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There are so many reboots, remakes, and reimaginations of old, once-popular TV shows that the news of yet another should hardly be news at all. Instead, it should seem somewhat inevitable. Then there was the announcement that Netflix was reviving That ’70s Show, this time as That ’90s Show.
But the way Netflix worded this news…it was less a punch to the gut than a wrecking ball to the groin. It felt as if someone had exhumed my soul from my body, set it on fire, and then fed the ashes back to me. It was the worst possible offense anyone could commit against me: It called me old.
Accompanying the announcement of That ’90s Show was this little bit of hateful information: The ’70s were as far away from the years that That ’70s Show originally aired on Fox (1998-2006) as the ’90s are from today. Je téléphone à la police. I need to report hate speech.
It’s an upsetting introduction to a project that already invites its fair share of skepticism. Another reboot? Really?
There’s so much cynicism surrounding these kinds of projects that we forget that they can actually be good. And there were parts of the premiere episode of That ’90s Show, which is now streaming on Netflix, that suggested that potential. Then there was everything else that I watched as the season continued, which was about as fresh and fly as the terms “fresh” and “fly.”
Trendspotters say the ’90s are back. They aren’t talking about this.
The premise of That ’90s Show is both so simple enough that it should work, but also its biggest creative obstacle—at least for fans of That ’70s Show.
Eric (Topher Grace) and Donna (Laura Prepon) now have a daughter of their own, Leia (Callie Haverda), who is the same age that they were when they and their friends first started hanging out in the Formans’ basement. Leia is a standout student with a stacked résumé of extracurriculars, but with the lacking social life one might expect of a teenage girl named after a Star Wars character, whose summer plans are to go to space camp…with her father.
Before the trip, the trio heads to Eric’s childhood home in Wisconsin to visit Kitty (Debra Jo Rupp) and Red (Kurtwood Smith), Eric’s parents. While there, Leia meets a local group of teens, who actually make her feel cool and like she belongs. She begs to stay with her grandparents in Wisconsin for the summer so she can hang out with her new friends. Eric and Donna agree, Kitty and Red are thrilled, and the show’s premise is put in place.
Leia and her crew are the new Eric, Donna, and the gang, while Kitty and Red once again deal with wrangling a brood of teens, who spend an inordinate amount of time hanging out in their basement.
At first, things are nostalgically delightful. Rupp and Smith are all-time great sitcom actors. Kitty’s bubbliness cut with a dose of acidic sarcasm continues to be comedy gold, while Smith proves why so many other sitcoms since That ’70s Show have tried (yet always failed) to replicate Red’s brute crankiness and constant exasperation. The minute they’re back on screen in the old Forman house, you’re delighted to see them.
Grace’s scenes as Eric are particularly amusing, seeing how his somewhat pathetic yet self-deprecating character grew into a still kind of pathetic but much more confident husband and father.
When Rupp, Smith, Grace, and Prepon are in scenes together again, That ’90s Show crackles with the same energy of the original series. It’s hardly high art—or even great comedy—but if you spent years of your life watching That ’70s Show as it aired or in its seemingly 470 rerun time slots, these scenes are great fun. A quick visit from Ashton Kutcher as Kelso and Mila Kunis as Jackie in the premiere (it’s their wedding day…again) is also a riot.
For a multicam sitcom to really work, those characters need to be well-defined, and the actors’ chemistry should be a dangerously explosive cocktail. The original crew still has that. It’s a shame That ’90s Show isn’t about them.
The idea of the new series is essentially to recreate every single dynamic of the original, just with new young actors playing new teen characters. It doesn’t work.
As I am always saying these days, the youths are a terror. They are such a bland drip. They are the Zima of TV characters: clear, carbonated, and basically flavorless, better off forgotten.
There’s a new Eric, a new Donna, a new Kelso, a new Jackie, and a much more P.C. version of a new Fez. (Don’t worry, Wilmer Valderama’s problematic—yet still quite funny—caricature returns.) It should come as no surprise that there’s not an exact replica for Hyde, the character played by Danny Masterson, who faced trial this year after being charged with the rapes of three women.
The cast is diverse. There’s even a coming out storyline! The ’90s are so progressive!
When it comes to references to the time period, they’re more corny than they are clever. A trip to Blockbuster plays a pivotal part in one episode. There are numerous jokes about flannel shirts. One character is introduced while singing along to Alanis Morissette on her Walkman. The jokes don’t hit the same way. The comedic timing is missing. Like in the original, the kids are preoccupied with smoking pot—but there’s nothing renegade seeming about it this time around. (If anything, it’s slightly disturbing; the new cast looks so young.) Cool?
I’ve seen enough of these reboots to have a sense of what works about them—and what really doesn’t. Spiritual reimaginings, like Netflix’s One Day at a Time or ABC’s The Wonder Years, that recreate the tone and ethos of the original without necessarily reviving characters or storylines are great. So too are the series that reunite the original cast and essentially mimic the same humor, themes, and vibe of the show we remember, like Will & Grace, Roseanne (then The Conners), and—let’s face it, for its specific audience—Fuller House.
There’s an exception to every rule. (The Saved By the Bell reboot was perfect. I said what I said.) I’ve always been baffled by these revivals meant to appeal to a new, younger generation than those who watched the original. That ’90s Show reminds me a lot of Girl Meets World, the reboot of Boy Meets World that centered around Cory and Topanga’s daughter and her friends, with the original cast in supporting or merely cameo roles. The show was greenlit after a passionate fan campaign for a revival; then, when those fans tuned in, they missed those original characters and largely abandoned it.
The millennials tuning into both series for nostalgia are turned off by the pandering to a different audience and miss the characters they were tuning in to really see. And the so-called new, younger viewers who these new, younger characters are supposed to appeal to have no emotional attachment to the original show, let alone any references to it.
Even if they had caught That ’70s Show in reruns, they wouldn’t recognize the humor of That ’90s Show, which is much cringier and more predictable. Whichever camp you’re in, the whole thing reeks of a crass ploy by Netflix to capitalize on nostalgia, while missing entirely what it was about That ’70s Show that made it good or worth revisiting in the first place.
In other words, Netflix is entirely miscalculating what the audience for this is. And if there is, it’s certainly not me, the old man silently weeping in the corner as he contemplates the evidently hundreds of years that have passed since the ’90s, softly whispering in memory of That ’70s Show, “Hello, Wisconsin…”
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