A friend asked me over the weekend what my favorite three-camera sitcoms of all time are. I was supposed to narrow it down to my absolute favorite but I realized just how many amazing comedies have influenced me over the years. Obviously, shows like Cheers, I Love Lucy, Friends, and Seinfeld were tossed around and while I ended up landing with Cheers, remembering That 70’s Show landed hard, setting off a complete rewatch of the show and all its awesomeness.
That ’70s Show is an American television period sitcom that originally aired on Fox from August 23, 1998, to May 18, 2006. The series focused on the lives of a group of teenage friends living in the fictional suburban town of Point Place, Wisconsin.
While the show was primarily about the teens, adult characters Red and Kitty Forman often stole the show. And honestly, there are SO many terrible depictions of parents in teen and family-centric sitcoms. Usually because they always fall on the trope of lazy father and nagging mother, constantly bickering and never on the same page. Red and Kitty’s characters genuinely loved each other and while Red often leaned on the conservative patriarch role, because the show actually depicted the recession of the 70s and its effects on middle America, the portrayal became much more honest. You rooted for these two’s family and when it came to raising their kids, while they would disagree, they were typically on the same page in front of them. Kitty’s sarcasm to occasionally listen up Red was usually reserved for when they were alone and even when Red was angry, there was typically some truth involved.
I was thinking about this a lot as I randomly landed on the episode we’re about to break down: “Red’s Birthday”.
Season 2, Episode 10 “Red’s Birthday”
Red Forman, middle-aged patriarch who is struggling with being unemployed
Kitty, Red’s wife and working nurse trying to keep her family upbeat
Eric, Red and Kitty’s sarcastic son
Donna, Eric’s girlfriend and next door neighbor
Bob and Midge, Donna’s parents and “friends” of Red and Kitty
Hyde, Eric’s best friend who lives in the Formans’ basement
Kelso, friend of Eric
Fez, friend of Eric
Jackie, Donna’s friend and Kelso’s girlfriend
Laurie, Red and Kitty’s screw up daughter, sleeping with Kelso
A-Story: Kitty works to give Red the best birthday ever
B-Story: Eric is upset when Donna confides in Hyde
C-Story: Kelso can’t figure out why he and Jackie are fighting… again
A: Kitty wakes Red for birthday sex. Red is reluctant but eventually smiles as he caves.
A: As they kiss, the roof falls in on them. Red laments, “Happy Birthday to me” sarcastically, disappointing Kitty. (Inciting Incident)
A: Hyde searches through Donna’s kitchen for a perfect gift for Red. With Donna’s help he settles on Peach Schnapps.
B: Midge and Bob each enter the kitchen separately. When they see the other has left them a note, they write a nasty one back while Donna pleads with them not to embarrass her, but they ignore their daughter.
B: Hyde asks Donna how she’s doing and she opens up to him about the mess of a situation she’s living in.
A: At the Forman house, Kitty tells the kids to behave themselves for Red’s birthday. Laurie walks in reeking of alcohol and looking very unkempt, infuriating Kitty.
A: Red comes home and the kids share the gifts (2x4s for the roof, Schnapps, and a card with $7 dollars in it). Red gives a mediocre thanks in response to the terrible gifts. (Action)
A: Kitty tells Red that Bob and Midge want to take Red to dinner and he doesn’t want to go.
B: Eric imitates Donna’s parents to the guys in the basement. Kelso laughs with Eric but Hyde says he feels bad for Donna, revealing he knows something.
C: Jackie gives Eric a lecture on communicating with Donna, but when Kelso hesitates in showing how well they communicate, she scolds him and forces him to have a one-on-one talk with her elsewhere.
A: At Red’s birthday dinner, Bob and Midge show up each with their own date… Kitty panics, knowing how this will aggravate Red. (Midpoint)
A: Red wants to leave when he meets Bob and Midge’s date. His steak arrives and he decides to stay, but wants everyone else to shut up.
