The Consumer Republic: Hooked On A Feeling

Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used To Be.
Nostalgia used to be the yearning for an earlier, simpler time, the desire to go back to better days. Then along came ’70s nostalgia. Here was a decade which broke the American spirit. Our faith in authority was crushed by Watergate (although compared to impeachment scandal
’90s-style, it now seems positively uplifting).
Vietnam lingered in the national psyche like a bad hangover. The consumer groaned under high inflation. Cheap gas, the birthright of every citizen, was but a memory. Japanese manufacturing excellence exposed the flabby underbelly of American business. The ethos of “the personal is political” had devolved into the personal alone. Who thought it possible to look back on that dreary mix of anger, aimlessness and fear with the fondness we once felt for the long lost days of malt shops and the high-school hop?
Besides, isn’t it a tad smug to be celebrating the downbeat ’70s in our current age of commodity gluts, low inflation and the warm self-congratulatory sense of economic superiority? Never mind. In the Consumer Republic, sooner or later every demo gets its due. The ’70s revival has already passed through fashion and feature films, including the recent 54, a movie that makes the sex and drug-drenched era seem boring. Now in prime time, the butt end of the baby boom finally gets a Happy Days of its own.
Powered by advance word of an under-the-influence pot scene (pretty funny, as it happens), That ’70s Show debuted on Fox in August as the No. 7 program of the week, beating the lead-in numbers from the venerable Simpsons. It features the regulation band of fresh faces playing the young and the restless in the days of omnivorous sex and diminished expectations. Wearing their disco inferno duds like clown suits, these characters are stranded somewhere between the Fonz and Beavis and Butt-head, still challenging authority but no longer really sure why.
“You can’t look at this decade cynically,” the program’s executive producer told TV Guide about the era that put cynicism on the cultural map. “We don’t want to be some ’70s clichƒ.” Spare me. This is a sitcom, which means the more clichƒs the better. (Certainly the producers figured this out when they wisely changed the show’s title to That ’70s Show from one of those generic, this-gang-o’-mine sitcom monikers.)
Sure enough, the show leaves no clichƒ unturned: Dad dresses in petroleum-based synthetics that look on the verge of bursting into flames, and Mom shakes her booty. In the first two episodes alone, the creators used up lava lamps, Farah Fawcett, the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders, the Carpenters, blaxploitation flicks, Saturday Night Fever, Todd Rundgren, 8-track tapes, the gas crisis and Japanese econo-cars. At this rate, they’ll have ransacked the entire decade long before the episode commitment runs out.
Then, of course, there’s sex, the kind of jiggly, double-entendre lust that has larded sitcoms at least since the days of Three’s Company, a real ’70s show. Yet in a touching anachronism, the hero Eric is, like Richie in Happy Days, the straightest, most traditional of the bunch. Next door lives Donna, his best friend, a stacked strawberry blonde who knows how to fill a pair of designer jeans. Much is made of whether they’re going to do it–when everyone knows that in the ’70s, they always did.
Meantime, Eric’s parents rush upstairs to their waiting copy of The Karma Sutra as soon as the kids are out of the house. The beauty part is that the show is impervious to charges of bad taste because, as its art directors constantly remind us, bad taste was what the decade was all about. Yet there’s some pathos here, too.
Most sitcom pilots feature the catalyst event, the one that sets up the “sit” from which the “com” flows: Mary Richards is hired by Mr. Grant or Diane takes a job at Cheers. In That ’70s Show, the moment comes when 17-year-old Eric is given the family Vista Cruiser by his dad, who just bought a Toyota. It is the perfect metaphor. Here was the inheritance of the boomers as they reached adulthood: a resource-sucking, rust-bucket relic of vanished good times. After that, a sitcom on Fox is the least this cohort deserves.
Of course, That ’70s Show is not really aimed at them. After all, the real-life contemporaries of Eric and his friends are now pushing 40, a little beyond Fox’s demo of choice. And like Happy Days, That ’70s Show is for an audience who has no idea what the ’70s were like, but knows a smiley face when they see it. It was when the ’50s had been reduced to poodle skirts and ducktails that we knew it was dead. The same can be said for shag carpets and avocado refrigerators.
Nostalgia, it turns out, is not a way of remembering the past. It’s a symptom of forgetting it.