There is a reason why famous sitcoms with massive fan bases have not made a comeback. It is a hard act to follow. The creators of That ’70s Show—Bonnie Turner, Lindsey Turner and Gregg Mettler—probably disagree, and That ’90s Show is a brave display of that.
The 10-episode Netflix series transports one to the old-timey format of live-set comedies where audiences roar with laughter despite stale punchlines. Kitty and Red (played by the affable Debra Jo Rupp and the witty Kurtwood Smith) drive the show without being overbearing reminders of its predecessor. They now represent a retired couple who have different ideas for leading their remaining lives. And yet Red, the grumpy old man who hates his house being crowded, is perfect for Kitty, who loves to fill her home with noisy teenagers and their avoidable troubles.
If That ‘70s Show is about kids on the block having fun in the basement, the new series is about Kitty filling that basement again with laughter, smoke and teenage sillies. Through cameos of Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis, Topher Grace and Laura Prepon–stars of That ‘70s Show–the makers do their part of reeling in fans of the original series. But that’s about it. It is the new characters who are in focus this time. Leia (Callie Haverda), the teenage daughter of Eric and Donna (played by Grace and Prepon), enters the fictional town of Point Place, Wisconsin, to have “the best summer of her life.” Her doting grandma Kitty makes snacks for her new friends, and her irritable grandpa Red gifts her a vintage car. What more could a teenager want? Probably a lot more.
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A recipe for comfort-watch
The show walks right into the swampland of the new-girl-in-town trope with Leia, but thankfully, she takes a couple of episodes before getting glued to her love interest. She first finds her best friend in Gwen (played by Ashley Aufderheide), who paints her bedroom walls with her identity–rows of middle fingers put together to spell the quintessential 1990s feminist movement ‘Riot grrrl’. Maxwell Acee Donovan plays Gwen’s stepbrother, who has the mind of a toffee wrapper. Ozzie, a flamboyant gay teen, is played by the talented Reyn Doi, who makes his presence felt with mean one-liners. And then Sam Morelos very convincingly plays the role of Nikki, who is too cool to have regular teenagers as her friends.
The chemistry between characters is seen better in pairs, be it romantic or platonic. As a group, they need to hang out more and become better friends for the audience to feel engaged. Other than promising Doi and Morelos, the performances by teenagers are sadly forgettable.
Not that he deserves any special mention, but there is also Jay Kelso (Mace Coronel), son of Michael Kelso (Ashton Kutcher). While he usually says crass things like his father, he ends up being more meaningful and sensitive in his interactions. He is obviously paired with the show’s main lead, Leia, and their romance tries hard to be mature. These refreshing plot points only add to the short list of good things about the show.
In true That ‘70s Show style, comedy comes at the expense of one character or the other. Since ‘90s jokes are too dated and controversial for today’s audience, the creators keep things plain-jane. The jokes sometimes fall flat and seem utterly unworthy of the laughs in the background. But good ones are timeless, and the show’s writers deserve kudos for their efforts. Melodrama is toned down by insults, and friendships are made real with frequent truth-telling. And romance? Kitty and Red have it pretty much figured out.
The showrunners don’t take many risks with the camera and stick to sitcom-like shots taken from afar, staying true to the sitcom style. But occasionally, one is pushed too close to the faces, and the bizarre angle becomes a joke of its own.
If matching up to the charm of That ‘70s Show was the creators’ goal, then they were setting themselves up for failure. However, as far as ambient TV goes, That ‘90s Show is adequately binge-worthy. It is comfortable. Nothing more, nothing less.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)