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"That '70s Show" Season One DVD Review (Mill Creek Release)

That '70s Show: Season One DVD cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com That '70s Show: Season One (1998-99)
Show & DVD Details

Creators: Bonnie Turner, Terry Turner, Mark Brazill / Executive Producers: Bonnie Turner, Terry Turner, Mark Brazill, Marcy Carsey, Tom Werner, Caryn Mandabach

Writers: Terry Turner, Jeff Filgo, Jackie Behan, Bonnie Turner, Mark Brazill, Joshua Sternin, Mark Hudis, Linda Wallem, Philip Stark, Jeffrey Ventimilia, Arthur F. Montmorency, Eric Gilliland, Dave Schiff, Dave Schiff / Regular Director: David Trainer / Pilot Director: Terry Hughes

Regular Cast: Topher Grace (Eric Forman), Mila Kunis (Jackie Burkhart), Ashton Kutcher (Michael Kelso), Danny Masterson (Steven Hyde), Laura Prepon (Donna Pinciotti), Wilmer Valderrama (Fez), Debra Jo Rupp (Kitty Forman), Kurtwood Smith (Red Forman), Tanya Roberts (Midge Pinciotti), Don Stark (Bob Pinciotti)

Recurring Characters: Lisa Robin Kelly (Laurie Forman), Marion Ross (Grandma Bernice Forman), Paul Kreppel (Mr. Burkhart), Carolyn Hennessy (Sharon Singer), Gary Owens (Announcer/Narrator), Mark Bramhall (Principal Pridwell)

Notable Guest Stars: Wayne Pere (Randy), Danny Bonaduce (Ricky), Amanda Fuller (Tina Pinciotti), Eve Plumb (Mrs. Burkhart), Kevin Farley (Matthew Erdman), Jenny Maguire (Kate), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Buddy Morgan), Mitch Hedberg (Frank), Nick Bakay (Gus), Ernie Ladd (Manager), Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson (Rocky Johnson), Katey Sagal (Edna Hyde), Francis Guinan (John Kelso), Gloria Gaynor (Mrs. Clark), Jennifer Lyons (Pam Macy), Grey DeLisle (Ms. Diane Kaminsky), Scott White (David Milbank), Jade Gordon (Chrissy), Pat Skipper (Marty Forman), Carlos Alazraqui (Jackie's Scary Face Man), Mitch Pileggi (Bull), Arlene Pileggi (Joy)

Running Time: 560 Minutes (25 episodes) / Rating: TV-PG
1.33:1 Fullscreen/1.78:1 Stretched Widescreen (Varied by Player) / Dolby Stereo 2.0 (English)
Subtitles: None; Closed Captioned; Extras Not Captioned
Season 1 Airdates: August 23, 1998 - July 26, 1999
DVD Release Date: September 13, 2011; Wide Black Keepcase with Envelopes
Suggested Retail Price: $14.98; Three single-sided, dual-layered discs (DVD-9s)

Buy That '70s Show: Season One on DVD from Amazon.com

"That '70s Show" belongs to a long tradition of entertainment set twenty years in the past. "Happy Days", Grease, and "The Wonder Years" are three of the more noteworthy other examples in a pattern that makes complete sense when you think about.
Teenage years seem to make the biggest mark on a person culturally and developmentally. People love to look back at their adolescence nostalgically. Add twenty years to a teenager and you have thirty-something with the power to create. That the 20-years-earlier phenomenon seems to be morphing into a 30-years-earlier phenomenon, reflected in the films most recently chosen for remakes and reboots, suggests that life expectancy is growing and power is now more likely to elude creators until their forties. I'm ready for a television show set in the early '90s, but it seems like the rest of the world is not.

Just as "Happy Days" now provides '70s/'80s nostalgia to go with the '50s/'60s longing of its design, "That '70s Show" has begun to offer distinctly '90s/'00s sensibilities to complement its period of fascination. To the bell-bottoms, disco balls, and unmistakably implied drug experimentation, the show now adds transportation to the last hurrah for the traditional sitcom at every network but CBS.

The boys of "That '70s Show" wind up in jail on suspicions of auto theft, just one of many shenanigans they get into it in Season 1. Kitty (Debra Jo Rupp) and Red (Kurtwood Smith) are not pleased to discover casual dining.

