josh Meyers, who tried to fill in the gap that Topher Grace left when he joined the cast as Randy in the final season, and never fit in.
With the exception of Trainer’s awful solo audio commentaries, which are shameful because I can’t think of many other sitcom DVDs that offer audio commentaries, this third season of That ‘70s Show is great to have on DVD so as not to have to watch it on local channels or TV Land all the time. Here it is in its full glory, just as funny as when it originally aired. It remains funny because all involved strived to make it funny and succeeded wonderfully. That’s a rare quality on television today.