TV Review: That 90’s Show Bangs the Nostalgia Drum – And Surprisingly Finds A Rhythm
When That 70’s Show first premiered in 1998, I was 11 years old – and when its series finale aired, I was near the end of my freshman year of college, my formative years quickly becoming a blip in the rearview mirror. Kelso, Foreman, Donna, Hyde… these names were iconic for an entire generation of kids like myself; though that legacy, like the sitcom format, has faded a bit over time. But for millions of us, these syndicated stories of teenagers (neatly telling the stories of our parent’s teenage years of the late 1970’s) hold a lot of intrinsic emotional power; which, of course, a streaming network wanted to try and exploit, alongside the dozens of other remakes, resequels, and reboots littering today’s television landscape.
And at first, That 90’s Show (developed by original creators Bonnie and Terry Turner, alongside daughter Lindsey Turner and original series writer Gregg Mettler) is clearly attached to that nostalgic gravity: it knows its power, teasing us with images of the water tower and The Hub as it begins to reintroduce us to the Forman family and the rest of Point Place, Wisconsin, twenty-something years after we last saw them in “That 70’s Finale” (which… let’s just not talk about the last few seasons of That 70’s Show, ok?). As it introduces us to Leia Forman (Eric and Donna’s child, played wonderfully by Callie Haverda), it is also laying out a world familiar to only a certain group of people, those who will recognize the locales and quirky characters (and remember the water tower is named after Charlie when he died in the 8th season premiere). It does this to an extreme in its first two episodes, where one can almost taste the network notes to make sure people remember That 70’s Show as it cycles through a handful of obligatory returning characters.
It really gets off to a rough start, especially with its new characters, a carousel of archetypal 90’s personalities: dumb jock, closeted gay kid, athletic kid dating the genius girl, a Kelso child… you know what to expect here. In theory, they are interesting iterations on the original Basement Gang – Kelso’s son is not the dumbest of the bunch, for example, and although Leia is as nerdy and awkward as her father, her earnest, head-first approach to diving into friendships and romance is palpable. But thanks to an insanely brief 10-episode season order, That 90’s Show is just starting to figure out characters like the goofy, brainless Nate (Maxwell Acee Donovan) and Ozzie (Reyn Doi) when it has to pivot towards the events of the season finale – which come all too soon, in a way that’s almost a fitting analogy for how summer vacation used to feel.
What That 90’s Show starts to figure out three or four episodes in, however, is that it doesn’t have to exist in this place of pure nostalgia 24/7; once it starts to embrace its new cast of teenagers as the actual characters of its story (rather than just Cliff Notes for What Happened After the Finale), it settles into the comfortable rhythms of late 20th-century sitcoms – with a few added dashes of serialization thrown in for good measure. There’s nothing particularly notable about its collection of plots – the kids find The Stash, there’s lot of dating, and there’s a lot of sneaking around under Red’s nose – but how these stories are delivered, delivers exactly the kind of amusing, comforting TV the original series provided on a weekly basis.
Does That 90’s Show need to exist? Probably not – and I mean, if we want to go down the rabbit hole of whether Eric and Donna would’ve really ended up together, we can have that conversation one day. But its return does offer one tangible benefit: seeing Kurtwood Smith and Debra Jo Rupp together on-screen as Red and Kitty Forman. Though the trailer plays off Red’s “dumbass” screaming ways in the show’s trailer, what the series offers is something more nuanced, observing a marriage now entering its fifth decade, with two people who couldn’t be more dichotomous from each other – at this point, there’s no surprising each other, something That 90’s Show smartly plays into when its exploring Red and Kitty as grandparents, and how that generational shift has ever so slightly softened their edges (for example, there isn’t a single mention of Kitty drinking during the season, and Red actually gives someone a hug!).
At 80 and 71 years old respectively, one might think they’ve lost their touch – but you’d be dead wrong, as the two of them easily carry the season through some of its more middling stretches with their effortless chemistry (and the writer’s room full understanding of these two characters).
