To be from the upper Midwest is to be in a kind of bemused purgatory. Everything you say sounds like a question. People wonder if you’re Canadian, unless of course you’re also from up north, because then you know how real Canadians sound. Boredom is a state of mind you’ve never left.
“That ’70s Show” is one of the best representations of Midwestern life ever aired on primetime television. Even the title operates a joke wherein, like the Midwest, it is not specific enough to convey something of significance, capturing the dismissive mirth that peppers our sense of humor. And out of its eight seasons, no episode captures our region’s sentiments, legends and troubled relationship with our northern neighbor as well as the 23rd episode of the third season, “Canadian Road Trip.”
Firstly, a brief apology to all Canadians — the Midwest only jests. Contrary to the numerous jokes made at your expense, we find you Canadians quaint and charming. We are sorry though, and we want you to know that if we were not already the laughing stock of the continental United States, we would probably go much easier on you. We simply adore you — your beavers, your maple syrup, your Inukshuks and Tim Hortons. We wouldn’t have you any other way, Canada. But I digress.
In the infamous episode, Eric (Topher Grace, “BlacKkKlansman”) and the rest of his gaggle of guys head to Canada for beer. A seemingly simple task until Fez (Wilmer Valderrama, “NCIS”), a foreign exchange student, misplaces his green card. The guys attempt to smuggle him back across the border, to no avail. Before they know it, they have been turned over to the Mounties.
As an upper Midwesterner, a trip to Canada is commonplace. I’ve crossed the St. Clair and Detroit, I’ve seen the hinterlands, yet everytime I’m faced with the same nasally clipped question: “What’s your business in Canada, eh?” Each of my experiences at the border have mirrored the experiences of Eric Forman and his friends — Mounties, drunk with power and holding baseless suspicions against Americans, making even the simplest checkpoint a production.
In fact the episode would be incomplete without the Mounties, who just as sternly in their encounters with me, grill Eric, Michael and Hyde on their attempt to smuggle Fez back into America. The entire exchange the guys have with the Mounties is accurate, the boys treating him as indifferently as someone your age attempting to assert an elder’s dominance over you.
It’s the dumb tension of the Canadian border — in turn for our uniquely Midwestern impertinence towards everything Canadian, the Canadians only double down on their protections of their country. It is the perfect recreation of this tension that makes the episode so enjoyable to watch time and time again.
Which brings attention to why these young rapscallions were in Canada to begin with. It can be summarized in the three profound words shouted by Michael Kelso (Ashton Kutcher, “The Ranch”): “Wooh! Canada! Beer!” If you are from the upper Midwest, since turning 19 you have likely been on at least one trip to Canada with the explicit purpose of attaining Canadian beer. It’s a rite of passage, separating the young from the wise, only further proving the portrayal of Midwestern life in “That ’70s Show.”
Between the guys being detained and interrogated by Canadians, the side plots center around Jackie (Mila Kunis, “Friends With Benefits”) nearly being conned by a fake modeling agent and Red (Kurtwood Smith, “RoboCop”) trying and abysmally failing to record “Roots” on VCR. To an outsider, these subplots may appear insignificant, yet both feel exemplary of the overzealousness of Midwesterners — isolated from cultural and social epicenters — grasping at a chance to feel “in.”
Yes, Canada, we think you’re funny. We treat you like a little brother whom we do not, in any way, take seriously. But we also love you. And “That ’70s Show”’s “Canadian Road Trip” episode chronicles not only this cultural phenomenon, but also what it means to be a kid from the Midwest. It’s the boredom and the suburbs. It’s traveling to Canada for beer, only for it to go horribly wrong. It’s our hatred for, yet undeniable similarities with, our dear northern neighbor. It’s minor excitability. It’s home.