Sunday, February 13, 2011

So Long, Seventies

This evening, I watched the final episodes of That 70s Show, after beginning the series almost two months ago. (I only watch episodes of old series while I'm exercising, generally watching one episode in the morning and another in the afternoon, so it takes about a week per season for half-hour sitcoms.)

From the very beginning, I found the shows little elements of 1970s life to be appealing. I continually found little set elements that reflected our own life at the time, from the macrame plant hangers and spider plants to the addition of cable tv to the first VCR. The addition of so many spot-on decade-appropriate references made the series particularly engaging for me.

The kids themselves--well, they could have been students of mine. I started teaching high school in 1975, so I taught a senior class that graduated the same year as the Point Place kids. I have fond memories of my students of those years--Steve Callaway and Debbie Marsh and Bill Schroeder and Scott Prince and Leanna Leithauser and Edith Anderson and Jodi Crim and so many others who shared one character trait or another with Hyde, Eric, Donna, Fez, Jackie, and Kelso.  So I found myself both empathizing with the characters as their experiences reflected my own, and viewing their experiences through the eyes of one who saw real-world high school students come of age at the same time.

The show's humor works so well for me because it blends timely cultural references, ensemble-cast interaction, cleverly written dialogue, endearing characters, and just enough physical slapstick to season the series without overwhelming it.  None of the other elements would have mattered were it not for the endearing characters, however; for a show to succeed (in my eyes, at least), I have to like the focal characters.  I not only liked Eric and Donna in particular, I actually cared about them and what happened to them. That's a relative rarity for television. I like the cast of Seinfeld and How I Met Your Mother and The Middle and Rules of Engagement and 30 Rock, but I don't care about them; I don't find myself wondering at the end of an episode what might happen to them next, or how their lives might be made better or worse by what happened to them in that episode. By the end of Seinfeld or Malcolm in the Middle, I was ready for them to move on.  At the end of That 70s Show, I actually hoped that the lives of these fictional characters would continue in the way that I felt that it should.

Friends was the last sitcom whose characters made me care about them. And like Friends, I found myself thinking that I'd like to know if life continued to treat these characters well... if they found happiness, if their lives became what they hoped they would be, if they remained friends for years more. That, to me, is the sign of a well-crafted work of fiction; the characters, born from the imaginations of the writers, become real enough that the audience truly wants to think that their lives continued beyond the end of the fictional work.

If there were any one element of That 70s Show that I didn't like, it was the strong emphasis on marijuana use. I went through the 70s (and in fact, through my entire life) without using marijuana or other illegal drugs, and I sort of resented the implication that drug use was such an inherent part of the decade that every person who came of age during that decade just naturally used the drugs, regardless of gender or background or social or religious standing. However, I like the characters enough that I can empathize with them in spite of the drug use--and when you consider my personal anti-drug militancy, that's quite an accomplishment on the part of the writers.

The last season--most of which struggled along without Topher Grace (who left at the end of season 7) and Ashton Kutcher (who left a few episdoes into season 8)--was weak, to be sure. The plots weren't awful, by any means, but the interpersonal chemistry was missing. Donna, Hyde, Jackie, and Fez remained interesting, but not interesting enough; the disgruntled alienation of Hyde needed the reckless exuberance of Kelso to balance it, and the serious strength of Donna relied on the mercurial, ineffectual whimsy of Eric to give it direction. The addition of new characters like Randy and Sam was detrimental, because it forced the ensemble cast to act out of character in order to make room for the newcomers.

The series ended on a high note with the return of both Kelso and Eric to Point Place on New Years Eve, 1979. That 70s Show and those 70s came to an end at the same time, and with just enough optimism for the future that I can believe that Eric and Donna finally found happiness with one another. If you think otherwise, don't tell me--I see the entire show as building to the point where they not only accept the intertwined nature of their lives (they did that early on, in spite of several stumbles), but that they embrace it and walk into their futures together as a couple. Life gives us far too many missed opportunities; for me, this show, from the very beginning, was the story of a love's fits and starts as it searched for its true course.

Sure, it's a lot of burden to put on a sitcom.  The fact that it stayed the course and delivered an ending that these characters deserved proves that the series and its writers were up to the challenge.

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