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Weekly Alibi Idiot Box

By Devin D. O'Leary

JULY 19, 1999:  All this wilt-inducing summer heat is driving me right out of the outdoors. Unfortunately, all I'm finding to keep myself entertained indoors these days is an old Nerf basketball hoop with half a spongy ball and a whole lot of summer reruns. The prospect of watching "Ally McBeal" for the third time, watching "Mad About You" for the first time, or -- I don't know -- actually doing something constructive with my life has got me stymied.

Fortunately, those kindly network trolls over at FOX have done me a summertime "solid." After ditching the inspired sitcom "That '70s Show" in favor of "The Family Guy" on Sunday nights, programming execs had a lot of 'splainin' to do (as Ricky Ricardo would say). But the FOXecutives have more than made up for their sin by booting "Family Guy" to Thursdays, returning "King of the Hill" and "Futurama" to their rightful place on Sundays and bringing "That '70s Show" back for a summertime run of refreshing new episodes.

Before it even aired, "That '70s Show" seemed like a dicey prospect -- yet another nostalgia-crazed cash-in. Happily, though, the show has turned out to be a warped, funhouse mirror look at today's pop culture obsession and a possible contender for the most devious show on television.

Following the adventures of six high school buds in Madison, Wis., circa 1976, "That '70s Show" takes the conventions of traditional sitcoms and warps them to its own insidious ends. One of the first shows to do this was FOX's own "Married ... With Children." That show took the most trite of sitcom situations -- the happily married family -- and turned it upside down. The Bundy clan was everything that a TV family was not supposed to be: rude, oversexed, undersexed, poor and unhappy.

"That '70s Show" takes things a step further. Rather than being a simple parody of TV sitcom conventions, "That '70s Show" forms a living, breathing recreation of a 1970s sitcom and tosses in a hornet's nest of temporal truths. In all likelihood, "That '70s Show" could have been programmed opposite "Happy Days" or "Welcome Back Kotter" with nary an eye-blink -- except for those little temporal truths. You see, the kids of this show -- unlike their Carter-era counterparts -- exhibit all the behavior of real teenagers. They spend most of their time trying to figure out how to steal beer. They smoke dope in their parents' basement. They obsess over getting laid. Remember that episode of "Happy Days" where Joanie went on the pill? Neither do I, but that's prime comic fodder for "That '70s Show."

Most of this stuff is slipped past the network censors (assuming FOX has any) with a subtle coating of wit. Here's a little clue: Any time "That '70s Show" kicks into its patented "move" -- in which the camera spins in a 360 degree loop while the characters talk -- there's a good chance everyone on screen is supposed to be stoned.

Thanks for the flashback, FOX.

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