That ’70s Show has recently started airing on TeenNick, introducing the decade when we didn’t know Vader was Luke’s father* to a generation that wasn’t born yet, so it’s due for a look. Also, star Laura Prepon has been cast in the forthcoming Are You There Vodka, It’s Me Chelsea, so in case you need a reminder who she is…
The official Episode 1.1, which aired in August 1998, is about Eric Foreman (Topher Grace) inheriting his parents’ Vista Cruiser. I’m convinced there was another first episode, an actual pilot, before this. Am I crazy? I remember the pilot as an episode about Donna’s (Laura Prepon) parents going out of town and a rivalry between Eric and Hyde (Danny Materson) for Donna’s affections. And Donna had a younger sister who was never seen again. It felt very pilot-y, like the writers didn’t quite have a handle on the characters yet. Even the opening sequence was a little different, possibly with a different version of the theme song. If anyone knows what in the world I’m talking about please leave a comment!
Anyhoo, the alleged first episode sets the stage really well. Like the rest of the series, it focuses not on lampooning the decade in which it’s set–a mistake made by its disastrous copycat, That 80s Show–but on the timeless aspects of teenagerhood. What middle class 16-year-old wouldn’t be stoked to inherit a car and all the freedom that implies? The situation sets up Eric’s relationship with his disciplinarian (aka foot-in-your-ass) father, Red (Kurtwood Smith) and his doting mother, Kitty (Debra Jo Rupp). The conversation in which they lecture Eric on this new responsibility while the kitchen wallpaper spins in the background thanks to some earlier substance use on Eric’s part is a riot–and quintessential That 70s Show. It may also be the first time a first-person depiction of an illicit high appeared on network TV.
This episode gives us a taste of Jackie (Mila Kunis) and Kelso’s (Ashton Kutcher) on-again-off-again dysfunctional relationship, and Red and Kitty’s grown-up friskiness. We also learn of Stephen Hyde’s establishment-defying paranoia. Perhaps most important, we discover that Eric and Donna like each other, although they haven’t admitted it in the 12 years they have been neighbors. So, as a S1E1, this works. But a lot of episodes could have worked. The show remained much the same for a long time, before characters starting jumping ship like it was the Death Star about to be destroyed by Ewoks.
*Starting in Season 3, set in 1977, there were a ton of Star Wars references on That 70s Show.