That ’70s Show, which celebrates the 15th anniversary of its debut on August 23, was a cheeky recent-past nostalgia series, from the Cheap Trick cover of Alex Chilton’s “In the Street” that opened the show starting in the second season to a blatant disregard for “the space-time continuum” that allowed for more than one Christmas a year and a conveniently flexible timeline. It wore the polyester; the polyester didn’t wear it. Perhaps its closest sitcom relative would be Family Ties, gently hitting the ’70s with the same type of felt-covered hammer that Ties took to the ’80s. As a critic pointed out shortly after That ’70s Show’s debut, both the Keaton and Forman families provided sturdy infrastructures to hang their chosen decade’s sociopolitical issues on, and it was because of its charismatic young cast and great writing that it avoided becoming the dreaded “half hour advertisement for bellbottoms and butt rock” (objects that already sell themselves).
That’s not to say watching an episode now doesn’t melt the clocks off your walls, making you feel like you’re older than dirt and have lived through the 1970s four or five times already in a series of never-ending flashbacks, because it does. That ’70s Show wrapped in 2006, which, if you’re 30, feels like roughly 45 minutes ago. It’s a show that ages with you, like The Wonder Years, and if you watched it as a teenager you can now experience that sobering sensation of realizing what modern nostalgia really is. The 22-year gap between the year in which the first episode was set, 1976, and the year it premiered, 1998, is only seven years longer than the era that stands between us and when we first laid eyes on the future ex–Mr. Demi Moore. Eric’s basement began as someone else’s 20-year-old Proustian madeleine, but now it can also double as your own 15-year-old cookie, a crackly old cover of an even older song.
The 15th anniversary arrives just a couple weeks after Lisa Robin Kelly’s death. The actress played Laurie Forman — Eric’s promiscuous, flippy-haired blonde sister — for several seasons before leaving the show due to her alcohol abuse, being replaced in the sixth season by Christina Moore. Kelly’s struggles were messy and public, accompanied by a slew of mug shots after DUI and assault charges. Last year, she gave a few interviews that were hard to watch at the time, but are even more so in retrospect: She was eager to get back to her acting career, and produced and starred in a movie called SUX2BME in 2012. Kelly gave a great performance on That 70’s Show, a show filled with great performances (yeah, Kelso, even you), which makes it particularly sad that she succumbed to her demons at 43 years old. The show has proven to be an impressive launching pad for most of its cast; even latecomer Josh Meyers has ridden the wave, landing himself in the rare filmic ruby Behind the Candelabra as Liberace’s lawyer and in the upcoming animated series The Awesomes, produced by and starring brother Seth Meyers.
In honor of its anniversary, here’s a brief check-in with the bright young things who straddled so many decades all at once, aided by pant legs as limitless as their dreams.
TOPHER GRACE (Eric Forman)
That ’70s Show creators Bonnie and Terry Turner happened upon Grace when they saw him in a high school production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Grace had no previous credits, but two years after the sitcom premiered he landed a role in Traffic, fulfilling a fictional version of anti-drug prophecy by swapping in his retro doobie for edgier, more modern freebasing. Though he departed That ’70s Show in advance of its final season (Eric excused himself to go to Africa) until he showed up for the finale, his name was dropped frequently. Grace was charming enough to play Venom in Spider-Man 3 but not so charming that he couldn’t be the center of a running joke in a Videogum column titled “What’s Up With Topher Grace?” that checked in with him periodically from 2009 to 2011. Currently up with Topher Grace? Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.
ASHTON KUTCHER (Michael Kelso)
Kutcher was modeling — often pouting, sometimes wearing tiny half-shirts made for babies — in New York before he was cast as Kelso, an audition that was reportedly his first. That kind of thing can apparently make you feel pretty smug. Kutcher is probably the most famous of the ’70s alumni: In 2002, still riding the Kelso wave, he developed a Punk’d predecessor called Harassment with MTV, the victims of which were regular citizens instead of celebrities (two such regular citizens weren’t amused when Kutcher pranked them with a dead body, and a lawsuit followed). His much more successful follow-up went on to air for eight seasons, and was resurrected last year with Justin Bieber, Tyler the Creator, and others stepping into Kutcher’s hosting shoes. His investments in tech startups (Skype, Airbnb, Foursquare) and Twitter client/VoIP side projects (and occasional social media fumbles) helped him land the role of Steve Jobs, but didn’t protect him from criticism that he was better suited to roles that involved him searching for his lost vehicle. When he’s not busy defending his acting chops (he watched the Jobs interviews! He went on the Jobs fruit diet!) against critics, he’s enduring the keen gaze of Jackie-Kelso ’shippers as they psychically urge him to marry girlfriend Mila Kunis, and replacing Charlie Sheen on Two and a Half Men.
