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That '70s Show: Season One

(1998) ** 1/2 Unrated
548 min. FOX. Cast: Topher Grace, Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis, Wilmer Valderrama, Kurtwood Smith, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson.

/content/films/4311/1.jpg"Hangin' out/Down the street./The same old thing/We did last week..." Big Star's 1972 song "In the Street," repurposed as the theme song for 1998-2006 Fox sitcom That '70s Show, accurately reflects the content of the series. The televised nostalgic comfort food of That '70s Show depicts the teenage slacker ethic of avoiding responsibility whenever possible and clinging to youthful good times while they last. The show did the same, taking eight years (and 200 episodes) to depict the period between May 17, 1976 and December 31, 1979.

Created by Bonnie & Terry Turner & Mark Brazill, the series introduced a "hot" young cast that yielded some big stars of the future. The series takes place in Point Place, Wisconsin, where scrawny Everyteen Eric Forman (Topher Grace of Spider-Man 2) lives with his curmudgeonly father "Red" (Kurtwood Smith of Robocop) and loveably square mother Kitty (Debra Jo Rupp). The Formans' basement serves as a clubhouse for Eric's gang of friends: Eric's perhaps-girlfriend Donna Pinciotti (Laura Prepon), dim-bulb Michael Kelso (Ashton Kutcher, now back on TV as star of Two and a Half Men), outspoken but cool-conscious Jackie Burkhart (Mila Kunis of Black Swan), foreign-exchange student Fez (Wilmer Valderrama), and dry-witted Steven Hyde (Danny Masterson), the latter two characters also showing romantic (or sexual) interest in the girls of the group. Also among the Season One regulars are Donna's parents, Bob (Don Stark) and Midge Pinciotti (Tanya Roberts, a one time "Charlie's Angel"), and Eric's beloved 1969 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser station wagon, bequeathed by Red in "That '70s Pilot."

No doubt partly inspired by Richard Linklater's '70s 1993 teen movie Dazed and Confused, That '70s Show may not exactly have reinvented the four-camera sitcom, but it did fit the FOX-network paradigm of pushing the envelope in terms of sitcom content. While there was an essential sweetness to the characters—who, at least initially, project an underlying innocence—there's plenty of randy talk, characters lose their virginity (plus, there's a pregnancy scare), and one regular feature of the show strongly implied that the characters' favorite weekly pastime was smoking doobies. This latter motif gave the series one of several stylistic stamps: a central camera, with wide-angle lens, rotating to take in the characters sitting in a circle, smoking out and carrying on an inane or paranoid conversation. Other signature bits included colorful transitions using '70s iconography and a variety of dream sequences or parodies (as of filmstrips).

Season One establishes the characters and the era, with episodes devoted to streaking, disco, the drive-in, a kegger, wrestling (with guest star Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson), prom, the pill, a swingers party, and the release of Star Wars. Typically, the stories simply deal with relationship dramas between Eric and Donna or Kelso and Jackie (the latter couple perpetually threatening to break up with each other) or masculinity-measuring tussles between Eric and Red (with Red perpetually threatening to kick Eric's ass). Katey Sagal shows up as Hyde's mom, Marion Ross as Eric's grandmother, Joseph-Gordon Levitt as a friend of Eric's, and Mitch Pileggi as a friend of Red's.

Though the jokes are strictly standard setup-punchline stuff, the cast brings a freshness to the material. Grace hits the right notes as the nervous hero, and Prepon gives Donna a smoky, understated sassiness, their relative subtlety nicely complimented by the energetic exaggeration of Kutcher and Kunis. Valderrama's unplaceable foreign accent and naive demeanor reliably deliver laughs, while Masterson takes the prize of the most nuanced and believable player, grounding his character in reality to make him arguably the funniest of the lot. The adults are also a hoot, with Rupp and Smith making indelible impressions both on their own and as a strong double act. That '70s Show doesn't rank among the best sitcoms ever, but it's high among the second tier of fondly remembered junk-food TV series.

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Aspect ratios: 1.78:1

Number of discs: 4

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 3/20/2012

Distributor: Mill Creek Entertainment

Mill Creek steps up their game big-time with their Blu-ray release of That '70s Show: Season One, and not a moment too soon. With a big push on the way of catalog titles inherited from the Touchstone catalog, hi-def home theater junkies want to have faith that Mill Creek can deliver, and That '70s Show delivers the goods in a package that's an absolute steal at its budget price point.  Mill Creek doesn't skimp on the bit rate, spreading the twenty-five episodes across four discs. And since the show was shot "protected" for both the old 1.33:1 ratio and the now-standard 1.78:1 widescreen ratio of HDTV, Mill Creek is able to present the show in hi-def widescreen transfers; die-hard purists could balk, I suppose, but the show looks great in this not-unintended ratio: spacious and additive compared to the cramped old broadcast image. The picture quality is quite nice, with natural film grain, convincing color, and substantial detail and texture; even the old video effects used as transitions hold up surprising well, with little to distract the eye. Likewise, the lossless DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtracks are surprisingly robust, with immersive ambience that extends beyond the show's settings and into the live studio audience (for better or worse, the show always comes with enthusiastic laughter); dialogue is always nicely prioritized and music potent.

Bonus features cleverly maximize standard def footage into screen-filling HD (by way of a colorful frame). Best of set comes from the behind-the-scenes "Sneak Peak," but it's nice to see Mill Creek throwing together everything that's currently available (if nothing new).

"Hello Wisconsin!" (18:04, HD) comprises official interviews from cast and crew about the show's concept, characters, and plotting, along with plenty of clips—pretty standard promotional stuff.

"Promo Palooza" (3:44, HD) rather frustratingly montages original TV spots instead of presenting them as originally aired.

"That '70s Show Trivia" (2:20, HD) finds the cast not so enthusiastically asking trivia questions about the show, answered by clips.

For purists only, "Groovy Green Screen" (3:20, HD) serves up a split-screen view of raw green screen footage of the cast frolicking, and the finished shots used as transitions in the final shows.

"A Sneak Peak at Season 2" (30:55, HD) constitutes three segments, designed as website features, each stitching together behind-the-scenes footage from a live tapings.

Available at well under a dollar an episode, this release is a no-brainer upgrade for hi-def-equipped fans.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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