The first season of "'70s Show" is set in 1976-77. It centers on six teenaged friends from fictional Milwaukee suburb Point Place, Wisconsin. Our protagonist is sarcastic, gangly Eric Forman (Topher Grace). Often joining him in his basement are girl next door/love interest Donna Pinciotti (Laura Prepon), male bimbo Michael Kelso (Ashton Kutcher), his sophomore girlfriend Jackie Burkhart (Mila Kunis), antiestablishment tough kid Steven Hyde (Danny Masterson), and foreign exchange student Fez (Wilmer Valderrama), whose real name and country of origin remain mysteries as a running gag.

Eric's parents regularly feature and, in defiance of sitcom tradition, they are cast age-appropriately and even a bit on the older side. Kurtwood Smith makes a particularly lasting impression as hard-assed father Red, who disciplines Eric sternly and often calls him out as a "smartmouth" and a "dumbass." A nice counter to him is his nurturing wife Kitty (Debra Jo Rupp), who coddles Eric and can score laughs from simply a well-placed signature awkward laugh. Donna's parents -- afroed, thickheaded salesman Bob (Don Stark) and ditzy wife Midge (Tanya Roberts) -- also number as regulars and as Red and Kitty's friends. Donna has a younger sister who appears once and an older sister merely mentioned, both of whom are soon forgotten. Eric, meanwhile, has an older sister in slutty, scheming University of Wisconsin student Laurie (Lisa Robin Kelly), who recurs in Season 1 and would be made a regular for the next two years.

"That '70s Show" is not a parody or a spoof of the decade, nor is it just a parade of pop culture jokes (though there are plenty of them). Instead, it is a nostalgic but unsentimental look at end-of-the-decade adolescence experienced with a spirit of rebellion and a tight-knit group of friends. The series hails from Bonnie and Terry Turner, the husband-wife team that spent seven seasons as "Saturday Night Live" writers, created "3rd Rock from the Sun", and penned a number of the more celebrated comedy films of the early '90s, including Wayne's World, Tommy Boy, and The Brady Bunch Movie. They created "That '70s Show" with "3rd Rock" writer Mark Brazill. Again, the Turners and Brazill counted the successful Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner ("The Cosby Show", "Roseanne") among their executive producers.

The pilot establishes as the series' foundation of Donna (Laura Prepon) and Eric (Topher Grace) moving from friends and next-door neighbors to more than that. Smoke billows as we move around Steven Hyde (Danny Masterson) and friends in the show's signature drug-implying circle.

Though Carsey-Werner, as usual, produced the sitcom independently, "That '70s Show" has the clear makings of a Fox sitcom at a time when the network was still a distant fourth in viewership. "'70s Show" quickly became Fox's fourth most highly-rated series behind "The Simpsons", "Ally McBeal", and "The X-Files." It was no doubt aided by its desirable 8:30 Sunday night timeslot, airing in between "Simpsons" and "X-Files." Fox moved "'70s" to Monday night the summer and Tuesday the following season and it never again matched its first season ratings, although it did repeat its series-best 49th ranking in 2004, when it was made the lead-in to "American Idol." Fox clearly targeted and found more of a young audience than one that had similarly had their teen years in the late '70s.

While never a ratings behemoth, "That '70s Show" went on to run an impressive eight seasons for a total of 200 episodes. Even more notably, it managed to launch careers for most of its young cast members, with Topher Grace, Ashton Kutcher, and, most recently, Mila Kunis picking up major feature film credits as leads. Grace disappeared for a while, letting Spider-Man 3 stand as the only film release of his late twenties, and his most recent output (the bomb Take Me Home Tonight) has cast doubt on his star status. Kutcher has run a gamut, from producing success on "Punk'd" to lightweight romantic comedy vehicles to serious acting and back. The romcoms have earned him his biggest audiences and prevented him from being known as more than just one of the most followed celebrities on Twitter. He returned to TV tonight in the much-publicized "Two and a Half Men" retooling following Charlie Sheen's much-publicized meltdown. Meanwhile, Kunis, by far the youngest "'70s Show" cast member (a mere 14 at the start), might just have the healthiest career at the moment, after Black Swan became the rare picture to find both a huge audience and widespread acclaim.

"That '70s Show" entertains with amusing cultural references and the authentic, easy to appreciate flavors of period Midwest working class living. The detail cannot be faked and even though most of the show's viewers weren't even alive back in the late '70s, the camaraderie and youthful adventures have a timelessness to them which is soaked up by the responsive studio audience and those who have made the show a fixture in syndication, where it currently airs four times a weekday on ABC Family (with viewer discretion advised) and four times at night on Nick at Nite.

