’90s Show Review: Netflix Show Doesn’t Rely On Original Cast
Netflix’s new “That ’70s Show” spinoff follows a single formula and creates a new take on the original cast.
Watching that ’90s show, you can see just about every disastrous road the show didn’t go down. There’s a version of this spinoff that focuses on the original characters, or is transposed to another city, or is so drenched in ’90s references that it chokes every punch before it has a chance to survive.
It’s not a perfect show, but ’90s Show’ makes a very smart decision in this first 10-episode season: It doesn’t rely on frames. Yes, the show opens with Eric (Topher Grace) and Donna (Laura Prepon), Red (Kurtwood Smith) and Kitty (Debra Jo Rupp) in the old Foreman kitchen. Sure, Jackie (Mila Kunis) and Kelso (Ashton Kutcher) jump in for the one-scene shouting match. Rather than dangling them as engines of “that ’90s show,” it’s an effective way to acknowledge the past before building the future.
As much as it repeats the “That 70s Show” formula — its protagonist (Callie Haverda, Eric and Donna’s daughter Leia) and their generic group of friends, Red and Kitty, compete with an annoying neighbor, the Circles. in and out of the basement – “That ’90s Show” doesn’t really work if it just relies on the exact same people as the original. Haverda has an easier chemistry with Rupp and Smith than Grace in this new pilot. The flattest episode of the season hinges on recapturing the old Pinciotti magic. That ’90s Show proves that reboot magic works best when you pass that spirit on to a new generation, rather than cleanly recycling the old. It’s probably for the best that the remaining five socially acceptable ’70s stars never appear on screen together at the same time.
So it’s more of a “70s” vs. “90s” handshake here, facilitated by Rupp and Smith. Their constant presence and consummate professionals are the net upon which the wave of newcomers must fall back. The ass-leg jokes don’t hit the mark with the same precision, but that’s almost because the ’90s version of Red is a nicer goofball. The original show always had a hint of softness around the edges. Here, she’s more of a pushover, willing to participate in an episode-opening dance party or unearth a valuable relic to pass on to her grandson. She is the perfect complement to Rupp, who has lost nothing of Kitty’s life. The stress of motherhood has largely given way to excitement about being a grandmother, an emotion that elevates the look overall. (The highlight of the show so far might be Kitty’s end of the season fantasy of chaos as a school nurse.)
Leia’s friends map onto Eric’s friends quite nicely, more in rhythm than actual archetype. They’re teenagers screwing up and not letting each other down. They cling to cultural icons and project personas that awkwardly mirror the people they are. The new wave of “That ’90s Show” is comprised of performers who have clearly studied their predecessors, but don’t necessarily belong with them. Ozzie (Reyn Doi) is a form of Fez, but more confident and confident. Kelso’s looks and smarts have been passed down to his son Jay and his son’s best bud, Nate (Maxwell Acee Donovan). Like Jackie, Nikki (Sam Morelos) seems overly prepared for the world beyond high school in a way that her peers are not. Nate’s sister Gwen (Ashley Aufderheide) is able to take the rebellious nature of a character the original series would soon forget and give it to someone Leia can trust the most.
None of these are duplicates. Even Leia isn’t tied into the “big bang theory” type of nerd reference du jour. His own name is more than enough. It’s a sign that “That ’90s Show” is willing to make something that would pretty much work even if it were a simple, cozy Netflix multi-cam with no built-in predecessor. Obviously, it’s too early to say that these actors won’t go on to have careers like the original Lightning Strikes. However, it is not crazy to imagine a world where at least some of them break out. (Morales and Doi appear to be the strongest contenders in the first season). Overall, this is a cast that has natural group chemistry and a sense of timing and attitude that predecessors turned into a generational touchstone.
Perhaps the most impressive balancer of the season is Fez (Wilmer Valderrama), who retains the energy of an incredible reboot and lasts for several episodes without overstaying his welcome. He’s the best example of how showrunner Gregg Mettler (another ’70s vet) avoids falling into the legacy trap of getting too cute with where the original cast would be a few decades from now. Some friends are traveling down to Chicago. Some would stay in their hometowns in Wisconsin. Leo (Tommy Chong) wouldn’t change at all. None of the reappearances (except maybe one in the season finale) feel contrived. It’s a generational transition, but some feel more important to Point Place than others.
That’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 set-ups and jokes going, the next-door trope is done with full commitment. Is there an episode where Leia is overly committed to being in two places at once? Naturally! By the end of the season, is there a complicated flirtation that threatens to tear apart the fabric of your friendship? Totally. Is Red excited to deliver a Menendez Brothers one-liner? You already know the answer. “That 90’s Show” is a great burger joint with a short menu. The food may have a familiar taste, but it finds an efficient way to exceed basic expectations.
“That Seventies Show” was often fueled by boredom. The episodes from the idea of ”nothing to do” and what the main cast did to fill the void. “That ’90s Show” does the same, with its goofy style. There’s an easy, carefree feeling behind the misunderstood words, the awkward sex talk, the impossible crushes, and the feeling that someone’s done for because of some minor hiccup. These teenagers don’t need their parents for all of this, and neither do they need their show.
“The ’90s Show” is now available on Netflix.
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