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The Triumph of Fox’s ‘That ‘70s Show’

WASHINGTON POST

It was the era of big cars, women’s lib, smiley faces and bell-bottoms. It was also the decade that preceded Ronald Reagan, AIDS and “The Cosby Show.” And it may be hard for some to imagine a time before the Internet became our global communicator.

Fox’s “That ‘70s Show” brings back that decade in all its psychedelic glory. Now in its sophomore season, airing Mondays at 8 p.m., the series is really about the high school years--1976-80--of producer Mark Brazill, whose alter ego is Eric Forman, played by Topher Grace. Eric spends quality time hanging out with pals Donna (Laura Prepon), Kelso (Ashton Kutcher), Jackie (Mila Kunis), Hyde (Danny Masterson) and foreign exchange student Fez (Wilmer Valderrama).

In creating the show, Brazill and his “3rd Rock From the Sun” co-producers Bonnie and Terry Turner used “two shows we really loved: ‘All in the Family’ and ‘Roseanne,’ ” Brazill said. “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.”

Although “ ‘70s” is set in Wisconsin, Brazill, 37, grew up in upstate New York. There really was a gorgeous next-door neighbor like Donna. And Brazill did have a ditsy, sex-obsessed buddy like Kelso. Even his dad, like the gruff Red Forman (Kurtwood Smith), lost his job when Brazill was a teenager.

But Brazill said Eric is a funnier version of himself. “My brothers and sisters watch it and love it; they think Eric looks like me,” he said. “I had big hair and I was skinny and kind of sarcastic. It’s funny--you think you have an unremarkable life and then these people come together and write about it. That’s what these [episodes] are--I’m rewriting my life better.”

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You get to do that when you produce your own series.

“Some of the stories have been based on actual events in my life,” he continued. “And my first relationship was like Eric’s relationship with Donna.”

This relationship lasted two years and thus Eric and Donna, will, after a year and a half of dating, consummate their relationship in a late-February episode.

“They’ve been going out a year and a half, and in my small town, that’s about how it went. People thought the ‘70s were so wild, but we waited. If you slept with a girl immediately, she wasn’t the girl for you or it wasn’t right. They’ve shared a lot of things and they’ve gotten closer and closer. I think it’s a fairly positive portrayal. It’s a sweet relationship.”

That may illustrate why “That ‘70s Show” has picked up steam. It tends to have meaningful, even poignant story lines behind an often-raucous front. So while the show has been called irresponsible for depicting the gang smoking pot in the Forman basement, it also chronicles the societal shifts of the time with weightier topics such as feminism, unemployment and birth control.

Feminism is touched upon by Eric’s mother, Kitty, played by the squeaky-voiced Debra Jo Rupp. A stay-at-home mom, Kitty is a no-nonsense type.

“There was a great line for Kitty where she says, ‘I don’t have time to be a feminist, I’m too busy running the house,’ ” Brazill said. “She’s in charge. It’s implicit in her strength that she is one. She doesn’t need the label.”

To write scripts, Brazill mines his high school memories. “I have three of my yearbooks in my office and I look through them a lot,” he said.

In a huge show of support, Fox has renewed “That ‘70s Show” for two more seasons. That shocked Brazill, who said he’ll have to give up his perennial underdog outlook.

Brazill suspects that the show’s appeal is from the universal theme of a boy coming of age. And the fact that the cast members were all unknowns has added to the realism, he said.

For Grace, Kutcher, Prepon and Valderrama, this was the first professional acting job. Grace was in a high school play that Bonnie and Terry Turner had seen at their daughter’s New Hampshire prep school. They remembered him when casting the series a year later. Kutcher is from tiny Homestead, Iowa, but had moved to New York and landed a few commercials, and Prepon had done an experimental series on the Internet. Valderrama only moved to the United States from Venezuela within the last five years, so he’s really playing himself. (His name Fez is taken from FES, Foreign Exchange Student.)

Tanya Roberts, who was briefly a “Charlie’s Angel” and was in the James Bond film “A View to a Kill,” plays Donna’s mom, Midge.

“She was so perfect” for the role, Brazill said. “That was kind of true too. The girl that Donna was based on, her mother was absolutely gorgeous.” The Feb. 14 episode will have a “Bond girl reunion” with Kristina Wayborn, Maud Adams and Barbara Carrera as maids of honor at Midge’s wedding-vow renewal.

Perhaps the most fun part about the show for those who remember the decade is watching the return of bell-bottoms, sideburns and polyester.

“Costumes and wardrobe actually won an Emmy this year,” Brazill said. “It’s not just a sitcom; you have to really find things to be true to the period. It’s harder than your average sitcom. You’ve got to go to thrift shops and go to Ebay and you have to search and really commit to the period.”

* “That ‘70s Show” airs Mondays at 8 p.m. on Fox.


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