Dan Snierson
September 11, 1998 AT 04:00 AM EDT

THAT ’70S SHOW
It’s not like they haven’t tried this before. In fact, 12 short months ago, Fox was ballyhooing the return of the ’70s with its wacky new retro-com, Rewind. Viewers dutifully plugged in the lava lamps and braced themselves for perhaps the scariest artifact of them all: Scott Baio. But then, in one of those mellow-harshing TV-biz moves, the creatively troubled Rewind was canceled on the eve of its debut.

Well, choke us on a cloud of pot smoke if the smiley face isn’t back. And this time (just so you won’t go mistaking it for some ’80s series) it’s conveniently titled That ’70s Show, a throwback sitcom about kids stuck in rural Wisconsin with nothing to do but sit around a cruddy basement and wear tight clothes. ”It’s teenage life told in the most honest way imaginable,” says Fox Entertainment president Peter Roth. ”We want to do for the ’70s what Happy Days did for the ’50s.”

Funny, we don’t remember Richie waking from an erotically charged dream to find Joanie remarking ”Nice tent.” But that’s the kind of funky stroll down memory lane nostalgia buffs can expect. And far be it from Fox to sneak it past the squeamish. Not only did the show land the network’s primo slot (between compatibly edgy Simpsons and X-Files), its audaciously early debut, on Aug. 23, showcased beer-stealing and doobie-smoking scenes. Based on the ratings so far (averaging a healthy 11.8 million viewers its first two times out), Fox has a modest hit on its hands. Then again, there was enough offense taken to the pilot’s drug taking at this summer’s critics press tour to foreshadow some potential backlash. ”We were surprised by the criticism, because that was never what the series was about,” says Roth. ”But we took it very seriously and have had discussions at length with the producers.” (Don’t worry, Mom and Pop, the net also aired an antidrug PSA right after the offending pot scene.)

”We were severely warned,” admits exec producer Terry Turner, who created the show with wife Bonnie. ”We had to be true to the decade — otherwise I’m doing a show about bell-bottoms and strange hairstyles…. But that’s as far as the envelope will go in terms of any drug references.”

The Turners are the time-warp titans behind Wayne’s World, The Brady Bunch Movie, and NBC’s 3rd Rock From the Sun (also for Carsey-Werner). Their latest idea was aided by the book Stuck in the ’70s, which, jokes Terry, ”blamed Wayne’s World, Wayne’s World 2, and The Brady Bunch Movie for bringing the decade back. We went, ‘Well, we never thought about doing [a ’70s series], but since we’re already being blamed…’ ”

Along with 3rd Rock producer Mark Brazill, the trio crafted a premise about two neighboring families: the rigidly stuck-in-the-’50s Foremans, featuring earnest Eric (Topher Grace, 20), and the free-swinging, fad-embracing Pinciottis, including tomboy Donna (Laura Prepon, 18). Eric and Donna’s budding romance is complicated by the misfits they hang with: dim bulb Kelso (Calvin Klein model Ashton Kutcher, 20), his spoiled girlfriend, Jackie (Mila Kunis, 15), naive exchange student Fez (Wilmer Valderrama, 18), and snarky Hyde (Danny Masterson, 22). It’s Romeo and Juliet through a Dazed and Confused lens.

Of course, given that the oldest of these six was born in 1976, the year the show is set, a few history lessons were necessary, courtesy of The Brady Bunch and back issues of Newsweek. (”I knew you didn’t talk back to your parents then,” notes Kutcher. ”They could beat their kids without going to jail.”) Not that everyone needed the crash course. Laid-back Mrs. Pinciotti happens to be Tanya Roberts, a veteran of quintessential ’70s hair-fest Charlie’s Angels. And Valderrama, whose heavy TV accent is no act, comes from a place where Me Decade fashion never really went away. ”When I moved here from Venezuela [at 13], people made fun of my tight pants,” he says. ”I’ve always worn pants that show the butt. Now I get to wear them in the show.” Adds Grace: ”I play an awkward teenage boy who gets rejected. I’ve done so much research in that department, I can’t even begin to tell you.”

Ultimately, the producers hope to do with live action what their animated lead-in has been accomplishing for nearly a decade. ”TV families are always so unrealistic, so sanitary, so stupid,” says producer Brazill. ”We don’t want to do safe family issues. There are things about this show that’ll have a little controversy, and if we can get away with it, we will.” Adds Masterson, ”There’s no sitcommy bulls— here.”

Fine, but may we suggest one sweeps stunt? Scott Baio, as a time-warping Chachi, sneaks the gang into an all-night disco. Hey, Fox owes him that much.

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