How ‘That ’70s Show’ Transcended Cheap Nostalgia
Nostalgia without narrative is the kiss of death for film and TV — look no further than the endless stream of IP-based catastrophes that have flooded movie theaters in recent years. But when That '70s Show premiered on Aug. 23, 1998, it transcended cheap nostalgia by incorporating its bell-bottomed jeans and classic rock cameos into a whip-smart, ribald sitcom with a heart of gold.
Created by Bonnie and Terry Turner and Mark Brazill, That '70s Show revolved around the lives of six teenagers growing up in the fictional town of Point Place, Wisconsin, between 1976 and 1979. Topher Grace starred as Eric Forman, the gawky, Star Wars-loving everyman whose father, Red Forman (Kurtwood Smith), constantly called him a dumbass. Eric maintained a series-long relationship with his neighbor, Donna Pinciotti (Laura Prepon), and convinced his parents to let his best friend, Steven Hyde (Danny Masterson), move in with them. The friend group was rounded out by pretty-boy doofus Michael Kelso (Ashton Kutcher), the vapid, high-maintenance Jackie Burkhart (Mila Kunis, who was 14 when the series first aired and lied to producers about her age) and the lovesick foreign exchange student Fez (Wilmer Valderrama).
Most episodes of That '70s Show dealt with typical sitcom fare, such as teen romance, parent-child grievances and the futile pursuit of coolness. But what put the show a cut above many of its contemporaries was its willingness to flesh out the teenage and adult characters, highlighting their contradictions and focusing on all of their tribulations. The show also honored its time frame by highlighting predominant social issues of the day, including economic hardship, sexual liberation and recreational drug use. The young cast regularly congregated in Eric's basement to toke up and solve the mysteries of the universe in a ritual lovingly deemed "The Circle."
There were also music references galore, though the jokes always felt well-informed and gave the show a more lived-in feel. In one episode, Hyde and Fez get arrested for selling bootleg Ted Nugent shirts outside his concert — and subsequently released when the cops realize they misspelled his name as "Tad Nugent." Alice Cooper plays himself in "Radio Daze," showing up to a radio party in Eric's dream and later joining a grown-up Circle to play Dungeons & Dragons. Tommy Chong appears intermittently as Leo, a World War II veteran and owner of a Foto Hut. And from Seasons 2 through 8, the show's beloved theme song was a cover of Big Star's "In the Street" performed by Cheap Trick.
Listen to Cheap Trick Perform 'That '70s Show' Theme Song
These references and cameos legitimized the series' retro appeal, but above all, That '70s Show focused on the foibles of everyday American families, in whom viewers could see themselves. Brazill cited "two shows we really loved: All in the Family and Roseanne" in a 2000 Los Angeles Times interview. "That's what we were hoping for. Not to obviously do those two shows, but because they seemed true and real. And the humor came out of characters and real situations. Plus both of them were families. That's at the core of it."
They also took cues from another show that had previously epitomized the 20-year nostalgia rule. "I always felt the show shared something with Happy Days," Brazill told Variety in 2006. "That was a coming-of-age story set in the '50s that aired in the '70s, and ours was a coming-of-age story in the '70s that aired in the '90s and beyond."
That '70s Show gave many of its young stars their first legitimate TV roles, so they were essentially learning on the job with help from their older castmates. Starring on a sitcom "is the greatest school, like a boot camp ... for acting," Grace told Marc Maron in 2018. "There's a filmic element, so you learn that. There's a live audience, so there's kind of a theater element. And when you suck, which you do — especially, like me, if you've never acted before — you get back up next week, do another show. And I think everyone on that show would tell you that over four or five years, we got good."
Watch Alice Cooper Play 'Dungeons & Dragons' on 'That '70s Show'
Viewers were happy to watch them get better over time. That '70s Show ran for eight seasons and 200 episodes, making it Fox's second-longest-running sitcom behind Married ... With Children. It launched the acting careers of nearly all of its young stars, except Masterson, who'd racked up several acting credits before that (and whose subsequent career was overshadowed by his 2023 conviction on two counts of rape). A spinoff titled That '90s Show debuted on Netflix in 2023, featuring several members of the original cast.
"This show is really timeless," Bonnie Turner told Variety on the eve of the 2006 series finale. "I don't think kids change that much. Eight-tracks may become iPods, but there's always the rite of passage to sneak a beer and bond with your friends."