It’s been over two decades since “That ‘70s Show” first premiered in 1998, making the ’90s as far from the present day as the ’70s were to its initial release. For a time, “That ‘70s Show” was available to stream on Netflix, making it well-watched amongst elder Gen Z, who missed its initial run on cable. With the massive amount of available media and quick turn-around time on TV nowadays, there’s a short shelf-life on the cultural relevance of outdated shows, and only so long before things lose revival potential. Picture this: An alarm goes off somewhere inside the Netflix headquarters whereupon they make these astute and timely observations and set off to create the aptly titled reboot “That ‘90s Show.” So original and clever. Almost as bad as “Fuller House.” But I digress, for there is far more lacking about this series than a derivative title.
In a direct parallel to the original, the series is centered around Eric (Topher Grace, “That ‘70s Show”) and Donna’s (Laura Prepon, “Orange Is the New Black”) 15-year-old daughter Leia (Callie Haverda, “The Lost Husband”), who is staying at her grandparents’ house for the summer of ’95, excited to make memories and have adventurous shenanigans with her newfound friends.
“That ‘90s Show” has a template, and it works; mainly because that template is “That ‘70s Show,” a successful series made of sitcom gold. It’s a little uninspired, but Leia is her father’s daughter to a tee. Her awkward mannerisms and dorky naivete readily elect her as the “Eric” of the new group of friends. But after about 30 seconds in, I couldn’t help but compare their respective performances, hearing every line with a wary awareness of how it would sound coming from Topher Grace instead, which is a uniquely unfair standard to be held to.
In fact, I can hardly pronounce any isolated character traits of the new teens that aren’t in direct relation to the original show. Jackie (Mila Kunis, “Black Swan”) and Kelso’s (Ashton Kutcher, “That ‘70s Show”) son Jay (Mace Coronel, “Nicky, Ricky, Dicky & Dawn”) is Kelso 2.0 with a heart of gold. As the pre-existing relationship of the group, Nikki (Sam Morelos, “Extraordinary Night”) and Nate (Maxwell Acee Donovan, “Gabby Duran & the Unsittables”) have the Jackie/Kelso dynamic down pat. It’s no longer politically correct to have a “Fez,” so they made Ozzie (Reyn Doi, “Drama Club”) gay and that’s enough said about that. No character seems to have the integrity or genuine tenacity to pull off a new-age “Jackie” or “Hyde,” though in all fairness, these renditions already pale in comparison to their predecessors. And the show makes no effort to avoid this, fully embracing the indistinguishable lines between the past and present.
Yet in doing so, it prevents any of the new characters from establishing their own personalities. Leia’s lines are flat and uninteresting, but because she’s Eric and Donna’s offspring, I can’t help but root for her, even if it’s out of no real testament to her actual character. When I laugh at a dumbfounded look on Jay’s face, I do so on account of how akin it is to Kutcher’s signature comedic idiosyncrasies, not his own. The show is well aware of this, and it’s part of its cheap, disingenuous appeal. Don’t even get me started on Gwen (Ashley Aufderheide, “Emergence”), Leia’s supposed best friend and a “Hyde” if you squint, who is given no plot line of her own beyond coaching Leia through her bad decisions and lack of romantic experience.
On the surface, “That ‘90s Show” has all the right components to be proper reboot material. The familiar sets of the Forman household and the presence of Kitty (Debra Jo Rupp, “That ‘70s Show”) and Red (Kurtwood Smith, “That ‘70s Show”) play right into the nostalgia factor. The transitions are cheesy and horrendous and perfectly in sync with the wacky sequences of the original. A sped-up punk version of the iconic theme song is played by James Iha of The Smashing Pumpkins and Brett Anderson of The Donnas, two respectively iconic ’90s rock icons.
But much like the theme song, the show is in a hurry to prove itself. And it never fails to let the nostalgia hit you in the back on the way out.
The problem with reboot shows drenched in nostalgia is that it’s virtually impossible to not view them by their every lack in comparison to the original. Try as they might, they can never be taken seriously of their own accord because they fail to acknowledge their legacy origins without being absorbed by them entirely. There’s a reason that Red and Kitty are the only part of the show that truly works: They haven’t changed one bit. Rupp and Smith give well-seasoned performances that are just as iconic as they were 20 years ago. It’s familiar and comforting, and their famous quips (Red’s “foot in the ass”) and quirks (Kitty’s hiccuping laugh) are easy comedic cash grabs from the audience.
But that doesn’t change the fact that you simply cannot recreate the same show from twenty years ago and not invest the same amount of time and effort into getting the audience to like the new characters for their own sake, not just out of a likeness to the original. One of my biggest grievances with the sitcom reboot phenomenon is that there’s no respect for the sitcom standard anymore. Where are the twenty-episode seasons? The thirty-second theme songs? No one wants to take the time to let the audience get to know the characters week after week until they root for them on their own accord. This 10-episode season is rushed and desperate to please, cramming in all the classic stunts with none of the payoffs, resulting in a friend group with zero chemistry.
From the start of “That ‘70s Show,” Donna and Eric had the best friend energy of an old married couple, Kelso’s goofy dopey demeanor bounced off of Hyde’s (Danny Masterson, “The Ranch”) sardonic apathetic one and Jackie’s every line was that of a scene-stealing icon in the making. Seeing them briefly back on screen is an immense treat; it’s just not enough to make this show stand on its own. “That ‘90s Show” can throw in as many “circle” scenes and easter eggs as it wants, but you can’t force the magic that made “That ‘70s Show” its own original entity.
Admittedly, one aspect of this reboot that I am grateful for is that the show never lingers too long on the cameo appearances. Other franchises have tried to coalesce old characters with new teens to no avail (re: adult karate feuds in “Cobra Kai” and every single moment of “Fuller House”). In the pilot, Eric and Donna drop Leia off for the summer, and Jackie and Kelso are in and out of there faster than he could say “Damn, Jackie.” Fez (Wilmer Valderrama, “That ‘70s Show”) does show up a little too often and his presence has all the sad depleted energy of Joey in the later seasons of “Friends” — no real purpose beyond being the butt of the joke, but still desperately seeking approval and attention in the form of increasingly absurd fan service and idiocy.
As a fan of the original, I definitely have mixed feelings toward this show. It’s hard not to love the nostalgic callbacks and familiar faces that adorn this reboot, but the actual comedic content is fairly unremarkable. Kitty and Red are its saving grace, by far, and an absolute delight to see back on the small screen, but even they aren’t enough to make this show genuinely good. If you were to strip “That ‘90s Show” of everything that ties it to “That ‘70s Show,” you’d have a Netflix Original series about some one-dimensional teenagers in the ’90s and some poorly written jokes. And that’s a damn shame.
TV Beat Editor Serena Irani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.