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‘That ’90s Show’ Thrives in Nostalgia, but Novelty Matters, Too

Netflix’s ‘That ’70s Show’ spinoff is endearingly familiar. So familiar, in fact, that it could use a little more imagination.

Netflix/Ringer illustration

While Friends has been justifiably hailed as one of the greatest sitcoms of all time, one thing the show never aspired to be was realistic. Existing in an idealized version of New York in which a group of 20-somethings can afford gigantic apartments in the heart of Manhattan, Friends wasn’t necessarily relatable as much as it was aspirational. It was those qualities, however, that made it difficult for That ’70s Show co-creator Bonnie Turner to connect with Friends. “[The show] was so clean and not what growing up was like for me,” Turner told The New York Times in 2006. That ’70s Show might not be remembered as sitcom royalty like Friends, but it did as well as any show could at capturing the universal experience of coming of age—no matter the time period.

Following Eric Forman (played by Topher Grace), his girl-next-door love interest Donna Pinciotti (Laura Prepon), and their four closest friends in the fictional town of Point Place, Wisconsin, That ’70s Show excelled at depicting the low-key situations that have an inflated sense of importance when you’re a teenager: going on a beer run, busting someone’s chops with a burn, kissing a crush, and so on. With so much of That ’70s Show taking place in the Forman family basement, and the stakes rarely bigger than, say, a breakup, it was the ultimate hangout show: a small-screen successor to the naturalistic charms of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. It certainly didn’t hurt that the series nailed the casting of its young ensemble, who, with the exception of the disgraced Danny Masterson, continue to have successful careers in Hollywood—to say nothing of the fact that former costars Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis are married.

Of course, the travails of teenagers wasn’t all That ’70s Show cared about. Eric’s scene-stealing parents, Red (Kurtwood Smith) and Kitty (Debra Jo Rupp), were also series regulars and provided some of That ’70s Show’s biggest laughs by virtue of being the only adults in the room. Perhaps the funniest recurring bit on the series was when Eric would partake in the circle—a clever workaround where the characters smoked weed without the camera ever catching them in the act—before trying to act sober in front of his parents. (“It’s like Amsterdam down there!” Kitty says after finally realizing what Eric and his friends have been doing in their basement for years.)

Unfortunately, even a show as endearingly aimless as That ’70s Show needed to call it quits eventually. By its eighth and final season, That ’70s Show had literally run out of time—the bittersweet series finale takes place on New Year’s Eve in 1979 as the whole gang reunites at (where else?) the Forman residence. (Naturally, there is one final circle session.) The young cast was all grown up, and the characters were ready for what adulthood (and the ’80s) would bring, even if the audience wouldn’t be along for the ride. But in the 17 years since That ’70s Show aired its finale, Netflix is banking on fans itching to return to Point Place for a new decade of teenage misadventures: the ’90s.

Picking up the action in the summer of 1995, That ’90s Show finds Red and Kitty adjusting to life as empty nesters. (The curmudgeonly Red is absolutely thrilled that the house is finally quiet; Kitty is despondent.) Their granddaughter, Leia (Callie Haverda), comes to visit before she and Eric—one of the many cameos from the original cast—attend space camp. (As if Leia’s name wasn’t enough of a hint, Eric is still obsessed with Star Wars, and even teaches a college course about the role of religion in the franchise.) But after meeting the next-door neighbor’s daughter Gwen (Ashley Aufderheide) and her misfit friends, Leia decides she’d rather spend the summer in Point Place than go to space camp with her dad. Eric initially forbids Leia from staying, but a pep talk from Donna—yes, of course they ended up together—convinces him that their daughter deserves the same experiences they had as teens.

The pessimistic view of That ’90s Show is that it could suffer a fate similar to the ill-fated That ’80s Show, which was canceled after one season. But what That ’90s Show has working in its favor is, above all else, nostalgia. (That ’80s Show borrowed the original series’ format, but otherwise didn’t have any crossover appeal.) The Forman household and other key locations in Point Place have been fastidiously recreated for That ’90s Show, while the majority of the original cast—joining Grace and Prepon are Kunis, Kutcher, Wilmer Valderrama, Don Stark, and Tommy Chong—return for cameos. (Unsurprisingly, Masterson’s Steven Hyde is excluded from the reunion.) Best of all, Smith and Rupp are back as series regulars; Red and Kitty have to balance giving their granddaughter independence without letting her get into too much trouble. Even after all these years, Red calling someone a “dumbass” or Kitty breaking out her distinctive laugh doesn’t get old.

Centering the last generation of teens whose lives weren’t heavily impacted by screens—one episode sees Kitty learning the basic steps of using Windows 95—That ’90s Show indulges in familiar pleasures like the circle and trips up the local water tower because the gang has nothing better to do. Really, the biggest differences are the cultural references: the likes of Alanis Morissette, Beverly Hills, 90210, and video rental stores are treated with nostalgic reverence, while Gwen embraces being a riot grrrl. On paper, at least, That ’90s Show checks all the necessary boxes—so why does the sitcom fall flat more often than it succeeds?

Creating a new teen ensemble with the same chemistry as the original cast was always going to be a tall order, but more than anything, That ’90s Show suffers from a lack of imagination. Many of the characters exist as stand-ins for the old crew: Gwen has the same rebellious sensibilities as Hyde, and there’s another Kelso (Mace Coronel) who is frequently described as a “man-whore.” (Unlike Kutcher’s lovably idiotic Michael Kelso, his son, Jay, actually has some brain cells to go with his libido.) But if the new ensemble feels one-note and underwritten compared to the original, that may just be a sign of the TV-making times.

With a 10-episode season, That ’90s Show is the typical length of a Netflix original series—and most television during the streaming era, for that matter. But it’s also a far cry from That ’70s Show, which ran between 22 and 27 episodes per season. To be sure, not all shows need to crank out that many episodes to justify their existence, but sitcoms can be a notable exception. The best thing a good sitcom has going for it is developing a sense of familiarity with the characters, and that’s easier to achieve with a longer runway. (It’s no surprise Abbott Elementary capitalized on the success of its 13-episode first season by going ahead with 22 installments in the second.) Perhaps audiences would become emotionally invested in the teens on That ’90s Show if they were given more space to do the same old things they did last week instead of sharing the limited spotlight with the original cast, which have been grabbing all the headlines since the series was first announced.

The good news is that these issues are, in theory, fixable: The more that viewers get to spend time with the new characters, the more they can develop their own idiosyncrasies. (One early bright spot is Reyn Doi’s Ozzie, the lone gay member of the group whose sardonic wit delivers the highest proportion of burns.) The bad news is that Netflix has never been more ruthless about canceling its own shows, and the streamer might not have the patience to let That ’90s Show find its groove. But even if That ’90s Show isn’t off to a flawless start, 10 episodes is a drop in the bucket compared to That ’70s Show, which reached 200 episodes (!) with its series finale. Maybe it’s my nostalgia for That ’70s Show talking, but we’ve only just said hello to Wisconsin again—it would be a shame if we had to bid farewell after one ’90s summer.