Thursday, May 25, 2006

So long, farewell: That 70s Show


The first thing I felt when I found out That 70s Show was ending was old.

There are so very few shows on now that I can remember debuting when I was still living at home, still feeding off the proverbial parental teat. But That 70s Show debuted my senior year of high school. Somehow, while it was still on, I could still feel young, still feel like being a teenager wasn't that far off.

God help me when The Simpsons, which started when I was in the THIRD GRADE, ends. I'm going to feel really old then.

I didn't really watch That 70s Show beyond its first season, when it was comfortably sandwiched between The Simpsons and The X-Files (two musts for me. . .so much so that I forced my family to get the Fox affiliate in Denver beamed to our satellite dish, though I told them it was ostensibly for the NFL). I wasn't usually one for the old "put one show on between two other popular ones" programming strategy (I successfully avoided The Single Guy for most of its run), but That 70s Show got me.

If nothing else, That 70s Show offered a realistic portrayal of teenage life in the rural/suburban Midwest. There wasn't a lot to do, so getting wasted or getting high became something people did just to do something, not necessarily to rebel. Plus, the kids (as you can see above) actually looked like teenagers, not adults trying to squeeze into the latest fashions (though as the run of the show went on, the kids grew up more and more grotesquely -- to watch the credits sequence on the series finale, which featured all of the kids singing along to a song in an outtake from the first season was to see time flash before one's eyes).

In its first season, That 70s Show was relatively critically acclaimed. It even made Entertainment Weekly's ten best shows list. To be sure, Will & Grace and Sports Night were the BIG critical hits of that fall season, but That 70s Show was met with generally favorable reviews. The characters were warm and well-drawn, and the joke construction was solid, if never spectacular. There were worse ways to spend a half hour of your Sunday night. Topher Grace, for one, was always a little underrated on the show. He carried it with an easy elan. And the show never quite got the credit it deserved for some of its stylistic innovations (like the scenes where the camera swirled around from one character to the next), which led to bigger innovations on other shows.

The show fell apart relatively quickly as the soap opera elements of its plotting became more and more important to its dynamics. As characters hooked up and broke up, it got a little boring rather quickly. Teenage relationships are pretty stupid and inconsequential, but this show could never get the right balance of those two elements down. I tuned out sometime early in season two and never really looked back. Besides. The X-Files was losing my interest as well. It was time for new pastures.

That's what's funny about television. It's the only art form we have that would seem to evolve right along with us, but it, by its nature, cannot. When I watched the finale of That 70s Show, I didn't see any of the characters I related to as a senior in high school. I saw a bunch of adults playing at being those characters but not quite pulling it off. But I was different. That 70s Show wasn't.

Watching a show you once loved (or even liked) but let slip away is like seeing an old girlfriend in the supermarket. There's an element of sadness to it, but you also wonder just who you were to ever connect with this person. But things slip away, things change, and we can't always all change together.

Something about the finale of That 70s Show inspired a certain philosophical musing in me. I don't know why. I guess it was the reflection on who I was when the show started. The show doesn't really MERIT it, but its so tied up to one particular time and place that it can't help but benefit from it.

Anyway, since you slogged this far, I thought I would share a fun story with you. In college, there was a girl who was always getting cast in various parts for our college theatre productions. Grumblings from the others in the program often said she wasn't worthy of the parts she got. I don't know if they were right or not, but, for some reason, this girl was an extra in the series finale of That 70s Show. My first thought was that she was a drag queen (no! really!) because they shot her from an unflattering angle. My second thought was that she looked a LOT taller on camera than she ever did in person. My third thought was that not even Meryl Streep could take the generic beat of looking around a sitcom set as though you are impressed with it and want to move in posthaste and make it look anything other than stupid.

I had never seen someone I personally knew on camera. The whole experience, frankly, was a little jarring. Still, for her sake, I hope I have to repeat it.

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