Mila Kunis, Laura Prepon, ...
Credit: That 70's Show: George Lange/Corbis Outline

That ’70s Show, which begins its fourth season this week, had a ratings boost last season and features a strong cast led by Topher Grace as the show’s central teen, Eric. (Grace proved his dramatic skills in a terrific turn as a jaded jerk in Steven Soderbergh’s ”Traffic.”) To me, though, ”’70s”’ increase in cheap, bawdy jokes has crucially weakened its essential good-heartedness.

The season premiere continues last year’s bad trend toward gimmicky episodes with a clumsy parody of ”It’s a Wonderful Life,” in which an angel (ubiquitous sitcom shlub Wayne Knight) shows Eric what it would be like if he had never kissed Donna (Laura Prepon). Big surprise: His (and her) life would be miserable. The show also flashes forward to the ’80s to exercise that hoariest of sitcom clichés, the ”what they look like when they’re older” routine (Ashton Kutcher’s stud, Kelso, gets paunchy, for instance).

The acting — by Grace, Prepon, and, as Eric’s parents, Kurtwood Smith and Debra Jo Rupp — is as sharp as ever, but they all look a little bored, as well they should. In a way, I wish Judd Apatow (creator of the sublime new sitcom ”Undeclared”) and his crew could somehow rescue the ”’70s” cast and bring them over to a series that’s fresh and unafraid to take its characters seriously, an attitude that ultimately creates deeper comedy.

That '70s Show
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