I was alternately looking forward to and dreading That 90s Show. I adore its progenitor, That 70s Show, and the prospect of seeing the characters again does what these nostalgia-bait productions always do: it hits you in a way logic can’t interfere with, a way that supersedes the warning signs of the underwhelming trailer and the many examples of modern revivals that tarnish – or, at least, sit deep in the shadow of – the beloved stories that spawned them. As its launch drew closer, dread won over, and I figured this would be a disappointment, a pale imitation of That 70s Show filled with modern identity politics and enough lazy references to fill up the first ten minutes or so of any episode of a Star Wars show.
Color me shocked because That 90s Show is surprisingly good! It’s not great, and certainly not nearly in the league of That 70s Show (outside of season 8, which doesn’t exist, so I don’t even know what I’m talking about), and it has some problems it needs to work out before a second season and beyond, should this one prove successful enough to warrant more. But it’s funny, it’s got heart, and it handles some of the hurdles it faces in smart and original ways. It’s also woke-free, thank God.
Red and Kitty Forman (Kurtwood Smith and Debra Jo Rupp) are enjoying their carefree, easygoing retirement when Eric and Donna (Topher Grace and Laura Prepon) arrive with their daughter Leia (Callie Haverda). Leia is going to spend a couple of weeks with Eric at space camp – because of course Eric Forman would want to take his daughter to space camp – but when she meets Gwen (Ashley Aufderheide), who lives next door to her grandparents, she decides she wants to spend the summer at Point Place. Soon, the awkward teen has a new circle of friends, new prospects at romance, and an old hangout handed down from her mom and dad.
My biggest non-woke fear going into That 90s Show was the new kids, who, in the trailer, didn’t have an ounce of the charisma, charm, or presence the original cast did. But they’re mostly pretty good. It takes them a couple of episodes to find their groove – or perhaps it took me a couple of episodes to get used to them – but by the third, I’d accepted them as a cast. Leia is the center of the group like Eric once was, and she’s not bad. She isn’t as funny and endearing as her dad, and Callie Haverda is a little too broad in her exaggerated gestures and line deliveries at times. But she’s doofy and bumbling in her own way, and that makes her likable. She’s also got relatable issues and goals, like making friends, gaining romantic experience, and having her own high school adventures. She’s a neat counter to her parents in That 70s Show; they were small-town kids who wanted to escape to somewhere more exciting, while Leia lives in Chicago and wants to hang out in a quiet burg like Point Place.
The rest of the kids further that theme by being more experienced and knowledgeable about life than Leia is, despite coming from Point Place as opposed to Chicago. Gwen almost instantly becomes Leia’s surrogate big sister, the rebel, feminist wannabe-activist (don’t worry; this isn’t nearly as excruciating as it sounds) to Leia’s eager-to-please spaz. Aside from Leia and Gwen, the better members of the new gang are Nikki (Sam Morelos), the thoughtful and intellectual control freak, and probably my favorite new character, Ozzie (Reyn Doi), a sarcastic gay kid who steals every scene. Rounding out the group are the far-less-interesting Nate (Maxwell Acee Donovan) and Jay (Mace Coronel). Nate is Gwen’s brother, and his thing is that he’s an idiot; this is sometimes funny and sometimes just annoying. Jay is a ladies’ man, and That 90s Show can’t seem to decide if he’s intelligent or stupid, so he’s whatever a given scene needs him to be, but ultimately, he’s not all that interesting. There’s also a new adult character in Andrea Anders’ Sherri, Gwen and Nate’s mother. Anders is essentially playing the same trashy dope she was in Modern Family, and she’s fine, mostly as someone for Red to insult.
