The 1970s in Western culture is an easy decade to mock. By modern standards the taste in colors (such as "avocado" and "tobacco") are vile, in decor (for example, macrame and shag rugs) is laughable, and in dress (velour shirts, polyester jumpsuits, bell bottoms and so forth) in very poor taste. It would have been exceedingly easy to take pot shots at the poor decisions designers of all stripes made and have sight gag after sight gag of hideous airplane wing collars, spontaneously combusting cars and pet rocks.
The creators of That 70's Show, on the other hand, were not interested in the decade in terms of such easy pickings. What intrigued the writers and creators of what was first called Teenage Wasteland was the notion of setting a comedy at a time when America was very much in flux and had considerable social change. For them there was far more fodder, and richer veins of drama and comedy in how people were thinking and what was happening to them than something as simple as the hideous colors people used on their walls and the horrible plastic fabrics they wore. Test audiences loved "That 70's Show" and it became the final title.
For me personally, the decade didn't exist. Having been born later, I might as well have been watching a documentary about the 1930s in terms of my own experience, so I'm glad they didn't make the show a series of inside jokes only somebody alive during them would be able to recognize.
For them, conflict and therefore comedy was to be found in parents who went to church as kids and fearing the flames of Hell raising children who saw church as a boring waste of time. In a father who saw the Korean War dealing with the fact that the zeitgeist of self-reflection and "wanting to find oneself" had reached small town America, and was affecting his son. In girls who saw burgeoning women's lib as a beacon of hope dating men who had completely internalized the idea that they would be the sole breadwinner in a traditional patriarchal household in an economy that no longer produced those kinds of jobs.
From that premise was born the show, which is one of those whose eight seasons make for compelling viewing on Netflix. Unlike other shows, which are episodic in nature but can be seen in any order, there are story arcs and character development arcs that really don't lend themselves well to syndication, with people catching a random show here and there. It's one that lends itself to an entire day or two of savoring several episodes in a row. Smartly written and well acted by a dynamite cast, it launched the careers of several actors, most notably Punk'd star and Siiicon Valley venture capitalist Ashton Kutcher and model and voice actress Mila Kunis. It also most certainly ended some careers as well. If Kurtwood Smith ever gets work again after the typecasting as Red Forman, it'll be a miracle. Likewise, Debra Jo Rupp will always be pictured as Kitty regardless of having ditched her iconic wig and laugh.
The series itself centers around the basement of the house of Point Place, Wisconsin teenager Eric Forman. An unassuming, skinny and geeky redhead with a ready and sarcastic wit, he represents the Everyman of the show, in a sense. The teenage years become awkward when next door neighbor Donna Piciati, now a beautiful redheaded woman, becomes more than the girl next door to him. Assembled in his basement as well are longtime friend "Hyde", a half-black (not found out as such until late in the show) stoner kid enamored with Led Zeppelin and Camaros, a cool and cynical foil and a reminder that the decade produced cool stuff like AC/DC and the Gran Torino as well as platform heel shoes. Hyde eventually has nowhere to live, given his mother goes from being neglectful and mostly absent to entirely absent, a stripper and suggested drug abuser who eventually abandons her son in an unheated house to pursue yet another man. Eric's mom Kitty, who has been keeping him around to keep an eye on him and feed him, takes him in entirely as a surrogate son of sorts. Rounding out the group of friends are village idiot and extremely handsome space cadet Michael "Mike" Kelso, his bratty and spoiled girlfriend Jackie Burkhart, and a strange, vaguely ethnic exchange student simply known as "Fes".
This is to the consternation of Eric's father Reginald "Red" Forman, a Korean War vet with zero sense of humor, a penchant for threatening to kick people's asses (usually in colorful roundabout ways) and a constant sense of barely contained rage. His wife Kitty, a bubbly nurse with an unusual laugh and a penchant for drinking to excess is funamentally a kind den mother to them all and perfect counterpart to Red's disciplinarian. Red is also completely bemused by neigbor Bob Pinciati, Donna's father. Bob, when he isn't eating, is engaging in whatever ridiculous fad that the 1970s was famous for during the year the series is set in, and his everpresent Afro perm and period-correct but horrible taste in clothes is enough to annoy Red in and of itself. However, Bob is easygoing, a wife-swapping swinger, and fond of terrible jokes, which irritates Red further.
