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That '70s Show: The Complete Series

(1998) ** 1/2 Unrated
4410 min. FOX. Directors: Terry Hughes, David Trainer. Cast: Mila Kunis, Danny Masterson, Topher Grace, Laura Prepon, Ashton Kutcher, Wilmer Valderrama, Kurtwood Smith, Debra Jo Rupp, Josh Meyers, Tanya Roberts, Don Stark, Lisa Robin Kelly, Tommy Chong, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson.

/content/films/4848/1.jpg"Hangin' out/Down the street./The same old thing/We did last week..." Big Star's 1972 song "In the Street," repurposed as the theme song for 1998-2006 Fox sitcom That '70s Show, accurately reflects the content of the series. The televised nostalgic comfort food of That '70s Show depicts the teenage slacker ethic of avoiding responsibility whenever possible and clinging to youthful good times while they last. The show did the same, taking eight years (and 200 episodes) to depict the period between May 17, 1976 and December 31, 1979.

Created by Bonnie & Terry Turner & Mark Brazill, the series introduced a "hot" young cast that yielded some big stars of the future. The series takes place in Point Place, Wisconsin, where scrawny Everyteen Eric Forman (Topher Grace of Spider-Man 2) lives with his curmudgeonly father "Red" (Kurtwood Smith of Robocop) and loveably square mother Kitty (Debra Jo Rupp). The Formans' basement serves as a clubhouse for Eric's gang of friends: Eric's perhaps-girlfriend Donna Pinciotti (Laura Prepon), dim-bulb Michael Kelso (Ashton Kutcher, now back on TV as star of Two and a Half Men), outspoken but cool-conscious Jackie Burkhart (Mila Kunis of Black Swan), foreign-exchange student Fez (Wilmer Valderrama), and dry-witted Steven Hyde (Danny Masterson), the latter two characters also showing romantic (or sexual) interest in the girls of the group. Also among the Season One regulars are Donna's parents, Bob (Don Stark) and Midge Pinciotti (Tanya Roberts, a one time "Charlie's Angel"), and Eric's beloved 1969 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser station wagon, bequeathed by Red in "That '70s Pilot."

A kind of hybrid of "that '50s show" (of the '70s) Happy Days and Richard Linklater's '70s-set 1993 teen movie Dazed and Confused, That '70s Show may not exactly have reinvented the four-camera sitcom, but it did fit the FOX-network paradigm of pushing the envelope in terms of sitcom content. While there is an essential sweetness to the characters—who, at least initially, project an underlying innocence—there's plenty of randy talk, characters do it (losing their virginity, having pregnancy scares, etc.), and one regular feature of the show strongly implies that the characters' favorite weekly pastime is smoking doobies. This latter motif gives the series one of several stylistic stamps: a central camera, with wide-angle lens, rotating to take in the characters sitting in a circle, smoking out and carrying on an inane or paranoid conversation. Other signature bits include colorful transitions using '70s iconography and a variety of dream sequences or parodies (as of filmstrips).

/content/films/4848/2.jpgSeason One established the characters and the era, with episodes devoted to streaking, disco, the drive-in, a kegger, wrestling (with guest star Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson), prom, the pill, a swingers party, and the release of Star Wars, though the show would gradually lose interest in broader cultural and social moments to focus on character-based sitcomedy. Most stories simply deal with relationship dramas between Eric and Donna or Kelso and Jackie (the latter couple perpetually threatening to break up with each other) or masculinity-measuring tussles between Eric and Red (with Red perpetually threatening to kick Eric's ass).

That '70s Show saw plenty of guest stars—sometimes '70s stunt-y ones—over the course of its run: Katey Sagal (as Hyde's mom), Marion Ross (as Eric's grandmother), Joseph-Gordon Levitt, Amy Adams, Bruce Willis, Mary Tyler Moore, Betty White, Don Knotts, Shirley Jones, Luke Wilson, Billy Dee Williams, Seth Green, Justin Long, Dave Thomas, Fred Willard, Kevin McDonald, Alyson Hannigan, Eliza Dushku, Dan Castellaneta, Lindsay Lohan, Brooke Shields, Robert Hays, Chris Elliott, Curtis Armstrong, Mitch Pileggi, Jim Beaver, Jessica Simpson, Melissa Joan Hart, Neil Flynn, Jim Gaffigan, Bobcat Goldthwait, Wayne Knight, Allison Munn, Rachel Bilson, Tom Kenny, John Ratzenberger, French Stewart, Jack Osbourne, Shannon Elizabeth, Tim Reid, Howard Hesseman, Richard Kline, Gene Simmons, Ted Nugent, Isaac Hayes, Charo, Barry Williams, Christopher Knight, Tom Bosley, Gavin MacLeod, Jack Riley, Tom Poston, Maud Adams, Barbara Carrera, Bob Eubanks, Paul Anka, Gary Owens, and Joe Theismann.

