27 episodes (a rarity today; even rarer is that every single one succeeds at being delicately balanced between comedy and bits of pathos), 10 cast members, an impressive selection of guest stars (Wayne Knight, Howard Hesseman, Richard Karn, French Stewart, Roger Daltrey, and others), and consistently noteworthy scripts from a stable of writers that are so thoroughly tapped into who these characters are makes the fourth season the strongest of the entire run of That ‘70s Show. In the interview, “Making Company: David Trainer on Directing That ‘70s Show,” found on the last disc of this three-disc set from Mill Creek Entertainment (previously released by 20th Century Fox itself, but most welcome at a cheaper price), David Trainer says that he’s never been around a company as tight as this one, that he’s proudest of the fun they had making something so much fun, and that it’ll never happen like this again. He speaks the truth. And Laura Prepon, in her interview on the third disc, says that there’s the family you choose and the family you’re born into, and this is the family she chose. Yes. Truly a family. No animosity to be picked out among the cast in any of the episodes, no wrong steps in the comedy, never a moment of boredom with any of the characters.
The fourth season begins after Eric (Topher Grace) and Donna (Prepon) break up, after Donna gives back his promise ring, but not in the way you’d expect. We’re given an It’s a Wonderful Life parody with Wayne Knight as the angel who shows Eric what his life would have been if he hadn’t kissed Donna that first time. Then we get what’s expected after a breakup, in the second episode, “Eric’s Depression.” He doesn’t want to get out of bed, and when he does, his Alpha Bits cereal spells “Donna,” and the olives in the pimento loaf are Donna’s face. It’s hard enough for Donna too, not shown as prominently, and they’ve still got their beef with each other, leading into “Pinciotti vs. Forman,” in which Eric kicks Donna out of the basement, and the two fight over custody of their friends.
The mark of a great sitcom is not only in how much you laugh, but the creativity in playing with old tropes, such as Eric and Donna’s custody battle, which includes Donna treating Fez (Wilmer Valderrama) like he was her own child. The origins episode “Class Picture,” which has the gang remembering when they first met each other, shows them as children, and Eric and Donna’s first meeting shows him smitten with her, and her just as strong in body and soul as she is in her current form.
The fourth season also delves into major contrasts. The spoiled Jackie (Mila Kunis) gets an actual job in “Jackie Says Cheese,” and in “Jackie’s Cheese Squeeze,” her frustration with the many times Kelso (Ashton Kutcher) has cheated on her comes to a dramatic head. But the most sobering and saddening surprise of the season is Donna deciding to date Kelso’s brother Casey (Luke Wilson), which has a sad ending for Donna and sets her on the course she takes in the season finale, also caused by her mother (an absent Tanya Roberts, who would return in the sixth season finale and stay for a few episodes at the beginning of the seventh season) leaving her father and moving to California.
The utter creativity of the fourth season is wonderful, the peak being “That ‘70s Musical,” with the characters actually breaking out in song and doing dance routines. It’s all them. Also factor in some great sets in “Eric’s Depression,” “Donna’s Story,” and a Wizard of Oz parody later in the season, and it’s easy to see that this was one series that was fun for every department, including set design. As David Trainer says in his interview, making the work environment happy is important, and it shows. In her interview, Prepon says that for other people going to work, Monday’s a drag, and in her own way, she expresses her excitement over every Monday at work.
In his three audio commentaries, on “Eric’s Depression,” “Class Picture,” and “Hyde’s Birthday,” Trainer first makes the mistake of not having an audio commentary for “That ‘70s Musical,” which would have been just as interesting to learn about as “Too Old to Trick or Treat, Too Young to Die” was in that audio commentary on the third season set. Trainer’s abysmal record with audio commentaries doesn’t guarantee that he would have gone into detail about what was involved in making that episode, including song selections, but he presents evidence that he just might have given more insight than he usually does by way of “Class Picture,” when he finally goes into detail about how a 360 could potentially be edited, and that they shot “a great deal of this episode, particularly the classroom stuff, without an audience.” Understandable, since there were more moving parts in the episode than could conceivably be shot in one night in front of an audience. On the “Hyde’s Birthday” commentary, he also explains the firecracker stunt, which makes me wonder how this can be the same David Trainer who, in the “Eric’s Depression” commentary, tells the stories of the episode as we’re seeing them, which is reliably annoying once again. Perhaps that he was recording these audio commentaries at the end of production of the series made him want to give more than he ever has before. Being that he directed every episode after the pilot, he’s one of the greatest authorities on the show, and at least gives a little more to the fans. Hopefully that continues in the next season sets.
In his on-camera interview, Trainer gives two valuable tidbits. First, he actually demonstrates the camera used for the 360s, and then says that most of the company of actors had never acted extensively, and so they were actually going through the stages that the characters go through as they were representing them on television. That’s particularly true of Mila Kunis, who was 14 years old when she was cast, as she says in “A ‘70s Show Flashback: Mila Kunis.” Prepon’s interview is just as insightful, telling of her experience when she was sitting in the hallway, waiting to read for the network, which also had approval of the cast, and also who she was when she tried out for the part, which informed the character of Donna. With most interviews, you can tell when actors are just parroting lines about how great it was to work with their castmates and director and other people, saying it but not showing it. Kunis and Prepon have the same lines, but it’s more genuine here. You can tell that they loved their years on the show, and it’s especially hard for Prepon to see it end.
There’s also 24 episode promos, which make you wonder who put them together and what’s involved in that process, and to cap it off, you also get Mill Creek Entertainment’s famous method of packaging: Paper sleeves for each disc. This is likely what keeps That ‘70s Show affordable ($11.93 on Amazon), but anathema for those who like to stack their DVD cases on shelves. You have to be extremely careful when slipping each disc out of the sleeve, but if you’re a through-and-through fan of the series, and you have another method of storage, get these discs out of these sleeves immediately and throw them away. That’s what I did for the three previous season sets, getting them out of those sleeves and putting them in three of the final pages of my second DVD binder. It’s not worth these discs potentially being scratched. I wish Mill Creek would consider plastic disc storage, with three push-button hubs for the DVDs, but it’s a catch-22: Convenient storage or a pleasing cheaper price? Not everyone has DVD binders, though, or wants them, so there should be better storage.
Ideally, if you haven’t seen any episode of That ‘70s Show, start from the beginning. Watch the evolution of these characters (another sign of a great sitcom). If you’re so inclined, they’re cheap enough to buy from Amazon, and the first season was released on Blu-ray last March. But if you just want to go at random, rush for this set. Watch an enormously talented group of actors do what few other actors can do well. David Trainer’s right: It’ll never happen like this again.