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In light of the recent news that Netflix is returning to the world of That ‘70s Show with a ‘90s-set spinoff featuring Kurtwood Smith and Debra Jo Rupp as Red and Kitty Forman, I’ve been thinking a lot about the hangout comedy and why it was able to stretch the last four years of the 1970s into eight seasons of television. What makes it so beloved and so rewatchable that, more than 20 years after its debut, it’s returning in a new form? While the original show was laugh-out-loud funny and many of its lessons universal and timeless, the truth is That ‘70s Show primarily worked for one reason, and that was the subtle strength of Topher Grace as the show’s self-deprecating leading man Eric Forman.
As the character whose basement the friend group congregated in, Eric was frequently at the center of the action and often the main story driver. But he was also the originator of much of the show’s humor; Grace had impeccable comedic timing and was a master of both sarcasm and deadpan delivery, a skill he put to good use in Eric’s complicated relationship with his parents (Smith and Rupp), his on-and-off romance with next-door neighbor Donna (Laura Prepon), and his friendships with the rest of the ensemble. He could effortlessly pivot from being a smart aleck or dumbass to being a sweet and caring—if often clueless—romantic partner or friend in the same conversation. And because of the continued focus on the character’s relationship with Donna, Grace was also the source of many of the show’s more emotional and heartwarming (or heartbreaking) moments.
But leaving a bigger mark than even Grace’s comedic timing or his worthiness as a romantic lead was his unique ability to make a character like Eric—scrawny, nerdy, and easily overpowered—feel like a leader in a group of more extreme or showy personalities. Donna was more confident and independent; Hyde (Danny Masterson) was stronger and more opinionated; Kelso (Ashton Kutcher) was dumb but conventionally attractive; Jackie (Mila Kunis) knew how to wield her beauty and was louder by sheer volume; and Fez (Wilmer Valderrama) was an outsider whose “otherness” made him stand out, while his womanizing ways were mined for laughs (it should be noted that the way the show treated Fez and the way he treated women is beyond offensive, and neither would fly today even with the ‘70s setting).
Yet despite being surrounded by much louder personalities, Eric was the reliable, undisputed leader of the group at a time when nerds hadn’t yet inherited the Earth. Much of that naturally came from the fact he was the series’ main character, with his love life and relationship with his parents the root of countless storylines. But he also had an effortless, everyman quality that made it easy to root for and relate to him. He got along with everybody and held the group together. He also knew who he was and was not ashamed of his interests, no matter how many times he was mocked for them. Viewers wanted to see Eric succeed because they either were him or knew people like him. And it was this aspect of the character that made it easy to miss him once he was gone.
Both Grace and Kutcher left That ‘70s Show before it ended, but it was the former’s departure that proved to be insurmountable even though the latter—who had endeared himself to viewers through his natural charisma—was considered the “breakout star.” For all of Kutcher’s scene-stealing abilities, his exit early in the show’s final season barely made a difference in the overall quality of the series, likely because it had still not recovered from the gaping hole left by Grace’s departure after Season 7. Some of the show’s biggest issues in its final run were the unavoidable result of storylines left hanging by Grace’s absence (Eric’s relationship with Donna was a major thread that suddenly had nowhere to go). And while Eric’s departure provided fodder for Kitty, who struggled with the fact her son wasn’t her little boy anymore, there was only so much the show could explore without him present.
The series naturally tried to realign itself around those who remained, but it lacked Eric’s lightning-fast wit and grounding straight man presence. This only became more pronounced as the show tried to replace him, first with Hyde—who became the new lead and Red and Kitty’s connection to the rest of the characters—and then with Donna’s new love interest, Randy (Josh Meyers). Hyde lacked Eric’s warmth, friendliness, and wit, while Randy suffered for many reasons… but mostly because he wasn’t Eric. As That ‘70s Show tried to move on, the writers made things worse by regularly reminding viewers of the character’s absence. He was referenced in nearly every episode, proving just how essential he was to the show, even when he wasn’t around. So when I think about the possibility of returning to Point Place for That ‘90s Show, I’m hesitant at best.
The new multi-camera series will follow Leia, the daughter of Eric and Donna, as she bonds with a new generation of teens while spending the summer at her grandparents’ home. This setup mimics the hangout nature of the original comedy while providing a natural opportunity for Grace, now starring in ABC’s comedy Home Economics, to potentially reprise the role that made him famous. But if the show’s executive producers—including original series creators Bonnie Turner and Terry Turner, with That ‘70s Show alum Gregg Mettler as showrunner—think it will be easy to drop a new teen into a familiar basement and recreate the same energy and atmosphere of the original show, it’s difficult to see how that’s possible.
The ‘90s are another distinct decade that should provide ample nostalgia (or horror, depending on your age) for the show to explore. But while the lessons we learn as teens are universal, the truth is that it wasn’t the decade or the coming-of-age stories that ultimately made That ‘70s Show so memorable. It was the genial appeal of Eric Forman and the energy of the actor who brought him to life. That is what grounded the show and made us want to hang out in the Formans’ basement each and every week. So rather than attempt to recapture that magic with the next generation, perhaps Netflix should focus on securing the streaming rights to the original series once more, so we can revisit it instead.
That ‘70s Show is available to purchase on Amazon, but otherwise streaming episodes can only currently be found via occult means…
Kaitlin Thomas is an entertainment journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, and TV.com, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling or read more of her work at kaitlinthomas.com.
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