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That Disco Episode ***1/2
Original Air Date: November 8th, 1998
When a new disco opens in Kenosha, Jackie drags the gang there for a fun-filled Saturday night of fancy dancing and dating faux pas. Knowing they needed to elaborate on the interpersonal relationships that had been introduced into the show, the writers maneuvered the group into a social setting which allowed them free reign to strengthen and separate their interconnected personalities. Both Kelso and Eric feel the first pangs of jealousy in their respective relationships with Jackie and Donna even as Hyde and Fez become formidable characters who break out of the background mold they've been cast in over the last few installments.
While it's not as consistently entertaining as the previous six shows, this episode gets a merit badge for trying hard. From the whacked-out stoner's circle to the father/son aftermath as Eric tries to run down Red's list of chores, the effort is certainly present. Even the interstitials try harder, with Fez sucking helium from a balloon in order to try his hand at chipmunk-sounding salsa singing. Some of the funniest scenes come from Kitty Forman trying to teach Hyde how to dance; including a first person perspective camera angle made all the more humorous by actress Debra Jo Rupp's exquisite ability to provide picture perfect comic facial expressions. Overall however, "That Disco Episode" proves that not every portion of the series can be a classic piece of jocular genius. Still, this sitcom's "average" is markedly better than most of their competition's best.
That '70s Show: The Keg (1998)
The Keg ****1/2
Original Air Date: October 25th, 1998
What do you do when you find a keg of beer in the middle of the street? You sacrifice a virgin to the gods! No, wait...that can't be right. Actually, the correct answer is: take it to a vacant house and have a party in the empty backyard pool! Based on this simple premise, another chapter in the scrawny little neighbor boy/saucy redhead next door saga unfolds beautifully. Between passing notes and cutting class, the monotony of everyday routine is broken up by this exciting discovery; what can only be described as the equivalent to the holy grail of tantalizing teenage fantasy.
As evidenced by this show, beer can make people do some strange things. It can turn Kelso into a mathematical genius or transform Eric into a hose-swinging macho man, though one of the real highlights of this episode actually takes place back at the Forman residence. When Red and Bob get wind of the situation and go out looking for the party, Kitty and Midge get drunk off daiquiris while watching "Rich Man, Poor Man" and share a few too many details about their personal lives with each other. This is the kind of one-on-one interaction that makes "That '70s Show" such a memorable fascination. Not only can the writers of the show pull off purely kinetic comic mishaps on grand scales, they can also pay attention to littler details that ensure not a moment of this twenty-two minute installment is wasted. Overall, "The Keg" is just one more magnificent monument in this sitcom's lasting legacy.
That '70s Show: Eric's Burger Job (1998)
Eric's Burger Job ****1/2
Original Air Date: September 27th, 1998
When her parents go away for the weekend there's a party at Donna's house, but the only person she really wants to attend is stuck working late at his new job. This fifth episode of "That '70s Show" derives much of its humor from the familiarity principle: everyone's been in similar situations to what Eric Forman is going through. Let's face it, who hasn't begun their working life with a menial job such as being employed by a fast food restaurant (or a retail outlet, or a grocery store, or a video store, etc.)? It really hits home for a lot of us and that's what makes this piece so funny.
Fatso Burger in itself is another testament to that sense of familiarity with its scarily generic set design and recognizably mundane color schematic. There's even a cookie cutter employer molded out of guest star Danny Bonaduce (who found fame in the actual seventies by appearing on another popular sitcom, "The Partridge Family"). Throw in a goofy, mock informational training video, replete with grainy black-and-white, and the scenario is concluded.
Things are also coming together nicely cast-wise for this installment. Danny Masterson has started to imbue more sincere (and sincerely endearing) sarcasm into his role of Hyde while Topher Grace (as Eric) has finally found the balance between indecisive square and altruistic centerpiece. Even Ashton Kutcher has expanded his dim bulb routine for Kelso; paying particular attention to the crafting of the job interview sequence using understated gestures and vocal patterns for maximum effect. There's still room for Kurtwood Smith to steal the one liner's spotlight as well with his slaughterhouse joke near the beginning of the program (though the introduction of Wilmer Valderrama's trademark catchphrase "it gives me needs" deserves an honorable mention, too). Last but not least, this is the episode that features Donna's famous disappearing sister Tina (played by pretty jailbait Amanda Fuller), who would never be seen again in the series' run. Overall, "Eric's Burger Job" hits almost as many high notes as one chapter of a sitcom can, making it a wonderful addition to the incredible first season.
Battle of the Sexists ****
Original Air Date: September 20th, 1998
With Red Forman low on work hours due to cutbacks, he drives his wife crazy with his incessant household fix-it spree. Meanwhile his son Eric is being driven crazy by the fact that the girl he loves has beaten him in one-on-one basketball. For the first time in the show's short history, there are no extravagant extra details (concerts, birthday parties, political rallies) going on in the lives of our favorite television family. In truth, that makes it hard to remember this is indeed a simple sitcom and not an every day slice of American life seen through comical goggles.
Every member of the cast plays at least a semi-integral role in the development of major situations, giving them all opportunities to shine instead of having one or two standouts among the crowd like the initial episodes. More depth is given to Jackie Burkhart (Mila Kunis) and Steven Hyde (Danny Masterson) during the episode's subplot which focuses on the annoying-but-comfortable relationship between Jackie and Kelso. More validity is given to the budding relationship between Eric and Donna. There's even more room for Wilmer Valderrama to expand on the mannerisms of his foreign exchange student personification, Fez. It's nice to see such intricate detail being woven into the fabric of these characters' interactions with one another and it was easy to see that the show would keep solidifying itself from here. Overall, "Battle of the Sexists" might not be one of the most memorable installments from the first season, but you could do a whole lot worse with other television tidbits from the same era.