B: Eric wants Donna to confide in him. They make out but he keeps stopping to get her to talk to him but eventually hormones are too much and he gives up.
A: Bob and Midge’s dates are dumb and rude, with Midge’s marriage counselor date insulting her intelligence. Bob gets upset at the insult and yells at Midge’s date.
A: Midge is turned on by Bob being overprotective. They ditch dinner to have sex in the car.
A: With Midge and Bob gone, the bill arrives and Red declares the dinner over. He passes the bill to the counselor to handle.
B: Eric complains to Hyde about Donna not opening up to him. Hyde is not sympathetic.
C: Kelso doesn’t understand why the guys give him shit for his fights with Jackie, so Fez tells Kelso he’s going to lose Jackie if he doesn’t treat her better. Kelso blows off the advice.
B: Eric is still annoyed at his predicament. Hyde demands that he’s pissed off at Eric for being pissed off at him for something so stupid.
A: Red is angry about his dinner, so Kitty decides to calm him down by offering sex in the living room.
A: They run into the living room and find it filled with the teens who are usually in the basement. Kitty takes Red away before he can unleash his anger. (Climax)
A: Red wants his birthday to simply be over at this point and this pushes Kitty over the edge, who demands Red get in the basement, have sex with her, and enjoy his birthday.
B: Eric tells Donna he’s made she talked to Hyde. Angry that Eric would give her this rant, Donna unleashes her parental drama on Eric.
B: Bob and Midge come home and announce they’ve had sex but they are not getting back together. Eric is humiliated for Donna, apologizing to her for his behavior.
C: Jackie is still mad at Kelso, so Fez shows Kelso how to “woo a woman,” giving Jackie a big romantic speech. Kelso jumps in at the end and says, “yeah, what he said.”
C: Jackie is thrilled with “Kelso’s romantic gesture” and forgives him. Fez slams his head on the coffee table in frustration.
A: Red and Kitty lay on the couch after having sex. They find corn chips in the couch and should be disgusted, but Red is in absolute bliss declaring it a ‘good birthday.’ (Resolution)
The teens stand in the basement feeling like something is off. Fez is furious to find someone ate his corn chips.
This show is so tightly written. You could argue four storylines if you counted Bob and Midge as their own thing, but as you can see they wind their way through the two main stories so for the purposes of this breakdown it made more sense to see how the A and B stories reacted to them. What’s really interesting about this episode, in addition to the fantastic depiction of two parents who love each other and are stronger together, is the portrayal of Donna. Most multicamera shows don’t always have overarching storylines. If they exist it’s surrounding the building or breaking down of a couple. Think of the couples on Friends or pregnancies on family sitcoms like Growing Pains. Most of the time though, storylines only pop up for an episode or two, like the marriage problems that almost break things up on Home Improvement or Dharma and Greg. The point of a multicamera was that you could pop in at any moment and the characters wouldn’t change and for the most part, that is true on That 70s Show, but season 2 dealt with Eric and Donna losing their virginity to one another. The two had known each other their whole lives and the writers created a real insecurity in Donna to delay the big life moment.
This episode shows Donna’s parents really becoming swingers in an open marriage and her inability to deal with it. The next episode, Donna begins acting out to get their attention. Earlier in the season, she starts sneaking into Eric’s bed because she doesn’t feel comfortable in her own home. It all causes Donna to rely on Eric more over the course of the season, though she avoids it at first by talking to Hyde. Eric, Hyde, and Donna have very nuanced character arcs early on this show, that only become stagnant later on (while still very funny) thanks to the show staying on the air for almost a decade. Season two in particular, should be watched to see how the writers were able to grow these arcs without the viewers ever feeling condescending towards the teens or having to dumb down the parents. The writers’ ability to give these honest portrayals to its cast is why the series was such a success and should be required reading/viewing for anyone writing shows with a wide range of ages.