The ’70s were never really like the kooky, stereotype-rich satire of the decade that passes for pointed entertainment in “That ’70s Show,” and thank God for that. Yes, it was touch-and-go for many of us merely to survive the Farrah posters, the smiley-face buttons and the Hues Corporation. But what the “3rd Rock From the Sun” team of Bonnie and Terry Turner (in concert with Carsey-Werner) delivers here is a broad farce that bears little resemblance to history — or even to anything remotely human.
If everyone took leave of their senses during that 10-year period to the degree indicated here, it’s flat-out miraculous mankind lived to see 1980. This sitcom shows the ’70s as a black-hole of disco and leisure suits that sucked everyone’s brain cells up like a vacuum cleaner.
This isn’t to say that the sitcom hoping to replace “King of the Hill” in the post-“Simpsons” slot on Sundays is without its genuine yuks. There simply aren’t enough of them to elevate the enterprise above the status of live-action cartoon. “That ’70s Show” is “The Brady Bunch” with a hangover, clearly a tad fuzzy on what took place the night (or 25 years) before. It blends fleeting moments of inspiration with lengthy stretches of utter banality.
This proves particularly true in the pilot (penned by the Turners, who are also listed among the show’s whopping six exec producers, to go along with three co-exec producers). The basic storyline seems to ape “Happy Days” some 20 years later, centered by a group of teenagers committed to getting themselves safely through the era that gave the world such cultural touchstones as “Play That Funky Music.”
In the frenetic opener, there is so much mugging and goofiness going down that it’s difficult even to sort anything out. Here’s what we know: it’s May 1976 in Point Place, Wis.; “Love Will Keep Us Together” is playing on the jukebox; and a 17-year-old kid named Eric Foreman (Topher Grace) is desperate to bust out from the cloying clutches of his dopey parents, Red (Kurtwood Smith) and Kitty (Debra Jo Rupp).
Hanging with Eric is Donna (Laura Prepon), his teasing knockout of a neighbor, and his hunky pal Kelso (Ashton Kutcher), Kelso’s princess girlfriend Jackie (Mila Kunis), the paranoid Hyde (Danny Masterson) and Fez (Wilmer Valderrama), a foreign-exchange student whose comic task is to garble the language in a pre-political correctness sorta way.
Opening seg appears to be mostly about odd bonding and the breezy, segment-bridging production devices that have become the Turners’ signature — making posters talk and smile buttons bounce and chatter. The single truly clever moment happens when Eric, high on reefer, is forced to hold a conversation with his parents. From his perspective, we see the wall behind them sway hallucinogenically.
Overall, things improve in a subsequent episode. The funniest elements find Kelso processing a conversation with Laura in an amusingly distorted way, and the gang imagining aloud the neurotic worries of Eric’s parents at having them celebrate Eric’s birthday at the house without the folks around.
It’s kinda cute, but not enough to make “That ’70s Show” much more than a curious homage to a time that really wasn’t all that interesting. Mostly, it provides an excuse for everyone to revel in the campy retro-unhipness of it all. The danger in that, of course, is that uncool isn’t made automatically cool simply because you poke fun at it, no matter how many times you play “Hooked on a Feeling.”