That '70s Show: Streaking (1998)
Original Air Date: September 6th, 1998
President Gerald R. Ford is coming to small town Wisconsin and Forman clan patriarch Red (Kurtwood Smith) is given the opportunity to ask him one question. The only question facing Red however, is will he ask the pre-approved inquiry or invoke his freedom of speech and ask his own, harder hitting query. For the third show in a series' run, this is a surprisingly dead on sitcom portrait of America. The writers, cast, even (soon to be) long time director David Trainer are all comfortable in their positions and expertly blend together the matchless melting pot of Midwestern values and hyperactive humor.
This show presents a novel way of dealing with the economic recession of the seventies while touching upon the popular counter cultural subject of streaking through populated events (for evidence of this activity's reputation look no further than Ray Steven's 1974 song "The Streak"). Nothing is taboo for this show, be it the sexual inclinations of Donna Pinciotti's parents hinted at before her very ears or religious symbolism depicted in the school cafeteria during a moment of rebellious decision regarding the title pursuit.
It's not just the standout scripting of the episode or the marvelous way it's presented, it's also the undeniably superb casting choices the producers made. There's the show-stealing performance from Kurtwood which begins to truly define his curmudgeonly lovable character. There's also the wonderful highlighting of differences and similarities between working class grump Kurtwood and fun-loving, American flag jumpsuit wearing next door neighbor Don Stark (who plays air-headed Bob Pinciotti a little too perfectly). Each teenager spotlighted on the show has already been well-rounded in their creation and it's also incredible to have two generations of sex symbols living under the same roof on screen: the heartbreakingly hot Laura Prepon (Donna) and the ageless Aphrodite Tanya Roberts (as Donna's mom Midge Pinciotti). I do believe the series marginally missed out by not developing the high school principal (Mark Bramhall) into a recurring supporting role, though that's a very minor nitpick compared to the successes achieved. Overall, "Streaking" hits another horsehide out of the park on the entertainment ball field that is television.
That '70s Show: Eric's Birthday (1998)
Eric's Birthday *****
Original Air Date: August 30th, 1998
It's only the second show for this long-running television blockbuster and we already have our first near perfect episode. All Eric Forman (Topher Grace) wants for his seventeenth birthday is a cassette tape player for his Vista Cruiser. All he doesn't want is an eight-track tape deck and a surprise party to go along with it. As life so often proves, however, you can't always get what you want...although you might get everything else!
In a sea swelling with unbridled overtones of sexual angst and parental neuroses (not to mention sibling favoritism), this episode stands out as a testament to familial heart and unbreakable friendships. While it was evident that almost every member of the cast had the potential for bigger and better things, one particular standout in this installment is Debra Jo Rupp. As Eric's mother Kitty Forman, she utilizes elastic facial expressions and slightly paranoiac vocal inflections to her best advantage, creating a fascinating maternal figurehead that ranks her alongside other classic mother alumni such as Florence Henderson (Carol Brady from the appropriately titled "The Brady Bunch") and Barbara Billingsley (June Cleaver of "Leave it to Beaver" fame). First runner-up to Rupp's humorous portrayal is the always luscious Laura Prepon as Eric's intended girlfriend Donna Pinciotti. One can't help but chuckle while watching her "seductive eyes" sequence on the porch.
This would also be the episode that introduced Eric's sister Laurie (played by vivacious blonde bombshell Lisa Robin Kelly) who provides the object of a little creative editing (both stylistically and via Michael Kelso's thought process) as Kelso (Ashton Kutcher) tries to convince the guys that Laurie was coming on to him in Forman's basement...when everyone else who witnessed the event clearly saw that wasn't the case. Overall, "Eric's Birthday" represents everything that was right about "That '70s Show" and should be viewed by anyone who wants to learn how to craft exemplary short form comedic entertainment.
That '70s Show: That '70s Pilot (1998)
That '70s Pilot ****
Original Air Date: August 23rd, 1998
Five local Point Place, Wisconsin teenagers and their foreign exchange student tagalong head out to a Todd Rundgren concert in Milwaukee after their circumstantial leader is given an old Vista Cruiser by his parents. With that simple premise, a modern day television classic was born and laughter could be heard around the world and across the decades. This little show had a mountainous power: a power to capture the spirit of the seventies on top of nineties sensibilities. With its well-defined characters, sharp-tongued dialogue and minimalist approach to situation comedy, "That '70s Show" became an era unto its own (lasting just two years shy of a decade). A lot of the future hallmarks of the show are present right from the start: the awkward, interpersonal relationships of its teen focal point, the first person camera views, the floating wall used to signify the stoned genus. In this day and age, it has become harder and harder to find true, lasting greatness gracing our television screens. "That '70s Show" will forever be the benchmark that reminds us moments of greatness are still within the boob tube's grasp, however few and far between they may seem.
On a final note, from a musical standpoint, am I the only one who prefers the Todd Griffin rendition of the theme song used throughout the first season to the version used by Cheap Trick from the second season onward? Neither one touches Big Star's original "In the Street" obviously, but Griffin's take felt more enthusiastic than Trick's, which ultimately felt as toned down as most of their post-'82 output. It's also a shame a lot of the ancillary music was cut from the DVD releases of the series, considering its use helped transport the viewer back to the decadent time depicted therein.