15 July 2006

THAT '70s SHOW AND AMERICAN LIFE

Do any of you watch "That '70s Show?" Of course, its a TV series based on an amusing concept: a group of teenagers in small-town Wisconsin growing up in the basement of the family of Eric Forman. Everyone in the show, even the stern war veteran Red Forman, seems to believe in a goofy hedonism that seems to render any of their life-concerns trivial by comparison.

Of course, "That '70s Show" has made its run, and is now only in syndication. But, looking over the episode guide, one can see a steady devolution in the quality of the show itself. It was charming during the first three seasons, up until the point when Eric and Donna break up. Season four becomes a whole lot more soap-operatic, with the drama between Eric and Donna, but still quite funny. Season five, with Jackie paired up with Steven, is really the last funny season. Seasons six and seven are uncomfortable, six less so than seven. The whole marriage thing doesnt work as a plotline. Giving Steven a Black father was weird and inappropriate and they didnt really do anything with it.

Season eight was a complete mistake. Danny Masterson was at that point way too old to play Steven Hyde. Eric Formans basement without Eric Forman seems wrong. All of the regular characters lapse too easily and too often into monotonous self-parody. I can't watch season eight episodes at all.

There are specific signposts marking the decline and fall of "That '70s Show." Eric and Donna's breakup is the beginning of the end; after that the show becomes less of a parody of unserious relationships. The disappearance of Lisa Robin Kelly as Eric's sister Laurie was one of the big ones. Lisa Robin Kelly was funny; when they replaced her with Christina Moore (playing Laurie's part) at the beginning of season six, it was as if everyone was embarrassed that Kelly wasn't there.

At the end of season five, Red suffers a heart attack this takes the edge off of his character and makes him less funny. After the core characters graduated from high school (in the last episode of season five), some of them (certainly Donna; perhaps also Eric) should have gone to college; the late '70s was, after all, the easiest era in all of American history to go to college, 1980 being the highest point of per-student college financial aid ever. Instead, Donna wastes three seasons playing a small-town girl before (in the final episode) doing what she knew she should have done all along: leaving for college. Her bleached-blond look made her a lot less compelling as a character, too. The point of being Donna, from the beginning, was that she wasnt supposed to change her hair-color, looks, or brains for anybody.

Getting rid of Eric (sending him to Africa) and bringing in Randy deprived the whole series of its central tension, which centered on what Eric was going to do with his life. And when Eric returned from Africa in the last episode, he should have brought something back or become someone different than what he was. The scriptwriters didnt do anything with it.

Throughout the series, one sees a steady disappearance of the charming relics of 1970s culture. The highlights of this were, for instance, the roller disco derby, the episodes set around the movies Star Wars and Annie Hall, the appearances of Ted Nugent, Alice Cooper, and Shirley Jones, the Led Zeppelin concert, the punk girl (Chrissie) who almost steals Hyde, and so on.

So with "That '70s Show" one can see a steady decline after season 3, leading to serious downturns at the end of seasons 5 and 7. I think one can say the same thing about American history as a whole, from (more or less) the end of the 70s to the present day. I suppose the two big downturns were the passage of NAFTA in Clintons first term (after which the Republicans brought forth the Contract with America), and the botched election of 2000, which ushered in that great desecration of American schooling, the No Child Left Behind Act. Soon thereafter, of course, we had the 9/11 disasters, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the evisceration of the Bill of Rights, and so on.

The cultural downturn is clear; most of what counts as pop music is in serious decline. This is at least true in the American version of pop music the British have been the worlds best pop musicians since the Beatles, with the Americans doing most of the rest of the work. (There are plenty of other countries that deserve honorable mention: Canada (Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot), Australia (Midnight Oil, Yothu Yindi), Senegal (Baaba Maal, Youssou NDour), Brazil (Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso etc.), and Jamaica (reggae) come to mind first.) American pop seems to have peaked around 1981 (or 1970 for the pre-punk generation), and fallen into serious decline thereafter. The great expansion of grunge and hip-hop in the 1990s was mostly derivative; rock had long ago shot its wad by then.

The great inflation of rents and mortgage payments that we call the real estate bubble, when combined with the utter immiseration of student life due to increases in student fees and reductions in financial aid, appear to have taken the joy out of American economic life. Once upon a time in America, one could use the American university/ college system to push aside the capitalist rat race and pursue a number of various and easy-to-get degrees in the humanities or social sciences, while following the life-philosophy of do what you want; the money will follow. Those opportunities have almost all dried up. Sometime in the late '90s, I remember reading that per-person financial aid peaked in 1980, and had become only half of what it was then. The situation has to be worse now, given the significant rise in student loan rates since July 1 of this year.

The prostitution of American politics to the process of capital accumulation is typified by the prostration of the Two-Party System toward the Bush Administration. Even the so-called Left in America has elite gatekeepers reporting monthly to the Rockefeller Foundation. The so-called revolt against the status quo, in its many cultural forms, invariably proposes remedies for today's politics that are about 0.01 percent adequate to the real soup which Americans are objectively sinking into. And still, an inordinate few of Americas responsible citizens have the ganas to support a third party with their votes, if not with their voter registrations.

One can only suspect that the process-as-a-whole is in its last, ugly stages, and that a new chapter of American history will begin sometime soon. Following the news these days is like waiting for "That '70s Show" to go out of production, so that its last wretched run can be terminated. It is time for all of us to seek friends, to watch and prepare.

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