Watching “That ‘90s Show,” you can almost see every disastrous pathway the show didn’t take. There’s a version of this spinoff that’s centered on the original cast or transposed to a different city or steeped so much in ‘90s references that it chokes off every punchline before it has a chance to survive.
It’s not a perfect show, but “That ‘90s Show” does make one very smart decision throughout this first 10-episode season: It doesn’t lean on cameos. Yes, the show opens with Eric (Topher Grace) and Donna (Laura Prepon) and Red (Kurtwood Smith) and Kitty (Debra Jo Rupp) in the old Foreman kitchen. Sure, Jackie (Mila Kunis) and Kelso (Ashton Kutcher) drop by for the one-scene shouting match. Rather than dangle those as the engine “That ‘90s Show” needs to keep going, it’s an efficient way to acknowledge the past before building the future.
For as much as it repeats the “That ‘70s Show” formula — its main character (Callie Haverda, playing Eric and Donna’s daughter Leia), their general friend group makeup, Red and Kitty contending with a pesky next-door neighbor, the Circles inside and outside of the basement— “That ‘90s Show” doesn’t actually work when it solely relies on the exact same people as the original. Haverda has an easier chemistry with Rupp and Smith than Grace does in this new pilot. The season’s flattest episode is the one that rests on getting some of the old Pinciotti magic back. “That ‘90s Show” is proof that reboot magic works best when it transfers that spirit to a new generation rather than purely recycling the old one. It’s probably for the best that the remaining five socially acceptable “‘70s” stars never appear on screen together at the same time.
So there’s more of a handshake between “‘70s” and ‘’90s” here, facilitated by Rupp and Smith. They’re a constant presence and consummate pros, the net that this wave of newcomers has to fall back on. The jokes about feet in asses don’t hit with quite the same precision, but that’s almost because the ‘90s version of Red is a kindlier curmudgeon. He always had a hint of softness around the edges in the original show. Here, he’s more of a pushover, willing to have an episode-opening dance party or dig up a prized relic to pass down to his granddaughter. It’s a perfect complement to Rupp, who hasn’t lost any of the pep of Kitty. Her stresses of being a mother have largely given way to her excitement at being a grandmother, an emotion that lifts the show up overall. (A late-season sequence of Kitty imagining the chaos of being a school nurse might be the show’s high point so far.)
Leia’s friends map on fairly neatly to Eric’s friends, more in rhythm than actual archetype. They’re teenagers who screw up and don’t let each other live it down. They latch on to cultural icons and project personas that map awkwardly on to the people they are. This new wave of “That ‘90s Show” is made up of performers who clearly studied their predecessors but aren’t necessarily beholden to them. Ozzie (Reyn Doi) is in the Fez mold, but more confident and assured. Kelso’s looks and smarts have been spread to his son Jay and his son’s best bud Nate (Maxwell Acee Donovan). Like Jackie, Nikki (Sam Morelos) seems overly prepared for a world beyond high school in a way her peers aren’t. Nate’s sister Gwen (Ashley Aufderheide) manages to take the rebellious nature of a character the original show would now soon forget and give it to someone who Leia can trust the most.
None of those are carbon copies. Even Leia, who has her father’s lack of social instincts, doesn’t get wrapped up in the “Big Bang Theory”-type nerd reference du jour. Her own name is more than enough. It’s a sign of “That ‘90s Show’s” willingness to make something that would work pretty much as well if it was a simple, cozy Netflix multicam with no built-in predecessor. It’s obviously too early to say that these actors won’t go on to have the careers that the original lightning-in-a-bottle crew did. It’s not crazy, though, to imagine a world where at least a few of them are breakouts. (Morales and Doi seem like the strongest first season contenders). Overall, this is a cast that has a natural group chemistry and a sense for the timing and attitude that the predecessors turned into a generational touchstone.
Maybe the season’s most impressive balancing act is Fez (Wilmer Valderrama), who keeps the energy of an incredible reintroduction and manages to stick around for multiple episodes without overstaying his welcome. He’s the best example of how showrunner Gregg Mettler (another “‘70s” vet) avoids falling into the legacyquel trap of getting too cute with where the original cast would be after a few decades. Some of the friends would make their way down to Chicago. Some would stay in their Wisconsin hometown. Leo (Tommy Chong) wouldn’t change at all. None of these reappearances (save for maybe one in the season finale) feels like a contrivance. It’s generational crossover, only with some people feeling more essential to Point Place than others.
It’s not to say “That ‘90s Show” is a complete reinvention. Andrea Anders, as Gwen and Nate’s mom Sherri does a lot to keep the classic sitcom setups and jokes from getting stale, the next-door neighbor trope delivered with full commitment. Is there an episode that has Leia overcommitted to being in two places at once? Of course! By the end of the season, is there a complicated bit of flirting that threatens to shred the fabric of the friend group? Absolutely. Does Red gets to deliver a Menendez Brothers one-liner with great gusto? You already know the answer. “That ‘90s Show” is the equivalent of a great throwback burger joint with a short menu. The food might have a familiar taste, but it finds an efficient way to overdeliver on the basic expectations.
“That ‘70s Show” was often fueled by boredom. Episodes grew out of the idea of “not a thing to do” and what the main crew did to fill that void. “That ’90s Show” does the same, with its own style of goofiness. There’s an easy, carefree feeling underneath all the misunderstood words, awkward sex talk, impossible crushes, and the feeling that someone’s life is over because of some minor hiccup. These teenagers don’t need their parents for all that and neither does their show.
“That ’90s Show” is now available to stream on Netflix.
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