This split-screen gives us a "he said, she said" moment that casts doubt on the sexual nature of Kelso and Jackie's relationship. Reduced to part-time employment at the plant, Red (Kurtwood Smith) takes on some holiday hours at "Bargain" Bob's (Don Stark) shop.

One area where the show deserves special notice is in its visuals. The vast majority of sitcoms leave nothing to be said regarding mise-en-scθne.
"That '70s Show" not only nails its era with set and costume design (the latter, the subject of the show's only Emmy win), it also supplies some inventiveness in camera and editing techniques, from split-screen scenes to characters dubbing others to inspired fantasy sequences. The trademark rotating circle scenes are an accomplishment when you consider how they have to be shot and lit. The show does lay the transitions on a bit heavy, from animating mouths on Farrah Fawcett's famous poster and other photos to cast disco dancing, but this lightens as the first season progresses. The season mainly focuses on two couples: slowly advancing the relationship of lifelong friends/neighbors Eric and Donna, and treating Michael and Jackie more impulsively, comedically, and flimsily.

"That '70s Show" started appearing on DVD in October of 2004 from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. Four years later, all seasons were released individually and in a groovy "Complete Series Stash Box." All of Fox's DVDs of the shows have since been discontinued with Carsey-Werner bringing this and three other hit sitcoms to value distributor Mill Creek Entertainment, who reissued the first two seasons last week. Part of the attraction of Mill Creek's new editions of "Roseanne" and "3rd Rock" is that the shows resurface with their original broadcast cuts intact, having previously been presented on DVD in trimmed syndication form. The packaging for "'70s Show" makes no such claim and there is little information on whether Fox's DVD offered syndication edits of episodes. The runtimes here are uniform, which typically suggests abbreviated syndication cuts, but the 22½-minute lengths are in line with complete 1998-99 half-hour network broadcasts after commercials are removed.

A more definite area of concern is in the soundtrack. "That '70s Show" is somewhat loaded with period songs and the likelihood of all of the season's being cleared at a list price of $14.98 seems distant. TV.com provides a list of songs used in each episode and while I can't vouch for their accuracy, I can confirm that a number of the songs cited there are never heard on Mill Creek's DVDs (among them, Mott the Hoople's "All the Young Dudes", David Bowie's "Rebel Rebel", the Vince Guaraldi Trio's "Christmas Time is Here", Kool & the Gang's "Jungle Boogie", and Elton John's "Bennie and the Jets"). With the list price so low, one wonders if Mill Creek could have raised it a little and cleared more songs, although the studio does pride themselves on low pricing and minimal effort.

Eric (Topher Grace) is less than enthused by the surprise birthday party his family throws him. At President Ford's speech, the guys reconsider their streaking plan. Eric's burger job forces him to shrug off spending quality time with Donna.

Disc 1

1. Pilot (22:26) (Originally aired August 23, 1998)
Eric gets the family's old Vista Cruiser and immediately defies Red's orders by attending a Todd Rundgren concert in Milwaukee.

2. Eric's Birthday (22:26) (Originally aired August 30, 1998)
Kitty plans an utterly unsurprising birthday party for Eric, against his wishes.

3. Streaking (22:25) (Originally aired September 6, 1998)
President Gerald Ford makes a stop in Point Place on his re-election campaign trail. While Red thinks of a question to ask him, the kids plan to streak at his speech.

4. Battle of the Sexists (22:26) (Originally aired September 20, 1998)
The repercussions of Donna beating Eric at basketball are considered.

5. Eric's Burger Job (22:25) (Originally aired September 27, 1998)
Eric gets a job that keeps him away from Donna, while she has the house to herself for the weekend.

With a keg and a vacant pool to throw a kegger, all the gang needs now is a tap. Hyde (Danny Masterson) teaches Fez how to sneak heavy metal past his hosts: with a Pat Boone album jacket. Eric gets cozy with Laurie's college friend and Thanksgiving guest Kate (Jenny Maguire).

6. The Keg (22:25) (Originally aired October 25, 1998)
After discovering a keg in the middle of the road, the gang throws a party in a vacant swimming pool. Red and Bob plan to bust them.

7. That Disco Episode (22:26) (Originally aired November 8, 1998)
The gang checks out the new disco opened in Kenosha. Kitty teaches Hyde to dance, giving the Pinciottis the wrong idea.

8. Drive-In (22:26) (Originally aired November 15, 1998)
Eric, Donna, Kelso, and Jackie go see The Omen at the drive-in theater. Fez's host family gets mad at him for listening to the Devil's music. Red and Kitty experience a new kind of restaurant.

