Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger has learned never to buy part ownership of a pinball machine when Space Invaders is on the horizon.
Our reviews of That '70s Show: Season One (published October 19th, 2011), That '70s Show: Season Five (published November 22nd, 2006), That '70s Show: Season Eight (published May 21st, 2008), That '70s Show: Season One (published December 22nd, 2004), and That '70s Show: Season Two (published May 25th, 2005) are also available.
Be Groovy. Be Very Groovy.
Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. But when a television show stays hot through the third season, then into the fourth and beyond, you simply cannot label it a fluke. Season Four of That '70s Show cements the program as a mainstay of comedic television. It contains the infamous 100th "musical" episode and shakes the character tree a little. But the central vibe that makes the show tick is gloriously intact.
At first glance, That '70s Show shouldn't work as well as it does. It feels cheap, trite, and routine, presenting itself as a warmed-over parody of Seventies culture with obtuse characterizations and canned jokes. It doesn't take long for that veneer to wear off and reveal the truth: That '70s Show is about characters, growing up, and having fun. The decade is simply a cool framework. Stilted delivery is part of the charm, belied by true cast chemistry and a self-deprecating sense of humor. More often than not, the actors cannot contain their actual amusement. This is technically "bad" acting, but the decision to leave in these cracks in the facade gives the show energy. It is easy to shoot another take when someone cracks a smile, but difficult to cultivate the kind of chemistry that makes actors want to smile.
Season Four is consistently funny. It starts with a parody of It's a Wonderful Life, with Eric wryly dismissing an angel sent to show him the error of his ways. The early part of the season focuses on Eric and Donna's breakup, showing (but not dwelling on) their unhappiness. It is amusing to see them woo the gang to one side or the other, and watch Eric's fumbling attempts to hook up in the post-Donna era. The ultimate episode in that genre has Eric's hot cousin come over for a stay, which prompts Kelso to wonder if there's such a thing as "doin' it cousins." If Brittany Daniel's limber flirtations don't raise your temperature a little, you're cooler than I.
The parody bug isn't squelched with one take. No, Season Four gives us a host of parody episodes, including a Very Peanuts Christmas Special, a very strange nod to The Wizard of Oz, and of course "That '70s Musical." It is difficult to convey the sheer spectacle, good and bad, that is the 100th episode. For one thing, the cinematography gets a huge boost. With detailed transitions, complicated tracking shots, enormous quantities of lights and glitter, and a cast of dancers, "That '70s Musical" stands out. It also stands out because most of the cast cannot sing (on key, anyway). By the time the episode wraps, you will probably wonder what the hell you just saw.
There are other standout episodes, such as "Class Picture" and "Love Wisconsin Style," but most of the remaining episodes are simple riffs on the chemistry that has built up among the characters. Kelso gets two memorable moments. One is when he acts like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever during Red's training video for Price Mart. His goofy impersonation is funny on many levels, but it is outmatched when Kelso gets a job as a sperm donor. When Jackie finds out where he's getting his money, something hits the fan.
Speaking of Jackie, she and Donna continue their friendship/rivalry. A classic moment is when the two get into a slapping fight after being sunburned, but the entire season has an undercurrent of bitchy tension. Hyde slacks his way through the season with his usual aplomb, skating by and scamming chicks whenever he can. Danny Masterson nails this '70s character so thoroughly that I find it the most authentic of the bunch. Most people seem to find Fez the funniest of the lot. He gets plenty of moments in the spotlight this season; in fact, Fez threatens to take precedence in some cases. Wilmer Valderrama does a great job of acting uncool, even if he gets into a nerdy rut at times. Finally, Topher Grace continues his pursuit of laconic, sarcastic excellence. He gets burned and dishes out burns so often that the verbal sparks are dizzying. His best moments are quiet one-on-ones, such as with Donna after her mom leaves, or with Red after their doomed exchange of "I Love You"s.
Ahh, yes, the parents. Tanya Roberts has unfortunately left the cast (along with Eric's underutilized sister, played by Lisa Robin Kelly). But Bob, Red, and Kitty muddle on through just fine. Debra Jo Rupp's brittle laugh and Kurtwood Smith's scowl are in top form this season, while Don Stark's Bob picks up a new love interest. All told the cast is a wonder, playing off of each other beautifully, even if their individual roles initially seem to be painted too broadly.
The DVD presentation is a mixed bag. On the plus side are groovy packaging, a crisp transfer, and a clear soundtrack. This set looks and sound great, and is tied together with nice cover art and pretty menus. On the minus side? Well, the menus don't work, at least not in a Home Theater PC. I literally had to use the keyboard to tab through the various menu options, because the navigational controls were dead in the water. Also, the extras are rather annoying. David Trainer did a fine job directing the series, but he doesn't do such a good job talking about it. I don't know if the commentaries got progressively worse or if my patience got progressively shorter, but I could barely sit still for the last one. The "Making Company" featurette suffers from the same syndrome. Laura Prepon and Mila Kunis salvage things somewhat with their flashbacks by providing interesting and approachable reflections on their roles. I can see no reason for the "Season Four in 4 Minutes" feature, especially if you watch it after you watched the episodes. As I said, the show is consistently funny, so highlighting these clips is rather arbitrary.
The bottom line is that Season Four felt like sitting down with an old friend. A very funny friend, and one with a lot of pot.
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