Sunday, May 14, 2006

TV Review: When it's time to go -- That 70s Show

The tail end of spring . . . when many a creative mind turns to thoughts of . . . "I kill those bastards for not renewing us!"

But it's all smiles in front of the cameras. A number of shows are winding down. On Fox tonight, Malcolm in the Middle takes its final bow. Thursday sees the final episodes of That 70s Show (one hour) and Will & Grace (two hours). Not today, but next Sunday, sees the final episode of Charmed. All but Malcolm started in 1998 (Malcolm debuted in 2000). We've seen a number of episodes of all four and we quizzed friends this week on which they'd miss?

We were surprised by the hostility towards That 70s Show . . . and then we watched. We stopped after viewing six of this year's episodes in one day.

Malcolm had to deal with the fact that child actors age (and some are no longer children) which had at least the same impact on the show as Dewey beginning to speak. Will & Grace? It rebounded, thankfully. If it had continued down the road of Grace as fashion plate . . . We'll save our thoughts because we may review it next Sunday. But it rebounded. Of the four, Charmed is the one that's remained truest to its original premise. (Yes, some would say "most true" but "truest" is a false rhyme with "premise.") Shannen Doherty left and that could have been the end of the show. Rose McGowan came in and had to deal with an audience used to Pru, suddenly learning of Paige and not sure if they were going to care.

McGowan made the role her own and fit in onscreen. There's a reason for that. How much of it was Aaron Spelling's doing and how much of it was McGowan's is open to debate. But McGowan came on as the kid sister, a little unsure, a little nervous. It's the same technique that allowed Cheryl Ladd to replace Farrah Fawcett (then Farrah Fawcett-Majors and the most popular TV actress of that season). Those were big shoes to fill. You don't do it by clomping around.

That 70s Show didn't grasp that. Josh Meyers came on at the very end of last season playing Randy Pearson, a character you never heard of before and one you weren't going to grow very fond of no matter how much the show tried to push him off on you. Meyers came in calling attention to himself, strutting around. (In fairness, that was partly the writing.)

Topher Grace had left the show and they felt the need for a new character. They seemed to feel the need for a new "Eric" and the audience never accepts that. Cheryl Ladd didn't play a character like Fawcett's Jill. Kris was Jill's younger sister. You didn't catch her on skateboard. Kris lacked Jill's atheleticism and other qualities. Cheryl Ladd introduced you to Kris' qualities.

That 70s Show elected to go another way. They brought on Meyers and had him playing pranks with Fez (Wilmer Valderrama), kidding Red (Kurtwood Smith) and generally drawing attention to himself, too much attention, at a time when Topher Grace's character is being eased out of the show. No wonder the audience hated Randy and lost interest in the show.

If you give hours to a favorite show, give years, the characters can become like family. If you feel like you're saying goodbye to your brother you really don't need some clown butting in on the big scenes. You also recoil if your "brother"'s girlfriend is immediately paired with him and, yes, the writers paired up Randy and Donna (Laura Prepon).

Creative geniuses seemed to think they could grow an insta-Eric overnight and they didn't get how opposed the audience was to that notion. Though Charlie's Angels successfully replaced Farrah Fawcett, they had a nightmare replacing Kate Jackson with Shelly Hack (and then a bigger nightmare when Tanya Roberts, who had a regular role on That 70s Show until 2001, replaced Hack). Hack didn't come on like the kid sister who was nervous and hoping you would like her. Hack came on like a functioning adult and the character was written distant and detached (someone thought that equaled "class"). The audience, that never bonded with Hack, was left to wonder "Who is this person thinking she knows everything and can just walk in here like she owns the place?"

Similar questions resulted from attempting to make Randy insta-Eric. Whether he's a lousy actor or not isn't known. (Hack was actually a good actress.) The writing has been so bad on this character that it doesn't really matter. Audiences were destined to hate Randy from the start due to the way he was shoved off on them while a popular character left.

