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‘That ’90s Show’ Review: Netflix’s Sweet ‘That ’70s Show’ Spinoff

The Hollywood Reporter 1/19/2023 Angie Han
© Provided by The Hollywood Reporter

As evidenced by television’s IP gold rush over the past several years, there are many, many ways to reboot a classic. There’s the meta route taken by Saved by the Bell, or the dramatic one adopted by Bel-Air. There are sequels that revisit the same characters in a new phase of life, a la And Just Like That, and reimaginings that add an urgent topical angle a la Queer as Folk.

Still others simply try to replicate the old formula, which is trickier than it might seem: For every well-considered Wonder Years, there’s a stilted How I Met Your Father. This is the approach chosen by Netflix’s That ’70s Show spinoff That ’90s Show. No one is likely to describe the new sitcom as a bold take on the source material or praise its originality and bravery; it aims for nothing much more ambitious than re-creating the low-key charm of its predecessor. But it hits that target with enough confidence and consistency to become a treat in its own right.

As indicated by the title, That ’90s Show — developed by That ’70s Show creators Bonnie Turner and Terry Turner, their daughter Lindsey Turner and That ’70s Show producer Gregg Mettler — does make a few notable tweaks to the original. It’s 1996 now, with the updated cultural references to match: There are entire storylines built around Clerks, raves and AOL, and homages to Donkey Kong and Beverly Hills, 90210. Our protagonist is no longer Eric (Topher Grace), who’s grown up to become an adjunct professor in Chicago, but his teenage daughter Leia (Callie Haverda). And there’s a self-referentiality that never needed to be there before, with cameos, running gags and the occasional plot point calling back to decades past. Thankfully, a mellow touch mostly keeps these nods from getting too cutesy.

But there’s far more that hasn’t changed. Much of the premiere episode is spent maneuvering to get Leia to stay with her grandparents, Kitty and Red (returning stars Debra Jo Rupp and Kurtwood Smith) for the summer. Once she’s settled, Leia spends her time much as her parents did before her, camping out in the Formans’ basement with her friends. While That ’90s Show wisely resists the temptation to swap in one-to-one analogues of the previous cast, Leia has inherited some of her dad’s dorkiness, and ditzy jock Nate (Maxwell Acee Donovan) feels even more like the new version of Ashton Kutcher’s Michael Kelso than the actual new Kelso, Michael’s smooth-talking son Jay (Mace Coronel).

The circle pans that it took my teenage self an embarrassing number of years to realize were meant to suggest marijuana use are back. So are the cute little interstitials of characters goofing off before colorful graphic backgrounds. The theme song, “In the Street,” has been lightly updated with a more era-appropriate punk flavor. In an especially throwback-y touch, That ’90s Show retains the now-unfashionable multicamera format, complete with laugh track. The individual episodes generally clock in around the broadcast TV standard of 22 minutes, in a welcome break from the usual Netflix bloat.

Most significantly, That ’90s Show maintains the likable vibe that made the earlier show such a reliable comfort watch — the laid-back humor, the upbeat nostalgia, the simple empathy for the small but significant challenges of suburban adolescence. At the start of That ’90s Show, Leia is a wide-eyed sweetheart whose idea of a wild anecdote is, “One time, at the beach, a seagull stole my sandwich, and under my breath, I called her a b****.” Over the course of the 10-episode season, she comes out of her shell with the help of her new BFF, riot-grrrl-next-door Gwen (Ashley Aufderheide) — trying out booze, weed, kissing and the general concept of teenage rebellion for the first time in her sheltered life.

Although Leia is technically a newcomer to Gwen’s friend group, the cast establish an easy, lived-in rapport in no time at all. Haverda anchors the ensemble with the self-assurance of a seasoned pro, even as Leia flails like the awkward goody-two-shoes that she is, and her chemistry with Aufderheide makes for perhaps the group’s liveliest pairing. As the group’s other pair of besties, Donovan and Coronel are so endearingly in sync that they can hold entire conversations by simply repeating the word “bro” back and forth. Meanwhile, if the younger stars occasionally veer the tiniest bit Disney Channel in their broadness, Rupp and Smith slip into their roles like no time has passed at all, and it’s a pleasure simply to be in the presence of their well-worn dynamic once more.

If there’s a downside to That ’90s Show‘s relatively brief 10-episode season, it’s that there’s simply not enough time to utilize each member of the cast to their fullest potential. Sam Morelos’ no-nonsense Nikki doesn’t really come into focus until the second half, having spent most of the first attached at the lips to her boyfriend, Nate. At the same time, Reyn Doi’s Ozzie (the only gay kid in the clique) makes an immediate impression with his dry wit, but he’s too often relegated to the sidelines of other people’s arcs, as if the writers haven’t quite figured out what to do with him.

But these are minor flaws in the grand scheme of things. That ’90s Show passes with flying colors the test of any ensemble sitcom — the ability to pair off any combination of actors, confident they’ll be able to generate comedic sparks.

As for the crew who used to hang out in that basement, That ’90s Show brushes up only here and there against the poignancy inherent in its premise. As Red puts it, Eric and Donna (Laura Prepon) are “upstairs people” now — full-fledged adults sitting around the kitchen table while the kiddos get up to God knows what downstairs. The rare moments when they get to commiserate with their teenage counterparts, sharing the lessons we saw them learn 20 years ago, are sure to tug at the heartstrings of millennial fans.

But it’s a spice the series deploys only sparingly, aware that this simply isn’t their world anymore. The basement belongs to the ’90s kids now, and to paraphrase that same old theme song, they’re all all right.

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