‘That ‘90s Show’: ‘That ‘70s Show’ Sequel Takes the Edge out Of Teenage Nostalgia 

Nostalgia in media can depend a lot on newness and familiarity dancing together. We like to look back at eras we might have missed, while considering the similarities to our own. One key reason “That ‘70s Show” became a favorite with millennials is because it provided an addictive sitcom window into their parents’ youth, while being easily relatable to a teen growing up in the early 2000s. Many things change through time, except the perils of adolescence. Netflix wants to jump 20 years into the future and return to Pointe Place, Wisconsin with “That ’90s Show,” now updating the premise for the decade of grunge, gangsta rap and early internet fever. Instantly it feels more like a cash-grabbing product of our own time. Key textures of the era are missing and the kids are just way too nice.

As if the showrunners want to protect themselves in case the series gets canceled, the first season is about a brisk summer break. The year is 1995 and Leia Forman (Callie Haverda) is the 15-year-old daughter of the two leads from “That ‘70s Show,” nerdy Eric (Topher Grace) and redhead Donna (Laura Prepon). Eric now teaches a college course on “the religion of Star Wars,” which will surprise no fan of the original series. Leia is desperate for friends and while visiting grandparents Red (Kurtwood Smith) and Kitty Forman (Debra Jo Rupp), she bonds with “cool girl” Gwen (Ashley Aufderheide), who is literally the girl next door. Young Forman is soon begging to be allowed to spend the summer at Pointe Place. Eric and Donna consent and their daughter are soon taken in by a local group of misfits. They include Ozzie (Reyn Doi), who is struggling with coming out and spacey Nate (Maxwell Acee Donovan) and his no-nonsense girlfriend, Nikki (Sam Morelos). Then there’s hunk Jay Kelso (Mace Coronel), son of, you guessed it, goofball Michael Kelso (Ashton Kutcher) and eternally spoiled Jackie Burkhart (Mila Kunis). Leia might just fall for the Kelso, turning her world upside down.

Streamers have been eagerly mining popular hits from the late ‘90s to tap into viewers’ nostalgic sensibilities. Since the streaming wars began, we’ve been getting sequels to “Saved by the Bell” and “Full House,” or dramatic remakes of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” Even “Unsolved Mysteries” is back. But with sitcoms the great challenge is recapturing magic that was so specific the first time around. The original cast of “That ‘70s Show,” which ran from 1998 to 2006, produced quite a few stars that went on to shine for a while, most notably Topher Grace, Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis. They brought to their characters the annoyed, lazy energy of teenagers experiencing the drama of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll in 1970s small town America. Not surprisingly, some of the better moments in “That ‘90s Show” all belong to the older, returning cast. Sadly, Jackie and Kelso only appear once in the entire season, and that’s during the pilot, when we learn they are getting married for the third time. Fans hoping the writing staff would revise the original show’s infamously terrible decision to end Jackie’s romance with moody Hyde have to remember actor Danny Masterson has been persona non grata, following sexual assault allegations. Eric is also a no-show after the first two episodes, with only Donna being more of a constant presence, popping in to give puberty advice to Leia.

Most applause might be saved for the return of flamboyant Fez (Wilmer Valderrama), the lovably horny exchange student from the original series. He’s a successful beauty parlor owner dating Gwen’s mess of a mother, Sherri (Andrea Anders). And while this is meant to be a teen show, the scene stealers are Red and Kitty, who are very likable as grandparents we assume must be entering their mid-70s or early 80s. Red still threatens to put his foot up various asses and Kitty is eternally bouncy and nice, frustrating her husband by letting their basement again shelter a pack of high schoolers. When it comes to the kids, those who lived through the ‘90s will be surprised to find just how nice and rather tame this bunch is. Of course, it could depend where one grew up, but one never senses the cultural moment these characters are meant to be a part of. Music plays little of a presence in their lives, except for a joke while being stoned about how Sheryl Crow isn’t really a crow. An episode takes the gang to a rave, yet no one drops ecstasy. A few gags make fun of talk show culture and at least one hit show from the decade, “Beverly Hills, 90210.” 

But where’s the angst? Sure, the kids are around 15, but this is still a generation that worshiped Nirvana, Biggie and Marilyn Manson, and yes, later on the Spice Girls, N’Sync and Backstreet Boys. Hip-hop is not a presence, despite the cast being much more diverse. The only movie referenced for a hangout is “Batman Forever.” What makes “That ‘70s Show” endlessly fun is how the characters all inhabit their cultural moment in great detail. It’s also a more honest program about being young. In “That ‘90s Show,” no one is particularly mean, with sensibilities more attuned to Gen Z. The jokes never get edgy and hormones lack any sense of danger, except when Leia is pestered about whether she’s touched Jay “down there.” There’s little sense of the wider social fabric of the kids’ community. Leia gets jealous in an early episode over one girl Jay dates for 20 minutes, which is the single cameo by any outside teen. The only time the show touches on ‘90s gay issues is when Ozzie, the most entertaining member of the group, decides to come out to Kitty, in a wonderfully moving scene. In “That ‘70s Show,” the teens made dumb mistakes they later had to face, truly broke each other’s hearts and slapstick could still touch on sensitive emotional issues, like aging.

What is refreshing to realize while watching “That ‘90s Show” is how nobody has an iPhone. The internet is a new phenomenon in this world and you could still truly hang out with your friends without the noise of social media interference. Unfortunately so much energy is spent on a sleepy romance between Leia and Jay, who lacks the charisma of his famously dim-witted dad. There is a moment in the season finale where Fez decides to smoke with the kids and his mind travels back to a scene from “That ‘70s Show,” where we see the old gang in a mad, hilarious stoned haze. It’s almost fatal to the rest of the show, because it reminds us why we love the original so much. It knew how to combine the innocence of adolescence with its meanness. We never make later in life the kind of jokes that sting as when we were in high school, because supposedly we grow to know better. Being young is rarely about playing it safe, and this new show does.

That ’90s Show” season one begins streaming Jan. 19 on Netflix.