THAT ’70S SHOW: SEASON 1 – Blu-ray review

Hello Wisconsin!

I can’t vouch for the other seven seasons, but “That ‘70s Show: Season 1” is the best TV show I’ve seen that didn’t crack the Nielsen Top 30. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, the characters are fun, and there are plenty of cultural blasts from the past. I’d bet a fistful of bicentennial quarters, though, that the teen sex and drug and alcohol use in the show was what kept it from having mainstream success. Still, for Mill Creek to be releasing Season 1 on Blu-ray—unheard of for a sitcom from the ‘90s—this series must have a substantial cult following.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that several of the series regulars are now pretty recognizable Hollywood names:  Ashton Kutcher (“Two and a Half Men”), Mila Kunis (“Black Swan”), Topher Grace (“Spider-Man 3”), and Laura Prepon (who’s currently playing Chelsea Handler in another sitcom). Curiosity might draw a number of viewers to this show now that it’s being rereleased in Hi-Def, but the quality will keep them clicking on more episodes.

Call it “Happy Days” two decades later. “That ‘70s Show” is about a group of high school friends growing up in fictional Point Place, Wisconsin, which is somewhere near Kenosha and not all that far from Milwaukee, where Richie Cunningham and the Fonz grew up in that ‘50s show. Eric (Grace) has an older sister off at college, a hard-nosed blue-collar dad who served in WWII and Korea (Kurtwood Smith as Red Forman), and a doting but clueless mom (Debra Jo Rupp as Kitty Forman). Their basement provides not just a hang-out space for the teens, but a place where they sometimes get high . . . and we see walls move in strange ways when Eric has to go upstairs and talk with his parents about something. It’s one of the touches, like animated segues featuring flowers, lava lamps, and all sorts of ‘70s icons, that makes this show distinctive.

His next-door neighbor is Donna (Prepon), and after years of being friends they try to move it up a notch in Season 1, and that seems to escape her dad (Don Stark as Bob Pinciotti) and mom (Tanya Roberts as Midge Pinciotti). So do a lot of things.

Rounding out the cast of regulars are four other teens:  the sarcastic Steven Hyde (Danny Masterson), the all-looks-and-no-brains Michael Kelso (Kutcher), the rich and self-centered Jackie Burkhart (Kunis), and a foreign exchange student from who knows where who’s nicknamed Fez (Wilmer Valderrama).

When the gang isn’t hanging out in the basement they’re jamming inside the 1969 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser station wagon that Eric got from his tough-love father. Funnily enough, my family had a very similar car—a Pontiac Grand Safari, which was as long as a PT boat. It was the decade, and probably one factor responsible for the gas crisis of the ‘70s which is addressed here. Other touchstones come up as well, like drug use, the sexual revolution, “the pill,” streaking, Nixon and Ford, and even a new cultural marker: “Star Wars.”

The writing is smart, but the actors seem to be able to have fun with their characters without taking them too far. We recognize things in Eric and his parents or Donna and hers that we see in our own families, but set in the ’70s. It’s that kind of look-back that made “Happy Days” successful.

Twenty-five episodes are contained on four single-sided discs in an oversized Blu-ray box with a plastic “page”:

“That ‘70s Pilot.” Red hands over the keys to the Vista Cruiser, and Eric and his friends celebrate by swiping beers from their parents’ party.

“Eric’s Birthday.” Eric turns 17 but his mom is determined to throw him a surprise party befitting a 12 year old. But the real surprise turns out to be the “hot” gift Donna has for him.

“Streaking.” Eric dons a Richard Nixon mask to streak in order to make a political point, while the men of Point Place (Republicans all) get ready to welcome President Ford.

“Battle of the Sexists.” Donna beats Eric at basketball, but then the real battle starts. Meanwhile, their mothers give them tips on how to have a relationship.

“Eric’s Burger Job.” Eric’s job keeps him from enjoying his social life.

“The Keg.” Eric plays Ferris Bueller for a day, and he and the gang find a full keg of beer in the middle of the road. Next challenge: find a tapper.

“That Disco Episode.” When Eric’s mom secretly teaches Hyde how to dance, Bob thinks she’s having an affair with a very young man.

“Drive-In.” Donna invites Jackie and Kelso to double with them at the drive-in, thinking that it would ease some of the sexual tension between Eric and her . . . but it only makes it worse.

