Judge Brett Cullum returns to the '70s, and hopes Fox doesn't bogart the good stuff this time, man.
Our reviews of That '70s Show: Season One (published October 19th, 2011), That '70s Show: Season Four (published June 21st, 2006), That '70s Show: Season Five (published November 22nd, 2006), That '70s Show: Season Eight (published May 21st, 2008), and That '70s Show: Season One (published December 22nd, 2004) are also available.
Donna: I love you.
Michael Kelso: If you really do love her, there's only one thing to do, man. You gotta dump her and live free.
Let's hop on some strange Mobius strip and get nostalgic for nostalgia with a look at That '70s Show: Season Two—a season when the show was riding high on more than just inferred pot-smoking.
I've heard a lot of hyper-critical people dismissing this series, saying it relied on a certain air of nostalgia, offering little else. That '70s Show: Season Two is the perfect package that prove them wrong. The show is a bittersweet but very funny look at a group of kids, who really could be living in any decade. Its clone—That '80s Show—quickly found that nostalgia only takes a show so far. The beauty of the more successful That '70s Show is the charming ensemble of likable actors, given lovable characters who have true feelings for each other. The first three seasons seemed the strongest to me, so That '70s Show: Season Two offers a lot of quality episodes all collected into one set.
Facts of the Case
The twenty-six episodes in That '70s Show: Season Two were originally aired between September, 1999 and May, 2000. Major plot arcs for the season included Red losing his job at the plant, Eric and Donna taking their relationship to the next level, Kelso's Jackie/Laurie love triangle exploding, and Jackie's final acceptance into the gang as an insider. That '70s Show was the only survivor of Fox's 1998 season freshman class, but it certainly had some tweaks applied to it for this second season.
Immediately noticeable are some changes to the bumpers that occur between scenes. Gone are the creepy smiley faces, and the strange Dallas Cowboy cheerleader interludes. Instead, the series switched to its now-trademark images of the cast jumping or posing in front of groovy CGI images. The title song (Cheap Trick covering Big Star) is changed a little, and the opening montage has been reshot to feature Eric's sister a little more prominently. The show also seems a little less reliant on its '70s setting, and becomes more character driven.
That '70s Show: Season Two illustrates how the series gave up on being just a flashback favorite by the end of the first season. This second season takes us through 1977, but you'd hardly know that unless you look at the license plate year at the end of every episode (always a dead giveaway of the year the episodes are set in—an idea borrowed from LA Law). They do throw in some occasional tributes to their titular decade. Savvy '70s fans will recognize Lyle Waggoner (Wonder Woman) and singer Paul Anka in "Red's Last Day," Mac Davis (North Dallas Forty) as St. Peter in "Holy Crap!," a nod to Scooby Doo animation in "Afterglow," and Maud Adams (Octopussy) with a posse of former Bond babes as bridesmaids in "The First Time." The cameos and references seem further apart and more infrequent than they were in the first year, when almost every episode featured a reference to some '70s icon or craze.
Some notable cast changes were made to the show during this second season. Lisa Robin Kelly performs her swan song as Laurie (Eric's sister) in That '70s Show: Season Two. She was fired at the end of the season. Tommy Chong shows up for the first time as Leo, the pot-smoking owner of The Photo Hut. Kevin McDonald of Kids in the Hall comes in as Dave, the youth director at church. Marion Ross (Happy Days) makes another appearance as Red's chain-smoking foul-mouthed mother in "Halloween." Donna's younger sisters are completely jettisoned, and are hardly ever mentioned again.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Finally Fox has coughed up some extras for That '70s Show: Season Two. But will it be enough to tempt you to skip syndication? Doubtful. Three commentaries are provided by the series' only director, David Trainer (a veteran of many television shows, including Designing Women). He takes this show quite seriously—I had to keep checking the package to make sure it wasn't James Lipton from Inside the Actors Studio narrating three episodes. Trainer knows his tech stuff, but rarely does he have anything fun or exciting to say. Where's the cast when we need them? Also included are "webisodes" that offer a peak at the filming of several shows, mainly those in the latter part of the season. These sequences were first broadcast via the Internet. In fact, you can hear the cast asking "Is that the webcam?" at several points. Yeah, it's kind of disturbing to see '70s teens asking if they're on the World Wide Web. Even more disturbing is the fact these segments are not all that insightful or well-produced. They do provide some candid footage from the set, but do little to give us any worthwhile looks into the show. A featurette, "Season One—A Look Back," is supposed to feature a lot of clips to catch you up to the season at hand. Unfortunately, many of these clips are actually culled from Season Two. Another featurette has director David Trainer talking about the show, but he repeats information from his commentaries, and is just as dry on-camera as off.
