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'That '70s Show' gets away with a little bit more than usual

Web posted on: Friday, August 28, 1998 4:03:20 PM

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- It could be that Fox TV put on more than a leisure suit when it aired "That '70s Show."

"There's a little bit more of an edge to it, I think, than 'Happy Days,'" says Ashton Kutcher, one of the teen ensemble. "We probably get away with a little bit more than what 'Happy Days' ever would have."

That edge gave it a ratings edge in TV's earlier-than-normal autumn. On opening night, the premiere of "That '70s Show" tied for 21st in the Nielsen ratings -- while placing first among the 18- to 49-year-olds beloved of advertisers and first among male viewers of all ages. Despite, or perhaps because of, its orange and green home furnishings and doubleknit-garbed stars, it even outranked "The Simpsons."

Since most of the stars were not yet born in the '70s, the ratings suggest to some that the show has the potential to attract entire families.

"Teenagers will relate to the show as well as the adults because you (adults) will be able to sit down in front of the TV and say, you know: 'Son, I used to wear that shirt,'" says Wilmer Valderrama, who plays exchange student Fez. "Your son could say, 'Dad, we did that last week, you know.'"

"That '70s Show" is like "Happy Days" with an edge ... and bigger hair

Ensemble producers

The producers, too, are an ensemble. Marcy Carsey, Tom Werner and Caryn Mandabach of "Roseanne" and "The Cosby Show" partner with Bonnie Turner, Terry Turner and Mark Brazill of "3rd Rock From the Sun" -- among their other comedy credits.

Some think the maybe-smoked-marijuana scene in the premiere was not so funny when drug use, especially by teen-agers, has become a deep-seated fear in American society. Maybe seeing the flowered wallpaper swimming around behind his parents' heads as the kid talks to them shouldn't be treated laughingly.

"The reason we did it was just because we wanted to portray the decade as realistically as possible," producer Brazill told CNN.

The scene was controversial even before it was aired. The Turners and Brazill apparently talked about it at length with Fox Entertainment Group President Peter Roth. Bonnie Turner was emphatic that the show had to be honest but that it was "not about drugs."

Her husband Terry, also the show's executive producer, joined in voicing concern about the impact of the scene. But he told the San Jose Mercury News: "If we had done a show that was strictly about the clothes and the hair, it would be a very empty show indeed. It would be like doing 'The Untouchables' and never mentioning Prohibition."

Perms, short shorts and polyester pants

While the allusion to drugs was one aspect of realism that reared its head before the youngsters, the adults found reality encroaching in another manner: Mimicking the show's time frame, when the rebellious 1960s had not quite ended, they know that their teen-age costars don't listen to them in the show or on the set.

"None of the teen-agers will listen to us, and we know, and so we just let them do their thing, and we kind of let them make their own mistakes, stand in the corner and mumble together, 'Well, they'll figure it out,'" says Debra Jo Rupp, who plays Kitty Forman, the mother of 17-year-old Eric.

But in some respects, the kids may have little choice but to listen up, particularly when trying to learn the nuances of '70s hip.

"Ashton had this thing where he was supposed to refer to 'Chico and the Man,'" says actor Dan Stark, "and he doesn't know what 'Chico and the Man' is." So, in a related line intended to be delivered "Lookin' goooood," Ashton missed the inflection in the line.

"All of a sudden you find that you are the cultural reference point to an era devoid of culture," Stark marvels.

These Wisconsin kids of 1976-- Eric, Kelso, Jackie, Hyde and Fez -- hang out mostly in the basement of the home of beautiful Donna's parents. Fox says in its publicity material that they have "just discovered perms and short shorts."

The network is leaning on hopes that nostalgia for polyester pants and smiley buttons will be high.

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