Contemporary Television’s history of failed spin-offs is a vast one, but what really sets That ’80s Show apart from its peers is that the only gene it carries from its parent show is the concept: a sitcom set in a specific time period. No characters from That ’70s Show appear, and the only slight connection the series attempts is a brief aside that main character Corey Howard (Always Sunny’s Glenn Howerton) is a cousin of Eric Foreman.
The same trio that produced the original hit series for Fox returned to mount That ’80s Show, yet it feels more like the brain child of a company executive who mistook his skills for analyzing Nielsen data as artistry. “It’s so obvious”, shrieked the balding suit and tie. “That ‘80s show! The kids will love it!”
Of course, they didn’t, and the series was canned after just an initial 13 episodes, while That ’70s Show would continue for another four seasons. Just as obvious as the concept was to Fox executives fourteen years ago, it seems just as obvious now why the show failed. Its pitfalls are gapping, and yet seem to appear again and again, year after year, in new network comedy series that don’t make it past half a season.
The Same Old Thing They Did Last Week
That ’80s Show follows a group of 20-somethings living in 1984’s San Diego. Main character (?) Corey Howard is a directionless post-graduate and aspiring musician who works at a local record store. He lives with his younger sister Katie, a valley-girl and secret college drop out, and his recently divorced father, RT, a lonely marketing executive that desperately wants to be in with his kids’ scene. Corey has a love interest in his co-worker, the apparently punk rock Tuesday, whose liberty spikes are often at the butt of chuckle-less gags. Also in the mix are Corey’s best friend Roger, an aspiring yuppie that worships Ronald Reagan; Corey’s ex-girlfriend Sophia, a bi-sexual who has the hots for Corey’s sister Katie (that’s really all her character is); and Margaret, Corey’s boss at the record store, an aging and dead-pan rock ‘n’ roll historian who apparently lived with Jim Morrison when she was 17. Yep.
That ’80s Show’s many shortcomings are clear within the first few minutes of the pilot. The characters of the show are not just hollow but boring, with performances lacking even the slightest bit of organic chemistry to make the show’s constant back-and-forth snark work. Of course, a major crutch of the show is its’ aforementioned time period gimmick, which it nudges the audience about repeatedly, mugging hopefully for a giggled “man, the ’80s sure were silly, weren’t they!”
What really sinks the show though is its total lack of purpose. Rarely does the conflict in an episode cause the characters even the slightest stress headache or moral conundrum. They mostly shrug things off, make sarcastic comments, and then go back to living in 2002’s 1984. There’s no sense of immediacy, no reason to come back after commercial. As the show progresses, it doesn’t get any better, but it doesn’t get any worse either. It just…goes on, paint drying to a howling laugh track.
Things That Are Apparently Amusing:
Sophia, Corey’s ex-girlfriend, bi-sexual and insane.
Corey’s ex really wants to fuck his sister. This is played for many laughs, as Sophia’s attempts to fulfill her desires include stalking and harassment. Sophia’s bi-sexuality is also one big joke, as Corey describes her as a “vegetarian who sometimes eats turkey”. Corey’s father RT blames Corey for Sophia’s orientation, claiming that he turned a “perfectly good woman into a lady golfer”. Ha. Haaa. HAaaAa. Hilarious.
Corey and Tuesday’s snarky sexual tension
They’re so mean to each other they have to be in love, right? That ’80s Show tries to make this trope work, but Corey and Tuesday are just unbearably robotic, making their way through line after line of cringy, cookie-cutter dialogue. It’s not fun to watch them berate each other because there seems to be little reason for them to really do so? They just do it because that’s what written in the script and it’s supposed to be funny. The audience is laughing though, so they must be nailing it!
Roger, the loser.
Like That ’70s Show’s only non-white regular Fez, Roger is the show’s favorite character to humiliate. Never as suave as he thinks he is, Roger is played as a perverted buffoon and shortsighted wannabe who constantly fails to succeed in everything he sets out to do. He’s a bad dancer and a bad businessman, living in an apartment above Corey’s family’s garage. Every time Roger tries to flirt with a woman it’s supposed to be very, very funny because what woman in her right mind would wanna date him!
In an attempt to seduce Sophia, Roger tells her that he also “goes both ways”. Her response? “Gross!” It’s all very nuanced.
The Snobbiest Record Store in Town
Remember High Fidelity? Wasn’t it just hilarious when Jack Black’s character was just a huge prick to customers who came in looking for generic, garbage pop-music? Well That ’80s Show attempts this same dynamic with Permanent Record, the local record store owned and operated by a bunch of snobby douchebags. Unlike High Fidelity, where it becomes clear that Jack Black’s elitism is rather toxic and silly, That 80s Show hopes we look up to Permanent Record’s employees’ disdain for the local plebeian scum, even though the show itself is mostly soundtracked by the same tacky music said plebs listen to.
The 80s! Ha Ha!
More than anything though, That 80s Show never misses a beat when it comes to mining the cultural sensibilities of the 1980s for comedy. Look at how they’re dressed! The music they listen to! It’s the same gag you get out of looking back at your old high school yearbook and going “man, what we’re we thinking then!” Except they took that and made it into a full-fledged, 22-minutes-an-episode sitcom. Rarely does the show go a single scene without referencing the time period; a constant reminder of how little of a show is left without it.
Why Did That ’70s Show Work and That ’80s Show Fail?
That ’70s Show’s pilot knows exactly what kind of show it wants to be, a rare accomplishment that even some of the best sitcoms take a few seasons to reach. The jokes are pointed and one-after-another, with each character immediately defined and impeccably cast. The time period works as great setting, not just a gimmick, with the first show’s plot focused on the kind of suburban teenage adventure that target prime-time audiences can relate to no matter what decade they grew up in. When it’s over you want more, not just for the ending that teases future romance between Eric and Donna, but because these kids (and adults) are just fun to hang out with.
That ’80s Show’s pilot is much different. A first season order was probably already guaranteed before the script was even written, so the first half-hour is not too worried about selling you on the show. Instead we’re introduced to the cast on a day that’s pretty much like any other day, with little suggesting that tomorrow will be any different. It’s frustratingly banal, so much so that you want to write “SO WHAT?” in red ink on the teleplay like that one English teacher did on so many of your done-the-night-before high school essays. It’s insultingly lazy, as the writers expect you to continue watching only because this is on TV and kinda like that other show you seem to like so much, so OBVIOUSLY you’re gonna wanna watch this too, dummy! It’s That ‘80s Show. That ‘8Os Show. The eighties! THE EIGHTIES!
The End of the Show As I Know It
I initially set out watch the entirety of That 80s Show’s first season, but I gave up after episode five. Sorry. But reading the Wikipedia synopses of the rest of the series, I don’t think I’m missing out on all that much. Here are some highlight plot points:
- Roger buys a new pair of parachute pants that make it impossible for him to sit down.
- RT. buys a new video camera, but doesn’t know how to operate it.
- Corey and Tuesday finally kiss, after much tension (and arguing), yet still argue at the end of the episode (but almost kiss again)
- Sophia starts at R.T.’s company, and becomes a power hungry control freak
- Tuesday becomes frustrated with Corey’s uniform lifestyle, but accepts it in the end.
- Margaret becomes obsessed with Footloose.
- Katie signs herself and Corey up to be on Star Search.
Imagine what they could have done in season two.