MILA KUNIS (Jackie Burkhart)
Kunis was approached by an agent as a child after her family moved from the Ukraine to Los Angeles, and her earliest credit is listed as a 1994 episode of Baywatch when she was 11 years old. In the years between her debut and when she was cast as dippy Jackie, who besides Kelso also dated Fez and Hyde, she played a young Angelina Jolie in Gia and had a role in Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves. Kunis was just 15 when she began playing Jackie, and a year later she would take over for Lacey Chabert as the voice of Meg Griffin on Family Guy, but her breakout role was as Rachel Jansen in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which she booked after being passed over for a role in Knocked Up. Sarah Marshall followed a few years spent in bad-movie-juju purgatory, breaking Kunis’s streak of ill-fated projects like American Psycho II. 2010’s Black Swan earned her a Golden Globe and Saturn award, and her role as the dark bunhead proved that she could do more than just comedy (so, Kunis, any interest in reinventing Nomi Malone?). She’s currently shooting the Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending, playing a genetically perfect janitor named Jupiter Jones.
DANNY MASTERSON (Steven Hyde)
Masterson, a.k.a. DJ Mom Jeans (a reference to the high-waisted denim sported by Kunis and Laura Prepon on That ’70s Show), was a veteran actor by the time he played Steven Hyde, having made rounds on Broadway, in commercials, and as a recurring character on Cybill, which he left in favor of his role as ’70s Show resident weed supplier and smartass. While he’s waiting for the 2014 release of Hot Bot, TBS just picked up his starring vehicle (which also featured Prepon and Wilmer Valderrama) Men at Work for a third season. With the TV day-job secure, Masterson can tend to his various business ventures, including a crazy-expensive Los Feliz boutique (Confederacy) and various Dolce Group restaurants, in which he invests along with his costars Kutcher, Valderrama, and Prepon.
WILMER VALDERRAMA (Fez)
Following a role in the ill-fated Four Corners, Valderrama was cast as Fez, the foreign exchange student of indeterminate nationality. Though he has kept busy by directing LMFAO videos and lending his voice to the titular character in Handy Manny, a Disney show for preschoolers, I will forever remember him as the guy who gave the world douche chills when he described sex with Mandy Moore to Howard Stern by using an apple pie metaphor and called Ashlee Simpson “a screamer” (and for hosting MTV’s Yo Momma). Perhaps this is the kind of karma that has landed Valderrama in the Punk’d hall of fame, falling victim to more Kutch-pranks than any other celebrity. He next appears in School Dance, written and directed by Nick Cannon.
LAURA PREPON (Donna Pinciotti)
Prepon’s credits pre-’70s were limited. You can catch her at the 3:14 mark in the 1996 music video for Sneaker Pimps’ “6 Underground,” or if you’re better at scouring the Internet than I am, you can try to dig up an episode of her Levi’s-sponsored web soap, They Go On. While playing That ’70s Show’s aspirational tomboy, Donna Pinciotti (and engaging in an offscreen relationship with Masterson’s brother Chris), Prepon was able to find time to squeeze herself into all manner of ridiculous tank tops in the movie Slackers, and receive the dubious honor of a shout-out on MC Paul Barman’s totally obscene (and I love it) “Cock Mobster,” along with Kunis (near-rhymes with “pubis”). After That ’70s Show wrapped, Prepon hopped from guest role to guest role before playing the lead character on Are You There, Chelsea?, which, in case you’ve forgotten, was last year’s ill-fated adaptation of Chelsea Handler’s Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea. Prepon is currently in the process of forcing us to wildly theorize about the hypothetical reasons she hasn’t finalized her contract for the second season of Orange Is the New Black.
So there you have it. The former adolescents of a fake past are now the grown-ups of a real present. This calls for a montage — cue the real-deal Chilton. Good-bye, 1976; good-bye, 1998; and good-bye, Wisconsin.