That ’70s Show director David Trainer, who helmed each of the show’s 200 episodes save for the pilot, describes his attraction to its period setting as being rooted in the last decade of American innocence. Such a view is indebted more to golden-age thinking than actual history, but it’s an important one to consider in terms of both the series itself and our individual perceptions of it, and the world, within our own lifetimes. Almost all of us experience a loss of innocence, and it’s fitting that this popular re-imagination of the most frequently parodied of recent decades in some ways paralleled the loss of innocence of the generation that grew up watching it. If the series felt more weighty in its later seasons, it was as much a result of its characters’ progression through life—and the writers’ frequent willingness to embrace the tumult of their characters’ blossoming adulthood—as the changing American landscape afforded by overseas conflicts and the second term of a second Bush.
Over eight seasons, the series covered almost four years in the lives of the residents of the fictitious Point Place, Wisconsin, the depicted events commencing just weeks before the American bicentennial and wrapping as the ’70s gave way to the ’80s. It’s easy to think that, given this microscopic effect, the audience become more familiar with these characters than they were with themselves, but the truth is that the multi-generational motley crew of That ’70s Show acted as a nearly perfect mirror to American culture, then and now, and the generally raucous and lighthearted tone allowed the writers to get at some surprisingly meaningful subjects with little in the way of heavy lifting. Likewise, while the historical markers on display (Star Wars, disco, etc.) provided plenty of opportune gags for those tuning in strictly for shits and giggles, they ultimately served as mere decorations on the timeless considerations of friends and family the series tackled while deftly staking out its own sitcom-trapping trademarks, from the endlessly flexible concept of “the circle” to Kurtwood Smith’s countless iterations of “dumbass.”
That ’70s Show’s pop-culture enthusiasm was modest enough to bypass pretense and the results often bordered on profundity—its characters archetypal but almost intimate in their singularity, its humor broad yet personal, its settings both period-specific and universal. The show’s core group of friends—Eric (Topher Grace), Jackie (Mila Kunis), Michael, a.k.a. Kelso (Ashton Kutcher), Steven (Danny Masterson), Donna (Laura Prepon), and Fez (Wilmer Valderrama)—suggest a finely tuned but fragile ecosystem, while their parents (particularly Kurtwood Smith and Debra Jo Rupp as Eric’s parents, Red and Kitty) embody the resilience one accrues with life experience. The cast’s strength was key in overcoming some of the flaws in the show’s broadly pitched humor (the jokes pertaining to marijuana use ran at about a 50% success rate, and some satirical threads—such as an Halloween episode of Alfred Hitchcock homages—were frequently off-key), but even the show’s failings point back to its core strengths. A key example can be seen in the I Love Lucy parody in the season-three episode “Fez Dates Donna.” Suffice to say, the attempt at mimicry is cringe-inducing, but in likening itself to one of the great sitcoms, That 70s Show more than earned the right to go for it.
This stash-box set of the series simply repackages the same DVDs that Mill Creek released between 2011 and 2013. Suffice it to say, image quality varies, with the earlier seasons faring worse. Blacks are murky, and a vague pixelation is consistently present, even in the later seasons that aired in HD widescreen. Sound is more consistent; the 2.0 mono is perfectly adequate for a dialogue-heavy show with frequent musical interludes.
A fair amount of supplements are spread across the set’s 24 discs, but the majority are listless and redundant and it won’t be long until you feel you’ve heard the show’s theme song "In the Street" enough for a dozen lifetimes. Promos and clip-show retrospectives abound, cast member introductions are limited to the third season, and 19 episodes come with optional commentary tracks. The second season’s first disc includes behind-the-scenes webisodes, and the "A ’70s Flashback" featurettes, each one featuring a different member of the cast (notable omissions include Ashton Kutcher and Topher Grace), begin with the season-four discs. Among the remaining featurettes, tops is "That ’70s Show Retrospective," a summation of sorts and one of the few in which the cast members seem to forgo bullet-point discussion tactics and get truly candid about their experiences.
If you haven’t started collecting the individual seasons of That ’70s Show, you’d be a real dumbass to pass up this economy-sized stash box.