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The Exact Moment That '70s Show Jumped The Shark

"That '70s Show" started as a slightly ribald, freewheeling look back at life in the 1970s. Point Place, Wisconsin could have been any small midwestern hometown, and Eric Forman (Topher Grace) could have been any well-meaning, underachieving teen struggling his way to success and happiness. His sandbox love affair with his childhood friend, Donna Pinciotti (Laura Prepon), felt like the kind of romance that any teenager might find themself living through. His friends — the goofy meathead Michael Kelso (Ashton Kutcher), spoiled princess Jackie Burkhart (Mila Kunis), rebellious and conspiracy-obsessed Steven Hyde (Danny Masterson), and wannabe ladies' man Fez (Wilmer Valderrama) — felt like real teens living through realistic rites of passage. And yet, no other coming-of-age comedy could have put on a musical episode featuring Roger Daltrey, and no other program could have made the act of clandestinely smoking marijuana with your friends look like a work of art. That's just a short list of the many things that make the whole sitcom such a lovely thing to experience.

However, as mighty as "That '70s Show" was at its peak, it had a great fall, and one of the most classic late-series declines of all time for a sitcom. But pinpointing the exact whens and hows of its miserable slump into ignominy is quite a journey. In the case of "That '70s Show," it was a particularly ill-advised breakup between two of its main characters that officially had the series slapping on jet skis and jumping the shark.

Jackie dumping Hyde stalled the show's forward momentum

It would be easy to argue that "That '70s Show" jumped the shark when Topher Grace left the sitcom ahead of its final season. To compensate, the show brought in Eric's cousin, Randy Pearson (Josh Meyers), to fill in the Eric-shaped void that the character's early exit left (as well as give Donna a new love interest). Randy definitely doesn't improve Season 8 and his existence only makes the show's sharp decline even worse. However, the implosion of "That '70s Show" began even earlier than that — specifically, with the Season 7 finale.

In "'Till the Next Goodbye," Jackie and Hyde's romance has reached the ultimate impasse. She's moving to Chicago, and all he has to do to get her to stay in Point Place is promise her a future. He resists doing so, even though he wants to. Disappointed, Jackie enlists her ex-boyfriend Kelso to drive her to Chicago. Hyde is inspired to go chase Jackie down to her motel room and confess his feelings. Unfortunately, as he does so, Kelso emerges from the bathroom in a towel, resulting in Hyde chasing him out of the room.

One would think this moment — which takes a semi-serious story into a more humorous direction — would presage a fight over Jackie between Kelso and Hyde. Instead, it tears apart a couple who might have helped fans acclimate to the changes brought about in Season 8. Furthermore, this bungled end to one of the show's central relationships leaves the audience feeling cheated out of a satisfying conclusion for a pairing that the series spent three seasons carefully putting together. It ultimately serves as a signal for all of the bad things yet to come.

Jackie and Hyde's storylines never recovered

Jackie and Hyde's breakup is a multifaceted problem that drags Season 8 of "That '70s Show" even deeper into its flop era. If their split had caused some interesting drama, perhaps it would have been worthwhile, but it does nothing to improve the circumstances of either character. To wit: during Season 8, Hyde plunges into a sudden, drunken marriage with a stripper named Samantha Leonard (Jud Taylor), and the show treads water as they fight and make up. But their relationship ends up feeling shallow, as does Samantha's character, who serves as an easy target for lazy sex industry jokes. She comes off as just one more fresh face in a show that's reeling under the weight of too many changes, and though she's nice and bonds well with Hyde's friends, she never feels like a real part of the gang. When it's revealed that the marriage is invalid thanks to her bigamy, it's something of a relief — but it takes 16 episodes to get there.

Jackie, meanwhile, is saddled with a disastrously chemistry-lite relationship with Fez after she rejects Kelso's proposal (he's headed off to Chicago to work as a Playboy Club guard where he remains for the majority of the season). The show insists that they were always intended to be soulmates, a notion that anyone who's watched the previous seven seasons can only scoff at.

Had Jackie and Hyde stayed together, the show would've had a familiar couple to focus on that would've provided a ballast against the awkwardness that was Donna dating Randy. Their connection could have anchored the stormy tumult that developed after Ashton Kutcher abandoned ship for his own Hollywood career. Instead, their breakup is just one more unwelcome twist in a show soldiering charmlessly forward.

That '90s Show has helped heal the damage of the shark jump

While there's no way to erase the damage Jackie and Hyde's breakup did to "That '70s Show," the show's sequel series has done a surprisingly good job of trying to ameliorate that problem by showing us how Jackie and Kelso have grown up. 

In "That '90s Show," we learn that Jackie (wisely) didn't end up with Fez. The audience is told that he caught her talking to Kelso during a romantic tropical vacation, leading her to break things off with Fez and get back together with her old flame. But — fittingly, and in a nice reflection of their teenage relationship — Jackie and Kelso have not been able to stay together as a couple, and have already been married and divorced twice and are trying for a third time when "That '90s Show" begins. 

Not only is this a fitting notion for both characters, but it's also one that leaves the door open for further conflict should Hyde ever be recast or brought into the show's narrative. It's strongly hinted that the instability of Kelso and Jackie's relationship has had an impact on their son, Jay (Mace Coronel), who is smart, a bit of a playboy, and resists delving into a long-distance relationship with his summer crush, Leia Forman (Callie Haverda). That's the kind of storytelling that drives a show forward instead of miring it down. 

We aren't likely to get an onscreen update from Hyde for obvious reasons. And it may take another season or two to fully get the sitcom back into its pre-"'Till the Next Goodbye" groove. But all of this has gone quite a way toward the franchise unjumping the shark.