The show's alienating final eighth season saw Grace absent (until the end of the series finale), replaced by Josh Meyers (Seth Meyers' brother) as Hyde's record-store co-worker Randy Pearson, who dates Donna for the better part of the season. Ashton Kutcher also checked out at the end of the seventh season, though he made five guest appearances across the final year. Reviled by most of the show's fans, the eighth season was a clear-cut-case of a series overstaying its welcome (at least one internet-commenting fan has pledged to throw out the final season upon purchasing the Complete Series set).

Though the jokes are strictly standard setup-punchline stuff, the cast brings a freshness to the material. Grace hits the right notes as the nervous hero, and Prepon gives Donna a smoky, understated sassiness, their relative subtlety nicely complimented by the energetic exaggeration of Kutcher and Kunis. Valderrama's unplaceable foreign accent and naive demeanor reliably deliver laughs, while Masterson takes the prize of the most nuanced and believable player, grounding his character in reality to make him arguably the funniest of the lot. The adults are also a hoot, with Rupp and Smith making indelible impressions both on their own and as a strong double act. That '70s Show doesn't rank among the best sitcoms ever, but it's high among the second tier of fondly remembered junk-food TV series.

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Aspect ratios: 1.78:1

Number of discs: 18

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 11/3/2015

Distributor: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainent

Mill Creek does fans right with That '70s Show: The Complete Series on Blu-ray, with hi-def A/V and a definitive battery of extras filling a package that's an absolute steal at its budget price point. Two years ago, TV production company Carsey-Werner announced "plans to convert six of their best known and most beloved comedies to enhanced high-definition...That ‘70s Show, 3rd Rock from the Sun, Roseanne, Grounded for Life, A Different World, and of course The Cosby Show...going back to the original film and tape elements and re-scanning all 1,000+ episodes. This new initiative will allow all of these programs to be delivered in full-screen, 16:9 HD format. Finally, color will be rebalanced and sharpened for each of the six series." Given recent developments involving a certain sitcom star, that "of course" in front of The Cosby Show has turned into a big "maybe," but That '70s Show: The Complete Series on Blu-ray bodes well for similar future releases.

With its earlier season-set BD releases for Season One and Season Two, Mill Creek didn't skimp on the bit rate, spreading the twenty-five and twenty-six episodes, respectively, across four discs per set. The Complete Series halves the number of discs per season, cramming each season onto two discs, plus two bonus discs, for a total of 18 platters. While Seasons One and Two were encoded onto BD-25s, The Complete Series uses BD-50s, allowing for higher bit rates. The bad news is that the bit rates nevertheless do average considerably lower on this set, but the good news is that there's no obvious drop in picture quality. There's a bit less depth to the images, but we're still looking at palpable hi-def detail and punchy color, with a picture that's pushed a bit brighter on this new set; even the old video effects used as transitions hold up surprising well, with little to distract the eye. Some minor fluctuations in contrast pop up at times, as well as the occasional dust speck on the original elements, but generally the picture is solid, textured, and pleasingly natural in its retention of film grain. Occasionally, film elements were not located for certain scenes, resulting in awkward standard-def upscaling, with a noticeable drop in quality, but these moments are few and far between.

Since the show was shot "protected" for both the old 1.33:1 ratio and the now-standard 1.78:1 widescreen ratio of HDTV, Mill Creek is able to present the show in hi-def widescreen transfers; die-hard purists could balk, I suppose, but the show looks great in this not-unintended ratio: spacious and additive compared to the cramped old broadcast image. The lossless DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtracks are surprisingly robust, with immersive ambience that extends beyond the show's settings and into the live studio audience (for better or worse, the show always comes with enthusiastic laughter); dialogue is always nicely prioritized and music potent. Better yet, this set doubles the bit rate for the show audio, for maximum audio resolution.

