This isn’t the first attempt at making a spinoff for That ‘70s Show, but it is the first time the formula may actually work. It’s been 17 years since That ‘70s Show wrapped its 200-episode run, and a full 20 years since the disastrous, short-lived That ’80s Show spinoff.
But it’s a whole new decade now, and the franchise (yep, it’s officially a franchise) has returned with That ‘90s Show on Netflix. Instead of starting fresh with a new random group of people in a new random locale like That ‘80s Show did, That ‘90s Show is firmly rooted in the world of That ‘70s Show with every fiber of its being (including the return of ‘70s creators Bonnie Turner and Terry Turner, alongside Gregg Mettler and Lindsay Turner). The action still takes place in Point Place, Wisconsin; Red and Kitty Forman’s basement is the key hangout spot; and almost all your favorite faces from the original series pop up in memorable cameos to offer some insight into how their lives all ended up in the years since high school.
Keeping with the new generation theme, this sequel series is built around the kids of some of the OG characters, namely Leia Forman (Callie Haverda), the daughter of Eric Forman (Topher Grace) and Donna Pinciotti (Laura Prepon). There’s also Jay Kelso, the son of Micheal Kelso (Ashton Kutcher) and Jackie Burkhart (Mila Kunis). The new teen ensemble is rounded out with siblings Gwen (Ashley Aufderheide) and Nate (Maxwell Aces Donovan), Nate’s girlfriend Nikki (Sam Morelos), and Ozzie (Reyn Doi).
It provides strong connective tissue from the jump, and opens the door for myriad cameos across the series—which is obviously just pure nostalgia bait—but the kind of thing any That ‘70s Show fan will certainly enjoy. Judged in hindsight, That ‘70s Show is a certain type of sitcom, a relic of its late 1990s and early-aughts origins. It’s loaded with obvious gags and silliness, layered with a bit of teenage melodrama, then stuffed to the gills with jokes about smoking pot, stealing kegs, and general teenage cliches you’d associate with the era (and teenage-hood in general).
But does that still work all these years later? In an era of post-Peak TV where the sitcom has been constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed all over again? Surprisingly enough, yeah, it still can. At least at times. Netflix has been trying to crack the sitcom formula again ever since early hits like The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and the adult-audience series The Ranch (which starred That ‘70s Show alum Ashton Kutcher, funnily enough). Recent traditional sitcom swings like Blockbuster and the Kevin Smith vehicle The Crew were both abruptly canceled, and That ‘90s Show certainly falls into that same type of format.
It’s an old-school sitcom and follows the same formula as the original series, and in a lot of cases that schtick could have long worn thin by now all these years later. But somehow there’s still something delightfully warm, fuzzy, and nostalgic about hanging out in Red and Kitty’s basement, seeing the classic spinning camera when the teens light one up, and hearing a Kelso—any Kelso—scream “Burn!” after a well-timed insult. Sure, it’s clearly pulling the heartstrings for our love and affection for the old show, but there are still millions of people who hold the original series in high esteem. Sure, it ran a bit off the rails in that final season or two, but it had perfect chemistry, and characters we loved and cared about.
Though That ‘90s Show could have just coasted on that nostalgia (and to be clear, it does quite a bit!) and gotten pretty far among fans, they really did put some thought and effort into this new group of teens that take over as the focus of so much more misspent youth in Point Place. Leia is very likable and earnest, and Jay puts a fresh spin on the Kelso cliches fans know and love. Gwen, Nate, and Nikki also round out the ensemble well, each getting their own fleshed-out arcs (and archetypes) much like the original friend group. There’s love, heartbreak, plenty of laughs, and even a keg tap story that should be plenty familiar to fans of the original series.
The biggest challenge with a show like this is threading the needle of weaving in the original cast with establishing these young new characters as the true stars, and they do an admirable job of finding that balance. But still, the series could have used a bit more Eric, Kelso, Jackie, and Donna (Danny Masterson’s Steven Hyde remains MIA, of course, with the actor in legal trouble for alleged sexual assault). But it begs the question: is this a show for fans of the original series, or a new show trying to tap a younger viewership decades later? It tries to be both, and somewhat covers those bases, but you can feel the execution straddling the line throughout.
However, the most important question remains: is it fun? It is, and it will certainly appeal to fans of That ‘70s Show. The original was never a masterpiece, and That ‘90s Show isn’t either, but they’re both entertaining. That ‘90s Show did just enough to let us drop back into this world for a summer of fun, and here’s hoping there’s another summer or two to come down the line.
That ‘90s Show is currently streaming on Netflix.
Trent Moore is a recovering print journalist, and freelance editor and writer with bylines at lots of places. He likes to find the sweet spot where pop culture crosses over with everything else. Follow him at @trentlmoore on Twitter.
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