Through Red and Kitty, That 90’s Show slowly starts to remember what actually made network TV’s first stoner sitcom so special, and why it holds such a subtle place in the hearts of millennials today. A few scenes in the Forman kitchen, a cameo at the right time, and an amazing, thoughtful recreation of the show’s most iconic driveway image (Eric and Donna sitting on the Vista Cruiser) – there are moments That 90’s Show will hit this specific audience demographic right in the feels, and for good reason. Though the world has moved on, the ghost of Donna’s granny panties, the memories of Fez and Red in the garage, and Kelso’s appreciation of burns – these things passed through my mind like I was driving through my own hometown after decades away, a wistful feeling that’s like a fucking crack rock – one That 90’s Show certainly enjoys taking a hit of, even to its own detriment at times.
Nostalgia is powerful; it distorts some facts and replaces others (there isn’t a single mention of either Laurie or Hyde this season, for example), and glazes over the unremarkable moments in life. That 90’s Show recognizes that power – but as it filters it through the iconic setting of the original series, it reveals something powerful about the passage of time. When a generation of children leave a town behind, there’s always another group coming right behind them, a stinky mess of hormones and bad decisions that repeats itself over the course of decades in suburbia. Children grow up, fall in love, steal a keg somewhere, and paint the water tower with graffiti – in its own way, That 90’s Show captures that feeling with a surprising vigor, a streaming sequel that surprisingly finds its way back into the rhythms of awkward teenage interactions and the hypocritical nature of parents scolding them for the exact same mistakes they made.
That 90’s Show is not perfect – not all of its plotlines and cameos come together, and there are plenty of stretches where the series is telling silly stories to fill running time. It’s also not quite as deep as That 70’s Show could be in its greatest moments – but it’s also not quite as cynical, especially without Hyde’s running commentary on the world and its people (one thing this group of characters could use – the wacko, “got on the internet too early” types. There’s ‘I read the first page of Riot Grrrls Gwen’, but she ultimately is not much more than an edgeless poser).
That 90’s Show, like many of these short-order streaming sitcoms, feels like a proof of concept; and I’m surprising myself a bit by saying this, but it offers a rather enticing blueprint for a series to build on (should it not be consumed by the algorithm, which this series is going to be particularly sensitive to). Decidedly old-school in its delivery (both in its plot structure, and the unnecessary laugh tracks that “woo” ANYTIME an OG cast member is seen) and remarkably subtle with its rumination on the ubiquity of childhood, That 90’s Show is exactly the kind of comedy TV could benefit from dedicating a few more half hours a week to – not groundbreaking, not ploying, but earnest and heartfelt, with a goofy soul and an understanding we all take our teenage years for granted.
- There’s only one new adult member of the caset: Andrea Anders as neighbor Sherri Runck – and in way, she combines both Bob and Midge (RIP Tanya Roberts), with a thick Wisconsin accent (that literally nobody else in Point Place has). A great character that could really blossom, if given a full season.
- There’s not enough time spent with Nikki, Nate and Jay before it starts throwing around “will they break up/get together?” stories into the mix. I appreciate recognizing the horniness and inconsistent application of emotion teens have for each other, but it comes at a bit of a cost in establishing their personas a little more sharply.
- There is a scene in the pilot episode that takes place on top of the Vista Cruiser that put tears in my eyes.
- Look, it’s already been announced that Wilmer Valderrama is returning as Fez – and of the numerous OG cast cameos, his recurring presence is the best. Valderrama has not lost a step as Fez; and of the original characters we hear the fates of, his story is easily the most logical of them all. If this show gets a season two, I really hope they bring Valderrama back for more episodes.
- One thing I always liked on That 70’s Show was when it dipped into period homage – Kitty’s game show fantasy, the musical episode, etc. That 90’s Show only does this once; but when it does, it is fucking golden.