If sitcom revivals/reboots/remakes/spinoffs in the 21st century are driven almost exclusively by nostalgia, what are we to make of That ’90s Show, a new Netflix series whose very premise requires us to examine the kind of nostalgia That ’70s Show was already mining two decades ago?
Such a circuitous question reveals, perhaps, the way in which IP development in 2023 has become stagnant. Not that that’s anything new, but this kind of project development has begun to eat into itself as streamers and networks and execs and producers (and advertisers and maybe even consumers) have arrived at a place where, in 2023, a series like That ’90s Show aims to be both novel and familiar. And, more to the point, hopes that its novelty comes from its familiarity.
In that original series, which aired from 1998 to 2006, we followed Eric Forman (a nerdy, mop-haired Topher Grace) and his cadre of friends, which included next-door neighbor and crush Donna (a lanky, dry-witted Laura Prepon), lovebirds Kelso and Jackie (Ashton Kutcher in full airhead mode alongside Mila Kunis as a spoiled brat) and “Fez” (Wilmer Valderrama as a horny exchange student whose lisping accent was a punchline in itself). Their hormonal hijinks, which often included getting high in Eric’s basement away from the prying eyes of his parents, stern Red (a lovably gruff Kurtwood Smith) and sweet Kitty (the ever-watchable Debra Jo Rupp), served as the central narrative engine of this long-running Fox sitcom.
For this 2023 edition, we basically get a Xeroxed version of such a premise. Only now we’re anchored by Eric and Donna’s daughter Leia (Callie Haverda), who decides to spend the summer of 1995 with her grandparents—and learns, in the process, that she’s well suited to spending her days getting high in their basement while pining away for a cute boy and bonding with her next-door neighbor, Gwen (Ashley Aufderheide).
If you grew up watching That ’70s Show, you’ll likely have no way of assessing whether That ’90s Show works on its own. Maybe it can’t. And maybe it doesn’t even want to. After all, its first few episodes all but hinge on those OG characters—not just Donna and Eric, but Kelso and Jackie, as well as Fez and even Tommy Chong’s Leo. For fans of the original series, those moments end up working like welcome reminders of how hilarious the Fox sitcom—equal parts irreverent and charming—could be.
But it proves to be a rocky and unsteady start to a show. In wanting to give Kitty, Red, and several of those beloved characters enough room to play (many of them interacting with Sherri, Gwen, and Nate’s mom, a very funny Andrea Anders), That ’90s Show at times forgets to let its central teenage cast shine. Sure, they may be facsimiles of the original pot-smoking, basement-dwelling kids, but their storylines are, at least in the first few episodes, almost incidental to the A-plots at hand. Which is a shame because Haverda and Mace Coronel (Jay, whom Leia is infatuated with) find that sweet spot between self-aware humor and sweet-hearted earnestness that a multi-cam show like this one requires. Then again, when even the appearance of Kitty in that iconic sitcom kitchen is enough to garner raucous applause, and when line readings by the likes of Kutcher, Kunis, and Valderrama bring the house down, maybe you too would choose to sideline your teenage ensemble.
Slowly though, and as it gains confidence in its own quirky premise (even if, at times, it rehashes “will they/won’t they” plot lines from any other high school-set series), That ’90s Show finds its arguably all-too-recognizable groove. Predictable storylines about Red hating having a neighboring child wooing his granddaughter and the kids finding a keg for a Fourth of July hangout thankfully rub up against more interesting sitcom plots, like Kitty lovingly bonding with Ozzie (a hilarious scene-stealing Reyn Doi) in a funny spin on the ’90s own “coming out” episode. And yes, in case you’re wondering, the writers have a ball finding increasingly absurd ways to ground us in its titular decade. To wit: an episode centered on a warehouse rave (with glow sticks and pacifiers aplenty!) features references to the Menendez brothers, jokes about CK1 and Batman Forever—even a Home Alone parody, not to mention a low-hanging “Ross and Rachel” quip.
Offering precisely what its title promises and building on the legacy of a Y2K era sitcom that looked back in order to appear fresh and cool, That ’90s Show is nothing new. That’s not so much a knock against it as an accurate assessment of its reason for being. In that sense, it may well be a perfect example of Netflix’s approach to television development in 2023, aiming squarely at what’s been tried and true and hoping for the best. At least in this case, they were smart enough to put their money toward giving Debra Jo Rupp every and any chance to be the funniest person on your screen for 10 episodes straight.
That ’90s Show premieres on January 19 on Netflix.