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Forward Into the Past 

The terrifying togs of That '70s Show; the retro robots of Rolie Polie Olie

Wednesday, Sep 30 1998
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Life magazine, the official gazette of our age, has just published, in a handsome, perfect-bound special edition you're sure to treasure for weeks to come, its authoritative estimation of the 100 most important events of the last 1,000 years. The invention of television comes in at number 14, right between the smallpox vaccine and the theory of evolution - and who couldn't have predicted it? Well, all right, it does seem a little low. But remember that a millennium is a long time, and that TV is yet in what the giant floating, disembodied brains of the future will consider its infancy. Even our most ambitious, technologically sophisticated productions will to their hideous "eyes" look as backward as cave paintings, as unformed as a toddler's scrawl.

As to the television of A.D. 2999 . . . I mean, the laugh-track technology alone . . . The mind reels. It boggles. It swells with envy. It defensively contracts. Some things, however, will surely remain unchanged a thousand years hence: "TV will lie to you," said Bill Cosby on the first show of his current series' third season. (Does this mean he was lying?) "TV doesn't care about you." And all TV's protestations to the contrary, that does seem to be the case. It provides stimulus without warmth, company without compassion, information as a commodity. It has never so much as helped with the dishes, other than to offer conflicting advice on which detergent I should use. It's not what you'd call a healthy relationship. But even though I don't trust TV any farther than I can throw one, I won't deny we've had some good times. I won't say we haven't been through some stuff. Oh, yeah, the stories I could tell: the one about the two dates for the prom, the one about the lost borrowed diamond necklace that turns out to be paste, the one where the boss comes to dinner with hardly any warning. And that mistaken-identity thing - now that was hilarious. And god knows but we go back, way back, all the way back down memory lane. History counts for something. And what's "healthy," anyway? It can still work. I know it can. High five. Big hug. We're survivors. Here we go again.

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Excuse me: I appear to have been having an episode. Let's just call it the season opener. In this not so very special episode, I have an . . . episode. (Rated TV-MA for language, dammit, adult themes and partial nudity - I'm writing this barefoot.) I'd blame it on the start of another new TV year, but actually, most of what I have seen of the Broadcast Six's incompletely unveiled fall line looks to be, if not particularly divine, certainly not disastrous, and if not remarkable, at least professional. Costello, Sports Night, Will & Grace, Encore! Encore!, Conrad Bloom - none of these programs will do you any more harm than TV does anyway just by being on. We will speak more of some of them in the weeks to come as it becomes clear where they're headed, and what they have to say, and what I have to say, apart from "harmless." Other series (see ya, The Army Show; later, Holding the Baby) will, I am quite sure, never be mentioned here again. Meanwhile we are being offered, indefinitely, the two-dimensional electronic company of Joan Plowright, Glenne Headley, Dan Lauria, Joe Morton, Kellie Martin, Debra Messing, Faith Ford, Jon Lovitz, Christina Applegate, Frank Whaley, Jeremy Piven and (shifting briefly to daytime) Marie Osmond, not to mention a small army of returning old reliables, and for this relief, much thanks, for 'tis bitter cold and I am sick at heart.

Come to think of it, I have seen one truly remarkable - and rather divine - thing this season: six TV teenagers, some of them actual teenagers, singing along to a remake of Big Star's 1972 "In the Street" as if it were a bona-fide classic-rock classic, like "Sweet Home Alabama" or "Go Your Own Way" - which it was in my parallel universe, but not where most earthlings live. This astonishing sight occurs weekly under the opening credits of Fox's inelegantly named That '70s Show, and if it is reminiscent of the "Bohemian Rhapsody" sequence in Wayne's World, that might just have something to do with the fact that that film's co-authors, Bonnie and Terry Turner, are in charge here. As in the '70s themselves, small premium has been put on "reality" (what is it, after all?), and that is not surprising given that the Turners are also in charge of the burlesquesque 3rd Rock From the Sun. Apart from nods to the gas crisis, the Equal Rights Amendment, Todd Rundgren and Chico and the Man, and some terrifying togs and upsetting wallpaper, the show has substantially no more to do with its titular decade than Happy Days did with the 1950s. And apart from its shyly lovestruck principles (geeky but groovy Topher Grace - I don't make up these names, I just write 'em down - and wide-shouldered Laura Prepon, approximating perfection), who get reasonable dialogue to speak and human emotions to play, it's all cartoons in a cartoon land: the dumb hunk, the ditz, the haplessly comical foreigner. Riverdale with (implied) pot smoking.

And apart from the pot, and some unusually clever, gag-enhancing camerawork, there's not much new: The pilot was a variation on a Wonder Years episode, some of the naughtier jokes have an almost contractual tang (Fox will be Fox), and if you haven't seen these characters elsewhere 50 times before, you've been trying hard not to look - but I don't mind it at all. The universally charming younger cast members may be forgiven their anomalous post-Bicentennial speech patterns and body language, as most of them weren't yet born in 1976, the year the show takes place; Grace and Prepon have believable, attractive chemistry; and Tanya Roberts, once a Charlie's Angel and now a sexy mother, is funnier even than the idea of casting her. And, really, what else are you going to do between The Simpsons and The X-Files? Get stoned?

Sentimentally as plausible as That '70s Show, though it is an actual cartoon and set in a world of living machines in which the merest toothbrush is sentient, is Rolie Polie Olie, a new computer-animated series produced for the Disney Channel by Canada's Nelvana Ltd. in concert with France's Metal Hurlant. Brightly colored and psychedelically luminous, the show concerns the ordinary adventures of 6-year-old Polie Olie and his robot nuclear family, his dog, Spot, and a lot of especially helpful furniture, and is designed and co-commanded by William Joyce, author and illustrator of Dinosaur Bob and His Adventures With the Family Lazardo and A Day With Wilbur Robinson; like those books, it is steeped in '30s style, from its retro-futuristic design and "boy howdy" lingo to its early-swing soundtrack and Betty Boop anthropomorphism. (There are Disney references as well: Olie's two-button shorts; a recurring white-glove motif.) The final look of the show, perhaps because of the exigencies and effects of digital animation, is less suggestive of Joyce's own line and palette then it is of a cross between the work of David "Miss Spider" Kirk and Rodney Alan Greenblat, with perhaps a touch of the Timbertoes, but that is hardly a bad thing.

"Happiness," sang Donovan back before the day, "runs in a circular motion," which might be the motto of this curvy, sphereocentric, computer-plotted world, spatially persuasive and geometrically consistent, well-cushioned and wonderfully benign. Though the playlets are not empty of tension, they pose no problems that can't be resolved in the space of a seven-minute episode (three of which make a show), and though the stories are modest - like chapters in a kids' primer in which the possibilities of plot are limited by the extent of the vocabulary - they are, under the extraterrestrial trimmings, true to simple kid stuff and family dynamics, notwithstanding a certain Ward-June creepiness about the parental units. The pictures, meanwhile, pulse with peripheral action, and what would be the camera - if a camera came into the process at all - gyres and gimbles through artificial real space with balletic grace, executing tracking shots Martin Scorsese sees only in his dreams. The giant brains of the 30th century may look back and shrug, but permit me, please, my primitive amazement.

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