Life wrote the script for some of the rest of the cast. Eric's sister "Laurie" was a feature at the beginning of the series but was written out, and the actress in question eventually succumbed to the drug addictions and other demons that made her departure necessary. The writers also profited from the need for the actress playing Bob's wife "Midge" to retire temporarily (the actress left to take care of her ailing husband) by writing a divorce arc that allowed for an exploration of the subject at a time when it was a relatively new thing. Eric Forman was replaced by "Charlie" at the end of Series 7 and "Randy" in Series 8, owing to his commitment to the feature film Spiderman franchise. Ashton Kutcher, likewise, bowed out of much of seasons 7 and 8 to pursue other roles.
The genius in setting the series in small town Wisconsin made it possible to avoid the obvious jokes: though the clothes are period correct, they're toned down, as is the taste in decor. It is easy to forget that the show is set in the 1970s unless you really concentrate on the fabrics and silhouettes, owing to a lack of overly gaudy or stereotypical fads that would not have made it to small town America. It also made it possible to explore how things that were happening in the 1960s and revolutionary for the period sank into suburban culture. Eric and Donna become boyfriend and girlfriend, and then explore their sexuality with a concern and a combination of desire and reticence that was typical of the period. When her father finds out she's taking birth control, he considers it akin to her becoming the town prostitute (even though he and his wife were running lock and key parties). Kelso and Jackie have a pregnancy scare, and Kelso eventually impregnates a girl at a Molly Hatchet concert and their child causes complications for his life that are considered typical these days. Kitty wants to try all these new things she's reading about in magazines, whereas Red is very old school sexually and feels threatened by Kitty's impulses.
The gang regularly smoke marijuana (rarely mentioned as such - there's just a smash cut to them sitting in a darkened smoky room, with the camera rotating on a table in front of them to do a close up on each actor at a time as they interact) in a ritual they call "the circle" and mostly get away with it because of the naivete of the parents. They get it past the censors as well because even though it's patently obvious what they're doing, there's no sign of anyone actually smoking anything, just the vague suggestion of smoke coming from somewhere).
And the show shines simply because of the range it gives its actors. Relationships break up, people lose jobs. Eric leaves Donna at the altar, stays in a relationship with her off and on, and abandons her when he goes to Africa. Actors aren't just there to make people laugh, but also to cry on cue and emote some very, very somber moments. At one point Red and Kitty, facing the hard economic times of the late 1970s have a brief but poignant exchange. "We've had (hard) times like this before". "When, Kitty?" In some very rare moments, rare enough to not eliminate the menace of Red's character, he admits he loves his son. He does so mostly in moments such as the time when he offers his son, leaving for Africa, a pen knife he carried in Korea. When Eric cannot believe his father just spoke to him kindly and with praise, he asks Red to repeat himself, to which Red simply says, "You heard me."
They have some rich characterization to draw from. Though Jackie is spoiled, she seeks love and commitment in the arms of most of the male cast because she is unloved at home to a father who is in prison and a trophy wife mother who also abandons her. Hyde is cynical and jaded and throws away a relationship he deeply cares about to marry a stripper in Vegas because his own mother abandoned him repeatedly when he was young. Red was served a draft notice at 18 and made to become a hard ass far too young. Beyond set pieces like the circle or the water tower where they meet and drink on occasion (and Kelso often falls from) are running jokes like Bob's appetite, Red using the term "dumbass", and Kitty's nervous laugh. But fundamentally we care about them as people, and they're written with sensitivity and fully rounded as people.
The series ends with the cast reunited on New Year's Eve, 1979. Kelso is last up the stairs when the gang joins others to ring in the New Year and must pay a forfeit of calling Red a "dumbass", and accepting his fate dons a Green Bay Packers helmet known as "the stupid helmet" kept in the corner for the entirety of the series and braces himself. Donna walks outside sad that Eric couldn't make it to find him outside, where they promise to try and salvage and rebuild their on-and-off again relationship.
A sequel, "That 80s Show", tried too hard to capture the same lightning in a bottle. They forced a completely telegraphed will-they-won't-they relationship between a completely dissimilar couple brought together in a record store, and made the show far too dependent on "look how ridiculous things were back then" sight gags mocking the technology and fashion of the day. It did not last long before being cancelled.
It also represents one of the few shows where foreign copies didn't quite propser as well. A British version (which had a "vaguely Scandinavian" Fes character rather than a vaguely brown one) tanked, and they simply imported this series. The original itself, from its premise to its execution to its casting to its writing, were near-flawless. It is ironic that something rooted in old-school culture should be so helped by the latest innovation of on-demand television.