It was a mistake to attempt to replace Grace. His character was the focal point of the show. This wasn't, as with Charmed or Charlie's Angels, a case where one important person of a trio left the show. This was the lead character. Episode after episode, Eric was the point of reference. Is Eric in trouble? Did he kill Grandma? Did he end up in jail due to a prank? Did he and Donna make out? Did he lose Donna to Casey?

All of the characters were important to the show and some could argue (convincingly) that other characters were more popular, but Eric was the point of reference similar to the way Richie was the point of reference for many episodes of Happy Days. But Ron Howard didn't leave that show overnight. He scaled back his appearances and the writers had time to shift the focus to characters already on the show. (Fonzie? Henry Winkler's character was probably more popular than Ron Howard's just as Ashton Kutcher's Kelso was probably more popular than Eric.)

No matter what else it did or didn't do, the show always had a light touch. There wasn't a lot of moralizing or life lessons showing up in the final scene. Even Grandma's death resulted in laughs. (Grandma was played by Marion Ross who, of course, played Richie's mother on Happy Days.) Supposedly, there was a panic because Grace's departure at the end of last season was to be followed by Kutcher's which left everyone worried that, as one person with the show said to us, "We'd be left with After M*A*S*H."

That shouldn't have been a concern. All the characters were likeable (the same can't be said for After M*A*S*H) and the setting wasn't changing. They could have made Stephen (Danny Masterson) the focal point or Fez or, if they truly wanted to reflect the time period the show is set in, Donna. (We think Mila Kunis' Jackie could have been the focal point as well but it would have required great skill on the part of the writers due to the character's history.) Instead, as Eric is leaving, the audience gets Randy shoved off on them and, when the final season starts up, they're still getting Randy shoved off on them as Kelso's leaving.

It never would have worked, even if Meyers had been incredibly attractive and the role written very funny. But the show went with it and that, combined with the ever changing time slot and air date, helped kill enthusiasm for a show that brought a lot of joy and laughs to the screen at a time when it seemed like every other show was either solving a murder or trying the suspect.

The show still has it moments but they're killed when Meyers is onscreen. In the most recent episode that aired (second to last episode of the series), he talked Donna into moving in with him (something the audience was never going to "aaaaawwwwwe" over) and then had a line where he held a dog and told the dog to meet its new Mommy. It fell flat. Grace could have made it funny. He'd make the line funny and he'd make Eric's realization that he'd just freaked out Donna funny as well. Meyers just stood there looking confused. In his next scene, he had a line about how, if it was the dog calling her "Mommy" that freaked her out, she should know that it wasn't actually the dog speaking, it was him. Eric's nervousness could have made that moment funny. Even if it hadn't been that funny, people might have laughed because they know Eric. This stranger who looked like he was so amused himself at that moment didn't win over anyone.

When a character's not working with the audience, you don't have to fire them. You can just make the character creepy and let the audience laugh at what they're already thinking. Once they were stuck with the character of Randy and he wasn't working, the writers should have made him the butt of every joke. Fez sighing "Oh here comes Randy who thinks everyone just loves him and wants to be his friend" in a bitter voice would have gotten laughs because it's what many people watching were thinking.

Instead, a badly written character who never fit in is seen "Hanging out . . . down the street" (as the theme song would tell it) and the whole illusion that the cast has created over the years is blown to hell. You're no longer thinking, "Oh look, it's Kitty and Eric and Donna and . . ." Instead, you're thinking, "I hate that actor." When the audience's (natural) reaction is ignored, you can't count on them to play make believe for a half hour each week.

For future reference, when you add a new character to a long running show and the audience doesn't embrace him or her, don't think that's going to change. Don't think, "I'll give the character a tender moment and everything will change." It won't, not on a comdey. The only thing that will save the character is to give it a laugh. You have to build on the audience's expectations and, if they have low expectations of the character, funny lines won't cut it, you have to make him or her the butt of jokes. That's how you can turn a despised dreamboat into a character the audience will enjoy -- the way they enjoyed Louie on Taxi or Mimi on The Drew Carey Show. If you start trying to prove to the audience that their gut was wrong and this character is noble and loveable, it won't work.

