By Nihal Bambulkar Aug. 24, 2018
In a sea of F.R.I.E.N.D.S. and Two and a Half Men, That ’70s Show depicted universal adolescent boredom. The basement in the series represented a sort of safe space for countless teenagers like me, who lived with their parents and had very little privacy.
At a time, when TV was rife with shows about friendship, love, and dating for older audiences, Indian teenagers were in a spot – their favourite characters were invariably aged between their late 20s and 30s. At 14, in between multiple reruns of F.R.I.E.N.D.S. and Two and a Half Men, I yearned for characters who would articulate adolescent dreams, ambitions, and rebellion.
It was then that I stumbled upon That ’70s Show. The show depicted post-war ’70s life in a middle-class neighbourhood in Wisconsin and revolved around the troublesome shenanigans of six impudent teenagers. There’s gawky Eric Forman, pretty-boy knucklehead Michael Kelso, burnout Steven Hyde (who’s actually a softie), no-nonsense Donna Pinciotti, self-absorbed rich girl Jackie Burkhart, and Fez, the foreign exchange student. These proud badge-holders of the “basement-blazers club” were often found in the throes of adolescence, taking baby steps into the real world, and standing up to their parents. I mean, they could’ve easily been my friends.
In the iconic opening of That ’70s Show, we witness classic teenage behaviour. Hyde, slyly coerces Eric into stealing beers from the living room where his parents are throwing a party for their friends. Confused between disobeying his parents and winning over his friends, Eric does what we’ve all done with the liquor cabinets of our parents — sneak some for the gang.
It’s moments like these that drew me and countless others to the show. Like an essay in AV/TV Club put it, “That ’70s Show is about the smaller stuff, the truly memorable moments of adolescence unseen in the history books.” Over eight seasons and 200 episodes, the show opened up a world of coming-of-age moments for its audience. It showed us how truly awkward it is to have sex for the first time or to say those three words to your significant other. It shed a light on the struggles of being attracted to a friend and wanting the validation of our parents without wanting to earn it.
It didn’t just focus on sanitised teenage experiences. Like Eric’s gang in That ’70s Show, even we’ve thrown parties while almost burning the house down and hidden our “stash” hoping that our parents wouldn’t find it. We’ve sneakily driven our cars out of town without anybody knowing and much like Eric’s gang, we’ve unfailingly gathered at the same spot every day to horse around, blaze a fatty, throw a “BURN!” at each other, and just made the most of this carefree phase.
Throughout the show, Eric’s father, the hardass Red Forman is convinced that his son is useless and wastes no opportunity to deride him.
Naturally, there a lot of things That ’70s Show gets right: It’s peak ensemble TV, has great laugh-out-loud one-liners like Hyde’s “I don’t like people. I like rock and roll, sex, and pizza in that order” and is one of the rare shows that beautifully employs classic rock music to propel its plot forward. But the best part of the show is how accurately it translates the Indian teenage experience, despite being an American sitcom.
Take for instance the fact that the show managed to find a way to depict universal adolescent boredom: In most of the episodes, the gang just hangs out at Eric’s basement for hours and sometimes, ends up doing nothing. Just the fact that they were together seemed to be enough. It was how most of us felt as teenagers back in the day. Come to think of it, the basement in That ’70s Show, represented a sort of safe space for countless teenagers, who lived with their parents and had very little privacy.
One of the most popular rituals of That ’70s Show is “The Circle” in Eric’s basement. In it, the whole gang rolls joints, blows smoke, and discusses mind-boggling ideas seated in a circle. It was this circle that all of us would ape when we started lighting up.
But what stood out for me was how the show delved deep into the difficulties of teenagers who were striving hard to live up to their parents’ expectations. Throughout the show, Eric’s father, the hardass Red Forman is convinced that his son is useless and wastes no opportunity to deride him. Like most of our parents, he wasn’t the kind of father who could be easily won over. But during the end of the seventh season, we see Red and Eric bond before he leaves for Africa. When Eric bids his father goodbye, Red shows his parental affection by proudly handing Eric his father’s army knife. He also tells him to not bother coming back if he misplaces it, in true Red fashion. But at a time when I shared a rocky relationship with my parents, this golden moment comforted me when I was sure that they’d never take me seriously.
As we celebrate the 21st anniversary of That 70’s show this week, I can say one thing: It continues to make me laugh just as hard as it did back when I was 14. Today, as I watch the same episodes as an adult, I realise that I have outgrown my favourite gang but I’m certain that it will manage to have the same effect on teenagers today. For That ’70s Show hits that sweet spot between adulting and adolescence.
Nihal likes to believe that darkness is more beautiful than frightening. He likes to be called Bambi, a nickname, his friends gave him.