November 30, 2017

LAM | Lessons from That ‘70s Show: Leave the Flare Jeans, Disco Through the Next 3 Years

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Battling the boredom that comes with being stuck in a Queens suburbs for Thanksgiving, I decided to watch other people have more fun in a similar situation by revisiting That ’70s Show. For those who are unfamiliar, That ’70s Show is a sitcom about teenager Eric Forman and his adventures with ditzy friends and family in the suburbs of 1970s Wisconsin. A show that travels back to the 1970s — a decade of distasteful fashion, politics, cars — it features simple storylines with relatable humor and devilishly creative camerawork that is almost avant-garde for a network show. There really are no adventures in Point Place, WI –the lyrics of the theme, “Hanging out down the street.  The same old thing, we did last week,” divulge this readily in the title sequence. The plots mostly revolve around the antics of teenage life in the American suburb and they resonated with me even in Rego Park, NY in 2017.

The third episode of the first season struck me, however. The year is 1976, and President Gerald Ford stops by Point Place to hold a reelection campaign town hall. In an effort to show some good ol’ Midwestern hospitality (and to grovel to the 38th president), the local Republican lcommittee decides to include a  Q&A session featuring an “ordinary Joe,” but with scripted questions. They chose Red Forman, Eric’s father, and tell him to ask the hilarious, “Which is your favorite Thanksgiving parade?”

Mr. Forman, having been just put on part-time work by the local G.M. plant, would much rather have asked what millions of Americans also worried about: “What the hell are you going to do to fix the economy?”

Some historical context is needed here. Although it was America’s bicentennial, 1976 was not the country’s best year. The economy was in a recession that extended well beyond Wall Street to Main Street. Already reeling from an oil crisis, ordinary Americans faced stagflation, a period of high unemployment and high inflation to which no one, from the Federal Reserve chairman to Red Forman, knew how to react.

Previous episodes of the show already alluded to other social problems during this time. In the first episode, Mr. Forman, although a G.M. employee, has to buy a Toyota, because by then, Japanese cars had outmatched their American counterparts in efficiency and reliability. Leadership from a White House still disgraced by Watergate was tepid. President Ford’s leading solution was the lackluster “WIN” (or Whip Inflation Now!), basically a federally-funded public relations campaign on how people should ration and save. Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors at the time, later regretted his reluctant support of the president’s initiative, deeming it “unbelievably stupid.” Two years into his presidency, the Michigander, despite his good intentions and humor, was largely seen as illegitimate and incompetent.

Noticing the passing motifs of this episode (the election, a disreputable president, the failing Midwestern plants, general dissatisfaction after a hard-hitting recession) I could not resist the comparisons to today’s America. The similarities are eerily uncanny.

So what was our solution in 1976, in when seemed to be the darkest hour of America? A twenty-minute sitcom about the suburbs, That ’70s Show provides no profound solution to this question which not even the White House back then could answer.

The glimmer of hope I saw, however, was two-fold. First, Red Forman does the right thing and asks Ford, “Why the hell did you pardon Nixon?” instead of being a sycophantic “ordinary Joe.” In the resolution scene, he teaches nerdy and scrawny Eric that “sometimes, a man’s gotta do what’s right in his heart.” Freedom of speech is indeed important, and a president is not someone over whom we should fawn. The president is a public servant. They might sit atop the political food chain and enjoy all the trappings of their power, but they are a public servant nonetheless. In fact, because it is the pinnacle of power, the White House ought to not have any self-serving intentions — there is no greater honor left to seek. Back then, a president’s moral compass seemed a lot more important: Jimmy Carter’s perceived integrity, compared to Ford’s compromised morals over the Nixon affair, later won him the election of 1976. Let’s not leave this basic, ethical standard for our leaders in the dustbin of history.

The second message is less obvious: life goes on. This is implied not just by one particular episode, but by the entire show, which ran for eight seasons. Yes, of course, the Formans and their friends are doing well in the next episode — the show has to reset to keep running. But the “reset” present in so many sitcoms somewhat reflects reality as well. Because of the expanse and federalism of this country, political strife is a sideshow to the lives of most Americans. We should take comfort that we are not affected by every tweet or gaffe the White House makes. Media companies make us think otherwise — they have to, in order to buoy their ratings or clickbait for ad revenues — and we have to defend ourselves against that notion. Policies, rather than politics, do affect us. But thankfully, Washington is pretty inept at concocting those right now, and the sensible, moderate Republicans in the Senate who have disrupted dangerous policies should be lauded. There are, of course, adverse effects — political apathy runs ridiculously high in this country — but in these stressful times, perhaps it is okay to simply cherish the people and life around us. We have to be attentive of Washington, but also be less anxious.

Network sitcoms, especially those that get canceled after two episodes, don’t always reflect real life very well. But That ’70s Show arguably does, and maybe there is a lesson to be learned from this silly mirror of American life. Once President Ford left their town, the Formans went back to living normally, as if nothing had happened. We should probably worry less too, at least for a minute, since this president probably doesn’t have the courage to show up to Ithaca soon anyway.


Matthew Lam is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]The Despatch Box appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.