“Thanksgiving.” Kitty’s worst nightmare comes true again when her mother-in-law (“Happy Days”’ Marion Ross) threatens to join them; but it turns out to be a dream for Eric when his sister brings home her hot roommate, and he gets to share his bed with her.

“Sunday, Bloody Sunday.” Red’s mom spends a Sunday with the family, and only Fez (who seems to be okay with rubbing Grandma’s feet) seems to get along with her.

“Eric’s Buddy.” When Eric finds another friend, it riles Hyde and Kelso.

“The Best Christmas Ever.” When Red gives Eric $40 to buy a tree and tells him he can have the rest for a party, it’s an invitation for the gang to hack one down off the Interstate instead.

“Ski Trip.” Jackie dumps Kelso after catching him with another girl, and invites the gang (sans Kelso) to her parents’ ski cabin.

“Stolen Car.” A scratch leads to suspended driving privileges, which leads to a borrowed car . . . which turns out to have been reported stolen.

“That Wrestling Show.” Kitty tries to get her husband and son to bond over a wrestling match in Kenosha.

“The First Date.” Eric finally asks Donna out for an official date, but Hyde still has hopes for her. Meanwhile, the gulf between the Formans and the Pinciottis grows wider.

“The Pill.” Jackie tells Eric she thinks she might be pregnant, and Donna tries to get her to tell Kelso. Meanwhile, Donna decides she’d better get on the pill herself.

“Career Day.” The gang has to spend the day shadowing a parent, and it opens their eyes.

“Prom Night.” Eric gets a motel room in anticipation of having a big night with Donna. But poor Jackie is jilted when Kelso asks another girl to prom.

“A New Hope.” The guys are wowed by “Star Wars.

“Water Tower.” When the guys try to paint a marijuana leaf on the side of the water tower where they sometimes hang out, it leads to trouble.

“Punk Chick.” Hyde meets his match with a girl who urges him to go to New York City with her.

“Grandma’s Dead.” Eric is convinced he killed his grandma with an unkind remark and decides to forego the funeral.

“Hyde Moves In.” Everyone goes skinny dipping but Jackie gets sick. Meanwhile, Hyde moves into the Forman house after trouble at home.

“The Good Son.” Eric and Hyde feel like “brothers” until the Formans start to favor him over Eric.

Although some scenes have more grain and noise than you’d like for a Blu-ray (as when a white background like a refrigerator appears in the middle distance), overall you can tell that the picture quality was cranked up a notch because of the sharp edge delineation and the way things have visual “pop.” There’s a nice amount of detail, too, and the colors are ‘70s bright and groovy. I saw no problems with the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer. Curiously, “That ‘70s Show” is presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio, when it had been originally broadcast in 1.33:1. I can’t explain it, but I can tell you that it doesn’t look “stretched” to fit the screen. There’s no visible distortion. So was it originally filmed in a widescreen and matted for TV? Beats me. All I know is it looks darned good, and fans of the show ought to be pleased.

The audio is comparable, with an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack full of life—something you can tell with the musical interludes during those animated segue sequences. Dialogue is clear, and so is the laugh track . . . which unfortunately seems overused. Then again, it’s the ‘70s, and sitcoms really did rely heavily on laugh tracks. There’s not much bass, though, and I’d have to say that the distribution of sound across the six speakers is fairly subtle. Subtitles are in English SDH.

“Hello Wisconsin!” (18 min.) features cast and crew discussing favorite moments and the stories behind them. Clips from the show are intercut with talking heads’ interviews.

“A Sneak Peak at Season 2” (31 min.) is a surprisingly long and complete-feeling teaser that takes you behind the scenes of many of the best-known Season 2 episodes. A long promo for the next Blu-ray? Fans can only hope so.

Rounding out the bonus features are “Promopalooza” (4 min.), a collection of broadcast bumpers and commercial clips promoting Season 1; “That ‘70s Show Trivia” (2 min.), in which cast members ask a question and you have time to guess at home before you see the answer in a clip from the show; and “Groovy Green Screen” (3 min.), which shows the cast on a split screen in front of the green screen and final background.

Bottom line:
“That ‘70s Show” looks great on Blu-ray, and HD might attract a whole new audience to this underrated (and pretty darned funny) sitcom.