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Advice for That '70s Show and Popular

Ken Tucker wishes the hit shows would skip the teen-sex-as-Holy Grail plotlines and focus on the foibles of adolescence

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”One of you is thinking about Doing It, if not already Doing It,” says the mom (Lisa Darr) to her daughter Sam (Carly Pope) and her soon-to-be stepdaughter Brooke (Leslie Bibb) on Popular. ”Why cuddle when you can Do It?” asks the lunkhead Michael Kelso (Ashton Kutcher) on That ’70s Show.

Both of these shows are, obviously, obsessed with sex, but the differences in approach to Doing It are instructive. Where ’70s has moved in a coarser, less craftily observant direction for its second season of teen life in 1977 Wisconsin (an immediate tip-off is Cheap Trick’s thudding new version of the show’s pop-rock theme song), Popular uses the subject of sex to sketch what are often surprisingly nuanced portraits of 1999 teens under stress.

For the bell-bottomed, dope-smoking adolescents on That ’70s Show, this season’s series might as well be called Happy Days With Hormones. Whereas last year, the show’s two charming leads, Eric (Topher Grace) and Donna (Laura Prepon), circled each other with romantic wariness and tart wisecracks, they’re now lip-locked so frequently they rarely have time to blurt out their punchlines. Reducing their relationship storyline to When Will They Do It? robs both of these wonderfully low-key, realism-minded actors of the central roles they played last season.

Unfortunately for Grace and Prepon, what fun there is to be had on That ’70s Show is now derived from the supporting players, particularly Hyde (Danny Masterson), the proto-slacker who’s now moved in with Eric and his parents, Red (Kurtwood Smith) and Kitty (Debra Jo Rupp). Hyde had a particularly good showcase on Nov. 16, when he took a job in a ”photo hut” run by an addled pothead played by Tommy Chong—half of the comedy kings-of-all-potheads, Cheech and Chong. Hyde made for a more than adequate stand-in for Cheech Marin, who’s gone on to what I suppose in the late ’90s may actually be considered a better gig, opposite Don Johnson in Nash Bridges. But with ’70s posting strong ratings and already renewed for two more seasons, this can’t turn into That Hyde’s Show; so here’s hoping the producers can toss more funny stuff to Eric and Donna.

The creators of Popular also have a supporting cast jostling to overtake the show’s stars, but these two high school sophomores, thrown together by their formerly just-dating, now moving-in-together, single parents fare considerably better. For a show whose pilot was tedious — beautiful blond and bowwow brunet become unwilling pseudo stepsisters — Popular has quickly developed into a sharp-witted endeavor.

The writers seemed to catch on that Popular‘s original concept wouldn’t work past Week 2. For one thing, the brunet, Sam, while a broody type who hangs out with social losers, is no funky-looking geek—she is a darkly pretty young woman, which makes absurd her supposed stark contrast with the willowy Brooke (whom one character aptly described as being ”as sweet and thin as saltwater taffy”). Actually, they look as if they both order from the Delia’s catalog. But Popular has transcended this conceptual flaw by revealing, from week to week, different aspects of the girls’ personalities.