The pitfall to having this new crew in the same universe as That 70s Show is that the audience will inevitably long for another chance to see the old characters rather than spend time with the newbies. And that’s true; at several points, I wished we could just hang with Eric and his friends again. But That 90s Show sidesteps this as best it can by refraining from making the kids stand-ins for the old cast – at least, for the most part. Leia, for example, is comparable to Eric because she’s the lead and her last name is Forman, but that’s where the similarities end. She’s got her own set of problems and character traits distinct from her father’s. The others have some elements of the old group, but not to the point where they’re just placeholders. Gwen has bits of Donna and Hyde, but she doesn’t feel like she’s the new version of either of them. Nikki has some Donna, some Jackie, and some Hyde as well. And Ozzie isn’t comparable to anyone from That 70s Show. The outliers are Jay and Nate, who kind of split the Kelso difference, with Nate being an idiot and Jay being a high-school lothario. It gets to be a little too much at times, especially Nate, who’s so dumb he’s obviously channeling Kelso, except he’s nowhere near as funny or cool.
The other problem That 90s Show has is its chosen nostalgia decade. The 90s didn’t have as distinctive a look or culture as the 70s did, so that aspect of That 70s Show is all but closed off to the sequel series. For example, remember the early episode where the guys all saw Star Wars for the first time? That was perfect because, even for those of us who weren’t around at the time, we understood what a massive cultural moment that was. The rest of the show built on this phenomenally, constantly demonstrating the impact it had on Eric. The 90s, while having plenty of amazing movies, had nothing comparable to that; Jurassic Park and The Matrix (the latter of which just barely squeezed into the decade) probably came the closest, but even those weren’t nearly what Star Wars was. That 90s Show circumvents this by taking on the identity of a 90s sitcom and recapturing the feel of the era. The opening credits are a riff on those of Malcolm in the Middle, with a version of the first show’s theme song that’s updated with a very 90s sound. Scene transitions have imagery straight out of the Saved by the Bell opening titles. And the biggest of all is Ozzie, who is a very 90s-style gay character; he isn’t political, he isn’t mad at the world and trying to shove himself down everyone’s throat. He’s funny, intelligent, savvy about people’s intentions, and, most of all, just a regular kid like everyone else. I’d put money on today’s culture warriors finding him offensive or reductive or something, but his humanity and good humor are what make him so great and what make this show feel more 90s than the aesthetics.
The aesthetics are there, though, and they’re great. There’s a wonderful attention to detail in That 90s Show that I think only people who grew up in the decade will catch –as opposed to That 70s Show, which, again, had a lot more to work with being set in a decade with a more noticeable identity. There’s a moment where Gwen and Nikki are playing with one of those ridiculous plastic wristbands that would snap around a girl’s wrist without a hook or belt, and it brought me back to my junior-high lunchroom, watching the girls fiddle with them. And Red and Kitty’s house has gotten a makeover, with the wallpaper and tchotchkes that look like my grandmother and her neighbors picked them out. It falters a bit in the clothes at times, though. That 70s Show captured the fashion of the time in a way that made the kids look like they were dressed as normal 70s kids would dress. But That 90s Show lays it on thick, sometimes decking out Leia and her friends in caricaturish outfits, like somebody was trying to spoof Blossom. The biggest offender is one episode where they go to a rave (which, while I’ve never been to a rave, I would guess is a lot less crowded than a real one), and they look like they’re going to a 90s nostalgia costume party.
Finally, the elephant in the room is the return of the original cast, to varying degrees (wildly varying, in Danny Masterson’s case). I won’t say who comes back – many you know, because Netflix and the producers couldn’t help themselves, but some you don’t – but I will say they’re fantastic. They feel like they never stopped playing the characters, despite their advanced years. (Although I have to say, some of them don’t look all that much older; Topher Grace has barely aged.) The most prominent are Red and Kitty, who are regulars and have about as much screen time as the kids. They’re great, and it’s terrific to see two of the best TV parents back on the screen, although Red feels like he’s lost a little of his bite. He’s mellowed considerably, with the old Red returning in fits and starts. There’s the occasional threat to put his foot up someone’s ass and the even more occasional “Dumbass,” but he’s not as harsh as he was on That 70s Show. I understood why Eric feared for his life on a daily basis, but I don’t believe it when Leia looks afraid of him (which doesn’t happen too often). I get it, and it makes sense; the gruffest of men tend to become teddy bears when faced with their grandchildren. But I’d like some more of the old Red if the show comes back.
And I hope it does. It’s no classic, but I liked That 90s Show a lot more than I thought I would, and I think it can get even better down the road if they iron out a few of the kinks.