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Review: 'That '90s Show' Needs Time to Develop

By Isabel Parigi | Streaming | January 26, 2023 |

By Isabel Parigi | Streaming | January 26, 2023 |


Hello (and welcome back to) Wisconsin!

That ’90s Show ranks on the better side of the spectrum of nostalgic reboots available in the last two years. The ten-episode first-season picks up in Point Place, Wisconsin at the Forman residence (canonically) sixteen years after fans last saw the gang from That ’70s Show. The eight-season original series was set from Summer 1976 to New Year’s Eve 1979 and chronicled a group of misfits coming of age in middle America. Flash forward to July 1995: Kitty (Debra Jo Rupp) and Red Forman (Kurtwood Smith) are preparing for the arrival of their son Eric (Topher Grace), daughter-in-law Donna (Laura Prepon), and granddaughter Leia (Callie Haverda). Kitty and Red have traded in their lifetime of mid-century suburban bootstrapping for vegetable gardens and massage chairs. After Leia meets her grandparents’ rebellious teenage neighbor, Gwenn (Ashley Aufderheide), she decides to spread her wings (shed her dorky reputation) and spend the summer with Kitty and Red and a new gang of Point Place misfits, punks, himbos, and otherwise spunky ’90s kids.

At its best, the series establishes the world of those teenagers and lets them luxuriate in the various agonies that color late adolescence. At its most “spinoff” however, That ’90s Show is bogged down by the parent show and the expectation of returning characters. It spends too much of its (limited) breath re-introducing the cliches and personalities of yore rather than building characters that can stand on their own. The pilot, for instance, is one-third introductions and one-third reactions to those introductions (by way of old school studio-audience oohs and aahs). By episode three, the series establishes a more comfortable rhythm that allows the characters space to do some iteration of “the same old thing [they] did last week”.

That ’90s Show never hits the stride of its predecessor, but they do their best with what Netflix gave them: ten episodes, seven new characters, and over two-hundred episodes of callback material. If That ’90s Show were given a network-sized season (That ’70s Show ran between 22 and 27 episodes per season) and room to develop characters away from their parent-show parallels, the series has the potential to become something other than a one season Netflix gimmick. At the very least, it’s an entertaining comedy (a return to the “traditional” sitcom) that hinges not just on ’90s references (although there are many) but on taking teenagers—sans demigorgons, murder mystery, or messiah complexes—seriously.

Do yourself a favor and ease into That ’90s Show with an episode or two of the original (streaming on Peacock). That ’70s Show first aired on Fox, then became a staple of late-night television lineups from Nick @ Nite to IFC, endearing itself, via syndication, to a new generation. Although often brushed past for the shiny new wave of single-camera sitcoms that took over late-aughts popularity, That ’70s Show, with its laugh tracks and bumper scenes, was a quietly rebellious little series: between composing (or re-posing) classic artwork mid-scene (S1 E3) and its famous round-robin (circle-cam) basement smoke sessions, the series is stylistically ballsier than I remembered.

A lesser show would ditch the That ’70s Show format for something more contemporary, but That ’90s Show weaves nostalgia and wit for a multi-cam that manages to feel more Bob’s Burgers than Big Bang (a high compliment). The show boasts most of the original That ’70s Show creative team (Bonnie Turner, Terry Turner, and Gregg Mettler) with the addition of the Turners’ daughter, Lindsey (Turner). On the other side of the camera, Debra Jo Rupp and Kurtwood Smith anchor the series with standout comedic performances of the doting Kitty and cynical Red. It is worth watching the show for their performances alone. Not only do they ground the series, Rupp and Smith are masters of multi-cam comedic acting. When their lines are met with audience reactions, you can feel them decide how they will harness the energy: Will Kitty flip her characteristic fluffy bob? Break into her iconic laugh? Or will Red deliver a response so harsh it could strip paint off the Vista Cruiser? Either way, they have a physicality to their emotions that—given the stylistic shift of 21st-century comedies—we do not get to see much of anymore. Hopefully, the show’s new teens are soaking up as much of Rupp and Kurtwood’s dynamic energy and comedic grace as possible.

Comedies, specifically sitcoms, do not happen overnight and benefit from having one hundred tiny things happen (i.e. the gang goes to a disco, Kitty invites the youth group leader over for dinner) than ten big things that entice you to click on the next episode. The series’ progression is too much too fast and it is to the detriment of the show. That said, the series nailed the Ozzie (Reyn Doi)/Kitty episode (S1 E5) and parenting scenes between the more gentle Red and the less “smart ass-y” Leia succeed based on his eight-seasons of established “putting his foot in Eric’s ass.” The rest of the cast is young and a little green, but promising. They are game to be goofy and pulled off now-infamous circle-cam smoke sessions like pros.

While doing press for her 2022 movie Catherine Called Birdy, Lena Dunham said the following: “[I was hoping to pay homage to the kind of young adult movies] we don’t necessarily get to see all the time anymore. In which, you know, the lead doesn’t have any special powers or a hot romance or a really exciting summer mystery. But instead it’s just sort of a complicated person grappling with being young.” That ’90s Show is no Catherine Called Birdy, but they are of the same spirit. I love crazy, campy television as much as the next chronically online person, but there is something equally fun (with potentially as high stakes) about a group of Wisconsin teens smoking weed in a time-worn basement. That ’90s Show wasn’t perfect, but it was exciting to watch something new that takes average teenage life seriously. And! (Don’t hate me) A “period piece” is the perfect framing device for a teen comedy. The relationships are just as interesting and the jokes don’t have that over-zeitgeisty “adults writing for teens” veneer. Unlike other Netflix-comedy-Ashton Kutcher crossovers, That ’90s Show is funny and hopefully nostalgic enough to gloss over its weak points until they get their legs underneath them.

Isabel is a writer based in New York. You can follow her on Substack and Twitter.