The Foreman's house could have caught fire and Kitty and Red could both be passed out in it. We could have seen Randy, and only Randy, have the bravery to rush into the house and save them. The audience's reaction would have been "eh" because they don't care about Randy. They don't like him.

With Jackie going from bitch to a little more complex and Fez going from stupid to soulful, the audience could have enjoyed a character who got on all the other characters nerves. Instead a season was wasted with writers lecturing and hectoring an audience, saying basically, "Yes, you will eat your spinach! And you'll like it!"

This Thursday, if you were a fan of the show, you will laugh at the last episode, you'll probably get a little misty-eyed as well. They could have gone into that on their "behind the scenes" tribute but they didn't. It's too bad because some word of mouth might have helped build an audience for the final episode. Instead, unless audiences decides that two hours is too much of Will & Grace & Karen & Jack, the show's going to go out with a ratings whimper.

That 70s Show didn't always have the funniest joke or the most original (the Annie Hall rip-off a few years back was neither fresh nor that funny) but what put it over was the cast. They were all convincing in their roles and you really believed these characters would interact with one another. Because the writers and producers didn't believe in the cast as much as the audience did you've now got seven strong seasons for syndication and one season that will find audiences grabbing the remote and hollering, "Honey, it's a Randy episode! Want to watch . . . Empty Nest is on! How about we watch that instead?"

That's really a shame because the characters remained strong (in writing and in performance) and this last season could have been about exploring them. That Donna's only just now grasping that she's put her life on hold may be the most shocking thing about the character after the change in hair color. For two years now, she's had her life on hold. (Two years of episodes. The time span that's covered within the show we have no idea. When the show premiered the year was supposed to be 1976. They've all graduated high school, two seasons ago, and it's eight seasons since the show debuted so who knows how they track time?)

Kitty (Debra Jo Rupp) has been entertaining throughout. But it was a mistake in one episode (we have no idea when it aired, but it aired this season, it was one of the six we watched in one day last week) to have Kitty rip into Donna ("slut") because Randy and Donna were an item. The audience wasn't thinking "Donna, you slut." They were thinking, "Who is this creep hanging around Donna?" Had the writers given Kitty a "Now you just back off, buster . . ." type line the audience would have laughed, hooted and applauded. Kitty, who always became the voice of truth on the show when she was ticked off, would have been the perfect character to say what was already on the minds of everyone watching. And because it was Eric's mother, it would have really resonated with the audience.

But no one grasped that. The point here is that, as the seasons mulitply, audiences often know better what makes a show work and what doesn't. What happened in season eight indicates that the show needs to shut down, that it should have ended in season seven (but again, long time fans of the show, even if you've tuned out this year, you'll want to see the final episode, that's all we're saying). With a long running show, many times the characters wear out their welcome. You're bored with them, you're tired of them. This is especially true when a performer begins to think they're cute. (Yes, we're thinking of Scrubs but many shows fit in here.)

That didn't happen with That 70s Show. If you ask people who stopped watching, you didn't hear, "Oh, Kitty just got on my nerves this last season!" Or, "Stephen's doing the same thing he always does!" (We did hear from one person, a large person size wise, that everyone had gotten "fat." We're not really sure what show the person thinks they were watching but we did make a point to check out weight since that was the only person who now "hated" the characters. ) People still liked the characters. We had questions of, "What's going on with Jackie and Fez?" and "What funny thing did Red say lately?" (We weren't able to answer in the middle of the week -- we hadn't sat down to watch the show -- but we did call everyone this weekend and tell them they really needed to watch the final episode.)

One person put it best, in our opinion, when she said that she didn't "stop" watching, she was "driven away." (By the introduction of Randy.) So the point here is that everything has an ending, a time to go. It's time for That 70s Show to go before writing does more damage to your memories of it as a funny, fast paced show populated with characters you liked and wanted to spend time with. If you were a fan, watch the last episode to get the real goodbye the show owes you. (They pay up.)
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