9. Thanksgiving (22:25) (Originally aired November 22, 1998)
Laurie's college friend (Jenny Maguire) visits for Thanksgiving and makes out with a very attracted Eric.

Marion Ross (matriarch of the similarly designed "Happy Days") makes her first of three appearances as Red's nasty mother Bernice in "Sunday Bloody Sunday." Joseph Gordon-Levitt follows his "3rd Rock from the Sun" creators to Wisconsin as the titular guest star of "Eric's Buddy." Red (Kurtwood Smith) shares his kitty litter wisdom to Eric in a snowy skip trip vision.

Disc 2

10. Sunday Bloody Sunday (22:24) (Originally aired November 29, 1998)
Red's disagreeable mother Bernice (Marion Ross) visits on the day that Kitty tries to quit smoking.

11. Eric's Buddy (22:26) (Originally aired December 6, 1998)
Eric misreads his new friendship with popular, cool guy Buddy Morgan (Joseph Gordon Levitt). Red has trouble selling appliances.

12. The Best Christmas Ever (22:25) (Originally aired December 13, 1998)
Eric cuts down a Christmas tree, saving the money for the party he throws. Hyde puts thought into Donna's Christmas gift.

13. Ski Trip (22:25) (Originally aired January 17, 1999)
Kelso is left behind as the rest of the gang goes on a ski trip and runs into car trouble.

Red joins Eric and his friends for their ringside seats at a Kenosha wrestling match. Long Island ice tea knocks Donna (Laura Prepon) for a loop on her first date with Eric. Eric sees another side of his mom when he spends Career Day at her hospital.

14. Stolen Car (22:25) (Originally aired January 24, 1999)
After Red takes Eric's car away from him, the gang winds up in jail on auto theft accusations. Bob objects to Midge taking a community college class.

15. That Wrestling Show (22:25) (Originally aired February 7, 1999)
Kitty makes Red attend a wrestling match with the gang. Jackie tends to Kelso's needs. Midge tries therapy.

16. First Date (22:25) (Originally aired February 14, 1999)
On Valentine's Day, Eric and Donna go on their first date, which Hyde crashes to reveal his feelings. Kitty and Red have a fondue night with the Pinciottis.

17. The Pill (22:25) (Originally aired February 21, 1999)
Jackie thinks she's pregnant, prompting Donna to get a birth control prescription.

18. Career Day (22:25) (Originally aired February 28, 1999)
The kids spend the day at their parents' respective workplaces. Meanwhile, Jackie helps Red work on his car.

Eric's fantastic expectations for his and Donna's prom night are a bit different from the real thing. A Princess Leia-esque Donna clings to Darth Vader while Chewbacca Kelso looks on in the only Season 1 sequence that should be in widescreen. Eric immediately regrets his decision to peek into his parents' bedroom in "Water Tower."

Disc 3

19. Prom Night (22:24) (Originally aired March 7, 1999)
Eric and Donna expect to lose their virginity at prom. Hyde takes Jackie.

20. A New Hope (22:26) (Originally aired March 14, 1999)
With Episode I's much-anticipated release approaching, "That '70s Show" celebrates Star Wars as the gang sees the original film for the first time and loves it. Also, Eric feels threatened by Red's boss' son (Scott Whyte, "City Guys"), a scoliotic, asthmatic boy he beat up as a kid. Laurie tempts Kelso.

21. Water Tower (22:24) (Originally aired June 14, 1999)
Kelso falls and gets hurt when the gang paints a pot leaf on a water tower. Eric is grossed out by the sight of his parents having sex, but they misinterpret his behavior to think he's on drugs.

Hyde (Danny Masterson) falls for punk chick Chrissy (Jade Gordon), his first obtainable love interest. Red's brother Marty (Pat Skipper) tries to help him grieve after the death of their mother. Hyde's move-in prompts this educational short parody in which Eric (Topher Grace) learns about his parents' new love distribution.

22. Punk Chick (22:24) (Originally aired June 21, 1999)
Hyde falls for a drifter (Jade Gordon) and considers following her to New York, where she will be joining a punk band. Eric struggles with bra removal. Kelso and Red tweak Pong.

23. Grandma's Dead (22:28) (Originally aired July 12, 1999)
Eric feels responsible for his grandmother's death.

24. Hyde Moves In (22:24) (Originally aired July 19, 1999)
After his mother runs off with a trucker, Hyde moves in with the Formans. Bob is flustered around a woman in Midge's feminist group.

