Television Turmoil: That 80s Show

Television Turmoil is a look at the worst and weirdest series to make their way onto the small screen.

As the 90s drew to a close, Fox had firmly established itself as the de facto fourth network on broadcast television. By 1998, the pop cultural wave that Fox rode to success was crashing. Married…With Children, the network’s closest thing to a standard sitcom left the air, leaving executives desperate for something to fill the void. Enter the nostalgia baiting comedy of That 70s Show.

One of Fox’s few success stories of the year, That 70s Show, became a hit thanks to the chemistry between its young cast members and the blunt way it depicted teenage antics in a boring small town. The aforementioned nostalgia definitely helped. By 2002, the program had become a flagship of the network and talks drifted toward creating a spinoff. Not wanting to mess with the cast dynamics by removing a character, the show’s producers opted instead to spinoff the concept.

Named after a joke from creator Mark Brazil, That 80s Show took the concept of “decade-centric sitcom” and applied it to an era still deep in the cultural lexicon. While its parent show focused on a cast of teens in Wisconsin, this one centered on a group of friends in their 20s trying to make it in San Diego. A pre-Always Sunny Glenn Howerton plays our lead, Corey Howard, a struggling musician rarely seen playing music. Corey lives with his divorced dad, R.T. (Geoff Pierson) and college drop-out sister Katie (Tinsley Grimes). To make ends meet, Corey works at a record store run by ex-hippie Margaret (Margaret Smith). It is at the store that he meets his co-worker and eventual love interest Tuesday (Chyler Leigh), an 80s-style punk with some impressive liberty spikes. The rest of the cast includes Reaganite Roger Park (Eddie Shin) and Corey’s ex-girlfriend Sophia (Brittany Daniel). She identifies as bisexual and the show never lets us forget this.

This is the first spin-off I’ve covered so far, which I mention only to bring up how profoundly weird this idea is. Despite sharing the same creators, That 80s Show has no connection with its 70s counterpart. No mention of someone having family in Wisconsin and no guest stars appearing from the other show. It is a spin-off simply because it has the same name with a different decade thrown in.

That decade looms large over the show. That 80s Show isn’t just set during a specific time, it is about the decade to the detriment of everything else. The characters range from unlikable to vague sketches, all of whom exist to get us from one 80s reference to another. Plots that aren’t specifically about the decade still have to find time to wedge in a song from the era or a reference to a cultural event everyone remembers. It’s a show so focused on nostalgia that it forgets to tell jokes or provide a plot.

Another major stumbling block was an inability to see the major difference between the 70s and the 80s. 70s nostalgia worked in 1998 because we had moved far enough away from it to look back with fondness. By 2002 we were only 12 years removed from a decade that left a big imprint on many people. More than that, the 80s loomed so large over the pop culture landscape that we never really stopped talking about them. Even now, 40 years removed from the start of the decade, we continue to discuss and pander to nostalgia for the neon era. That 80s Show wasn’t reminding us of something we’d forgotten. Instead, it was telling us the same stories we’d already heard.

Audience agreed, That 80s Show was a massive flop and ended its run after 13 episodes. Of all the mistakes made, perhaps following the naming convention of its predecessor was the one that doomed it. Comparing itself so closely to the better show only brought more scrutiny. While this program flamed out, That 70s Show would ride on for another four seasons. The finale ended right at the start of New Year’s 1980, unsurprisingly no one brought up this show.

The decade may have changed, but the writers still loved setting a scene in a car.

These days, That 80s Show exists as a punchline both for its uninspired title and the continued programming woes of Fox. For me, the show is a curiosity for testing the limits of what we consider a spin-off. I’d like to say a lesson was learned, but recent news suggests the opposite.

News broke late last year that Netflix was hard at work on a sequel series That 90s Show. The program will focus on the child of That 70s protagonists Eric and Donna. It makes a certain sense, as we get closer and closer to the bottom of the barrel labeled “useful IP,” that we’d land on the now-franchise of That [decade] Shows. At least it will connect this future bit of nostalgia bait to the show people enjoyed. There is something to be said for the little lessons learned, even when the big ones remain ignored.

Next Time: We look at the first of three NBC sitcoms starring cast members of Seinfeld with the zany antics of The Michael Richards Show.

As always, thanks for reading! If you have any suggestions for future shows you want to see covered, leave them in the comments below. For more great content, follow me on Twitter @JesseSwanson