That '70s Show: The Complete Series brings on a bonanza of bonus features, starting with select Audio Commentaries: on Season Two, Disc One, director David Trainer on "Halloween" and "Hunting," and on Season Two, Disc Two, Trainer on "Cat Fight Club"; on Season Three, Disc One, Trainer and producer Patrick Kienlen on "Too Old to Trick or Treat, Too Young to Die" and "Eric's Panties," and on Season Three, Disc Two, Trainer and Kienlen on "Dine & Dash" and Trainer on "Radio Daze," "Eric's Drunken Tattoo," and "The Promise Ring"; on Season Four, Disc One, Trainer on "Eric's Depression"; on Season Four, Disc Two, Trainer on "Class Picture" and "Hyde's Birthday," and on Season Six, Disc Two,  Trainer on "Substitute," "Sparks," and "My Wife"; on Season Seven, Disc One, Trainer on "Time Is On My Side" and "Angie," and on Season Seven, Disc Two, Trainer on "Till The Next Goodbye"; and on Season Eight, Disc One, Trainer on "Bohemian Rhapsody," and on Season Eight, Disc Two, Trainer on "Keep Yourself Alive," "We Will Rock You," and "That '70s Finale."

All other bonus features reside on one of the two Bonus Discs in the set. Disc One houses Behind the Scenes Featurettes "Hello Wisconsin!" (18:06, SD), which comprises official interviews from cast and crew about the show's concept, characters, and plotting, along with plenty of clips—pretty standard promotional stuff; the nifty Season Two making-of Webisodes "Kelso's Serenade" (7:14, SD), "Jackie Moves On" (7:23, SD), "Holy Crap!" (5:32, SD), "Red Fired Up" (6:49, SD), "Cat Fight Club" (6:56, SD), and "Moon Over Point Place" (7:18, SD); the self-explanatory interviews "Making Company: David Trainer on Directing That '70s Show" (7:46, SD) and "Beyond the Polyester: Writing That '70s Show" (7:58, SD) with executive producers Rob Des Hotel, Mark Hudis, and Dean Batali; "That '70s Show Set Tour with Director David Trainer" (11:35, SD) taking us through the basement, the Vista Cruiser, the Forman kitchen, a redressable stage area, and the living room; "That '70s Blooper Special" (10:06, SD); and That '70s Show Through the Years: A Retrospective, with highlight clips and cast interviews to look back at "Eric" (3:04), "Jackie" (2:57), "Kelso" (2:56), "Hyde" (3:00), "Donna" (3:01), "Fez" (3:01, SD), "Kittie & Red" (3:02, SD), and "Bob" (3:00, SD).

Disc One continues with Season Overview Featurettes "Season One: A Look Back" (4:58, SD), "Season Two: A Talk with Director David Trainer" (12:58, SD), the surprisingly meaty "Season Three: A Look Back" (23:16, SD), "Season Four in 4 Minutes" (4:30, SD), "Season Five in 5 Minutes" (5:01, SD), "6 Minutes of Season Six" (6:00, SD), "That Seventh '70s Season" (12:36, SD), and "Season Eight in 8 Minutes" (8:01, SD). Similar in intent, but doubling the run times, to That '70s Show Through the Years: A Retrospective, A '70s Show Flashback offers the cast chances to reflect, along with character clips: "Laura Prepon" (6:20, SD), "Mila Kunis" (6:02, SD), "Wilmer Valderrama" (8:36, SD), "Danny Masterson" (6:52, SD), "Debra Jo Rupp" (6:39, SD), "Kurtwood Smith" (6:23, SD), "Don Stark" (7:28, SD), "Tommy Chong" (4:57, SD), and "Josh Meyers" (4:35, SD).

Bonus Disc Two proves mostly for the die-hard fans, and it's nice that the set packs the best extras onto one disc (the first one) for ease of use. The Disc Two bonuses comprise Trivia Game (HD), with the cast (and Gene Simmons) not so enthusiastically asking trivia questions about the show, answered by clips; Groovy Green Screen (3:20, HD), serving up a split-screen view of raw green screen footage of the cast frolicking, and the finished shots used as transitions in the final shows; Foto Hut (18:13, HD), a giant autoplay gallery of cast portraits, production stills from each season, and group shots; Promo Spots for "Season 1" (3:46, SD), "Season 3" (12:40, SD), "Season 4" (11:52, SD), "Season 5" (12:49, SD), "Season 6" (12:49, SD), "Season 7" (13:29, SD), and "Season 8" (11:47, SD). Guess someone lost the Season 2 commercials.

This exhaustive set is a fantastic value for fans of the show, and bodes well for future Mill Creek sitcom releases, assuming it sells well. Vote with your dollars if you'd like to see similar sets in future.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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