"That '70s Show" is an often very funny look at - you guessed it! - the 1970s. Focusing on a group of Wisconsin teens in the year 1976, the sitcom is a regular trip down memory lane.
It's full of Farrah Fawcett haircuts for the females and perms for the men. There are leisure suits, shag carpeting, Captain and Tenille music, lava lamps, the hustle and eight-track tapes. And there are references to everything from the gas crisis to "The Brady Bunch."The teens in the show also go out of their way to get their hands on a few beers, and there's a particularly funny scene in which four of the boys attempt a conversation after smoking pot. We don't actually see them doing it, but it's absolutely clear that that's what they've just done.
And that's followed by another very funny scene in which the show's central character, Eric Foreman (Topher Grace), attempts to focus on what his parents are saying despite the fact that, feeling the effects of the marijuana, the wall behind them appears to be sliding back and forth, up and down.
Is it funny? Absolutely.
And, as someone who was pretty much exactly the same age as these characters in 1976, I can personally attest to the fact that "That '70s Show" is pretty accurate (in a sitcom kind of way). I knew people who looked, talked and acted just like the characters in this show.
The show follows the lives of six Wisconsin teenagers who hang out in the basement of Eric's house. Eric is a normal kid who's trying to establish his independence.
Donna (Laura Prepon) is the girl next door - a lifelong friend who might develop into something more. Kelso (Ashton Kutcher) is sort of a good-looking airhead who is bullied by his self-obsessed girlfriend, Jackie (Mila Kunis).
Hyde (Danny Masterson) is an early conspiracy theorist, prone to seeing plots in everything. And Fez (Wilmer Valderrama) is a foreign-exchange student (from an unidentified foreign country) who's trying to soak up as much American culture as he possibly can.
In tonight's debut, Eric is trying to talk his parents (Kurtwood Smith and Debra Jo Rupp) into letting him have their old car - the monstrous Vista Cruiser. It would, after all, provide transportation to the Todd Rundgren concert.
But are the scenes in the show that play drug and alcohol use by teenagers for laughs responsible? Is it the sort of thing that ought to be fodder for humor?
According to executive producer Bonnie Turner ("3rd Rock from the Sun"), "That '70s Show" is an attempt to portray 1976 "in a very honest form."
"I think that we would be criticized if we ignored (drug use) and criticized if we did it," she said. "It's sort of a two-way thing. . . . We want to celebrate the time. The time is controversial. It was somewhat irresponsible. The drugs in it are not an endorsement of it or a criticism of it."
And the show's producers told critics they felt almost obligated to include drug use in the series.
"It would be like doing `The Untouchables' but never mentioning prohibition or showing the effects of prohibition" to leave out drug references, said Terry Turner, Bonnie's husband and partner. "We didn't want to pander to the audience or to say that that did not exist, or do revisionist history and say this was not going on in America at the time."
The Turners compared the marijuana and alcohol references on their show to the alcohol references on classic shows like "Mary Tyler Moore" and "M*A*S*H."
"I think if we did a show that was strictly about the clothes and the hair, it would be a very empty show indeed," said Terry Turner. "I think that there is room for comedy to create dialogue. I think that that has been relegated in recent years strictly to dramas in America."
Which sounds great, but it's more than a bit disingenuous to suggest that "That '70s Show" is an attempt at some sort of social commentary that will further the national debate. The goal here is simply to make people laugh - and it succeeds quite well at doing so.
But, again, what kind of message does it send to '90s kids when drug use in the '70s is seen as one big joke? And how about the fact that "That '70s Show" will be seen right after "The Simpsons," a show with a huge following among kids?
Fox Entertainment President Peter Roth told critics that the network was considering putting some kind of warning on the pilot episode of the program. And that he was talking with the producers about including some sort of consequences for the drug use in the episode.
The producers, however, hemmed and hawed about that one. And in a completed version of the pilot mailed to critics last week, there are no such consequences for the teen pot smokers.
About the best the producers could do is promise that drug use will not be a weekly event in their sitcom.
"It's not organic to the first 10 episodes we're doing," said Mark Brazill, another of the show's executive producers.
(There are, however, more references to beer in the second episode provided to critics.)
And the producers of "That '70s Show" promise that drug use won't be any more severe than it is in the premier episode.
"I think the limit has been hit on the pilot," Terry Turner said. "I think that's it."
He also vowed that, "As the show goes along, there will be ramifications for (the drug use)." But they aren't evident in the second episode.
So is "That '70s Show" a bad example for young viewers or is it a just plain funny show? Actually, it's both.
Personally, I laughed - almost more than I wanted to. And almost as much as I cringed at how silly we looked back in the '70s.
At the same time, I'm uncomfortable with the message the pilot sends to kids - that smoking pot is a lark, a goof, a lot of fun with no consequences whatsoever.
I might watch the show, but my relatively young children won't be allowed to.