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Hangin' Out.

By Adrienne Martini

MARCH 6, 2000:  Just when you thought you'd seen every last permutation of the "family" sitcom—not "family" as in G-rated, but family as in "about families"—along comes FOX with a brilliant new twist called That 70s Show (Mondays, 8 p.m.). Like The Cosby Show and Roseanne before it, which were also produced by Carsey-Werner, That 70s Show injects a fresh shot of ingenuity into the tired TV routine. While Cosby relied on novelty and Roseanne on balls, That 70s Show takes a new tack by grounding the program in genuineness.

It's a crazy idea for television, to actually trust a talented team of writers to produce scripts that are both heartbreakingly and heartwarmingly honest while remaining irreverent about what it was like to be discovering sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll in the middle of a decade known for its excesses of all three. And Carsey-Werner, that bunch of nuts, also chose to not cast a big name, like Cosby or Roseanne or John Lithgow (in their 3rd Rock From the Sun). Instead, That 70s cast is made up of unknowns, really young unknowns who range in age from 16-23, to boot.

The first few episodes, granted, stumbled a bit trying to find a direction—even though there were some moments that should be classics 20 years from now (a la Lucy's grape-stomping routine), like our hero Eric Forman stoned and struggling to talk to his dad. Fortunately, the show is airing on FOX, which means that it has to really, really, really stink to be not on-air—just look at Who Wants to Marry a Dangerous Animal or whatever the heck it was called. Now, half-a-dozen months later, the show has found its groove and groovy-ness.

But the center of the show will always be Topher Grace's Eric, the skinny, snide-yet-lovable dumb-ass who is the guy you sat next to in high school math class in 1976. Grace's skill may come from his training with The Groundlings, a troupe of L.A. improv theater folk. But it also seems to come from his and the audience's empathy for the character.

Of course, Eric's main goal is that of any 17-year-old: to get laid. Laura Prepon's red-headed tomboy Donna is his target and the two play off each other like Hepburn and Tracy wearing polyester. The rec room gang—admit it, you had one too—and the parents round it out, each actor having a ball adding something ineffable to this warm, honest, laugh-out-loud funny "family" sitcom.

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