25. The Good Son (22:24) (Originally aired July 26, 1999)
Eric adjusts to Hyde being part of his family. Red questions the decisions he's made in his life.

Upon cutting class, Hyde, Kelso, Donna, and Eric happen upon a keg in the middle of the road, with the weight of that find conveyed in this shot. Images like this stately photo of President Richard Nixon function as scene transitions, with his mouth animated along with some rock 'n roll yelping.

VIDEO and AUDIO

There was only one real problem with the DVD presentation, but it was a huge one; on my Sony Blu-ray player, nearly all of the 1.33:1 full screen presentations stretched to fill my 16:9 Panasonic television. This is not the first Mill Creek disc that has done this for me, but your mileage could definitely vary. The DVDs displayed the proper aspect ratio when played on my computer's DVD-ROM drive. Still, on my TV, this was bizarre, annoying, and not easily remedied for me.
Adding to my bewilderment, tinkering with my player's settings seemed to have an effect only on the menus, which were sometimes similarly stretched, but could more often appear properly. And, for whatever reason, one episode on each disc (the third from last) displayed correctly in 1.33:1 for me, as if they were encoded more accurately than the others. Stretching full screen programming to widescreen is one of the more offensive things a disc can do and I'm glad that the occurrence remains rare even in the converting of SD television to HD ratios. Though seemingly not deliberate or something you are certain to experience with a 16:9 TV, it is most unfortunate.

Besides that, the picture is gladly quite clear and clean. There is some light grain and the rare white speck, plus the limits of DVD compression are regularly illustrated. The video is a bit on the dark side, which is true to the show's original design (and other FOX sitcoms from the time). The Dolby stereo soundtrack is clear but limited. Void of subtitles, the set does include closed captioning, though their accessibility seems hit and miss.

Debra Jo Rupp wears her loyalty to Fox on her lapel as she and Kurtwood Smith discuss the show in the making-of featurette "Hello Wisconsin." Lava lamps remain still behind Mila Kunis as she makes her contribution to the brief That '70s Trivia Show montage.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Three extras, all recycled from Fox's Season One DVD, appear on Disc 3 and two of them were also stretched to 16:9 on my TV.

"Hello Wisconsin: Season 1" is an 18-minute making-of featurette. It's heavy on episode clips and promotional, but includes some insightful actor and producer remarks on characters, co-stars, and the show's themes and appeal.

"That '70s Trivia Show" (2:20) has cast members ask simple questions about the series followed by clips revealing the answers. Evidently created for syndication, these bits are cool but few.

Donna dances at the prospect of leading into The X-Files' season premiere in the Promo-palooza reel. Fez is singled out on the main menu of Disc 3, the only disc with a bonus menu.

"Promo-palooza" (3:44) is a montage of clips used in series and Season 1 episode promos. I'd rather see the original promos as they were, but this is better than nothing and I noticed at least one line otherwise not included on the DVD.

All menus loop the theme song at a volume louder than the episodes, with one character singled out on both the backdrop-animated main and static episode pages. Episodes are fitted with just two chapter stops each, making scene access more of a chore than usual.

Mill Creek packages Season 1 in a thick keepcase, with the discs cheaply held in paper/plastic envelopes.

Much of the high school friends' fun occurs down in the Formans' basement, the group's home base.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

"That '70s Show" is too rowdy and mean-spirited for me to consider it a favorite, but this sitcom is easy to watch, enjoy, and get into. Mill Creek's Season One DVD is less of a no-brainer than you'd think for fans who didn't get around to picking up Fox's comparable box set. I don't think it's plagued by syndicated cuts, but music replacement seems both apparent and unfortunate. Meanwhile, the stretched widescreen presentations are practically unwatchable, if you're someone whose player and widescreen TV prove a challenge to the disc's puzzling authoring. If you're sure they won't and are interested, there's no reason not to pick this up.

Aside from the low price, this doesn't appear to offer anything above what Fox's discontinued set did. Those who have become diehard fans in just the past few years probably ought to wait until Mill Creek's inevitable complete series release. Those just wanting a taste of the show might be better served by the even lower-priced Biggest Hits, a disc collecting "10 fan favorite episodes" from the first four seasons.

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Reviewed September 19, 2011.



Text copyright 2011 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1998-99 Carsey-Werner Company, 2011 Mill Creek Entertainment and Carsey-Werner Distribution.
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