My main problem with presenting That '70s Show on DVD is this: the series is aired so often in syndication, I can watch it anytime I want to—about three times on any given day on my local stations (and Lord knows how many times with cable added). With That '70s Show: Season Two, Fox has upped the ante only slightly in the extras department. It was originally thought that Fox was releasing these sets quickly so that they could have them out by the time the series went off the air, but that race suddenly got a lot shorter. (See the Closing Statement for details…) I say slow down, and take some time to present a product that has more added value. Unfortunately the show hits its apex in the third season; that collection is slated for release in November. I have no hopes that Fox will offer up much to sway me from just taping my favorite episodes as they air in syndication before then.
The transfers are fine, if somewhat unremarkable. Colors pop, and the soundtrack is delivered in a passable surround mix. But there is some grain, and it's still inferior to broadcast quality in many respects. Again, if you offer me a television series on DVD without doing much to increase my experience, I am going to be reluctant to take the plunge. Fox has done miracles with other less popular shows and mediocre movies, so I wonder why they are skimping on one of their successful properties.
Fox, in an odd move, recently announced that That '70s Show would continue at least one more season, but without Topher Grace as Eric or Ashton Kutcher as Kelso. It's like Friends deciding to go ahead with their story without Monica and Rachel, or Charlie's Angels going on without Bosley. What the hell are they thinking? 'Course I've been muttering that phrase to myself about That '70s Show for a couple of years now. I actually loved the show before Donna went blonde, Eric lost his future, and Ashton Kutcher became better known for dating "that '80s chick." Early on it was an updated Happy Days with the experimental '70s replacing the whitewashed '50s. I teasingly referred to it as "Happy Haze," since it seemed like it was hearkening back to a time when it was cool to hang out in your friend's basement, get stoned, talk a lot, and eat Popsicles. It was an era before 876 channels of digital cable, DVDs, and video game systems that could spit out something more mind-blowing than Pong.
But That '70s Show wasn't limited in its scope to nostalgia for a more simple era. It was smartly written, and had one of the best ensembles on television. The show cared about its characters, and understood teenagers better than any other show ever did. Fox really needs to give up the ghost, and just produce "Fez Loves Chachi," instead of carrying on this dying torch with a cast who can no longer play teens in the '70s. They've all gotten too old, and they've run out of decade.
Having said that, That '70s Show: Season Two is a great collection of episodes, in a package that includes more extras than were found on That '70s Show: Season One. If you're a fan, this one's a no-brainer, but the rest of us can probably catch the sitcom in syndication. Kudos to Fox for adding more bang for our buck. But it's a rather wimpy little bang, and not the big bang I had hoped for.
That '70s Show: Season Two is judged a worthy batch of episodes that should please fans, but the special features seem a little lackluster. Fox is still bogarting the good stuff. The next time I take a trip back to the '70s, I would like some better treatment. (At least we were spared the disco sequences this time around; special consideration should be given for that.) I also sentence all the Fox people to having their iPods replaced by 8 Tracks until cast commentaries appear.
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Scales of Justice
• Featurette -- "Season One: A Look Back"
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