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Despite the Gen X Nostalgia, That ’90s Show Is For Kids

Netflix’s sequel to That ’70s Show lives for obvious jokes.
  • Mace Coronel and Callie Haverda and That '90s Show (Photo: Netflix)
    Mace Coronel and Callie Haverda and That '90s Show (Photo: Netflix)

    Adults might be tempted to watch That ’90s Show, Netflix’s sequel to the long-running sitcom That ’70s Show. Given the double blast of nostalgia — both the retro setting and the brand extension — it could seem like the perfect treat for a cozy Saturday in front of the laptop. However, grown-ups should be warned: Though it does feature many actors from the original, the new series is aggressively juvenile, and while it occasionally succeeds as a broad, adolescent comedy, it’s uninterested in the sophistication that might keep an older audience engaged.

    Consider how it handles teen romance. The series focuses on Leia Forman (Callie Haverda), the 14 year-old daughter of That ’70s Show characters Eric and Donna (Topher Grace and Laura Prepon, who both make cameos.). Rather than go to space camp with her dad, Leia chooses to spend the summer with her grandparents Red and Kitty (Kurtwood Smith and Debra Jo Rupp, the only original cast members returning as series regulars). That means she’s hanging out, smoking pot, and awkwardly flirting in the same Wisconsin basement where her parents and their friends had their adventures 20 years ago. Just like her dad was then, she’s sweetly naive about growing up. When she gets a crush on Jay Kelso (Mace Coronel), son of Michael and Jackie (Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis, also making cameos), she’s so gawky that her limbs literally go rigid. At one point, after an anxious conversation about touching Jay’s privates, she accidentally does grab the front of his jeans, and she’s so paralyzed with embarrassment that she keeps her hand there for almost a minute. The laugh track — because there is indeed a laugh track in this old-school, multi-camera sitcom — builds and builds as she stands there with her arm frozen in place. Meanwhile, Jay’s eyes bug out, but he doesn’t say a thing.

    This is not how human beings act. However, it is the way comic archetypes behave, because even more than its predecessor, which did occasionally spare moments for nuanced feeling, That ’90s Show is a firehose of gags. One extended scene in the kitchen even has two kids stepping on a series of mousetraps, as though they’ve landed in a vaudeville bit. Plus, all the characters are broad types, like in a commedia sketch. Nate Runck (Maxwell Acee Donovan), Leia’s next door neighbor, is an ur-doofus, so when a fly lands on his crotch (another crotch joke!), he smacks it hard with a flyswatter, with predictable results. Red is a cranky old grandpa, so almost every sentence he utters is about how he wants those darn kids out of his house.

    This isn’t so different from the tone of Fuller House, Netflix’s long-running sequel to ’90s sitcom favorite Full House, but that revival focused on its adult characters. There were even hints of pathos as they faced the struggles of raising a family. Conversely, the pratfalls-and-double-takes shenanigans of That ’90s Show are most reminiscent of the original Saved By The Bell, which courted a young audience by making sure the grown-ups were always on the edge of the story.

    To that end, kids may very well like what they see, if they can get past the first few episodes. The pilot is especially arduous, due to stilted performances by Grace, Prepon, Kutcher, and Kunis. They push so hard on their material, straining to make everything funny, that they merely expose the flimsiness of the jokes. The script also sags under rote references to the original. There’s the expected “360 scene,” where the characters sit in a circle while the camera spins around for close-ups on each of their faces. There are one-liners about who used to live down the street and sneak into whose bedroom. It all plays like mandatory items from a nostalgia checklist instead of jokes arising organically from a scene.

    The show never quite sheds this stiffness, yet by the middle of the season, it does take some goofy risks that pay off. When Leia’s openly gay friend Ozzie (Reyn Doi) comes out to Kitty, he decides to drop the news while he’s teaching her about the internet. As they bond over dial-up, both Doi and Rupp have a loose, playful chemistry that suggests they’re enjoying the silly bits about the clanging sound that AOL makes when it logs on. (Ozzie’s sexuality is embraced by everyone on the show, which is nice.) Similarly, when Wilmer Valderrama shows up as Fez, the loopy character he played on That ’70s Show, he’s so committed to his performance that he elevates everything around him. He just has the knack for this style of big, shameless clowning.

    The young cast members almost reach his level when the show indulges in fantasy sequences. The lightest, most genuinely funny scenes in the entire season come when Leia daydreams about having a 90210-themed birthday party. In her imagination, her friends recreate the opening credits sequence, and the actual Brian Austin Green pops up to play David, his character from the Aaron Spelling show. Later, Green appears at the party itself, and the recurring gag that only Leia can see him is agreeably bonkers. It’s fascinating, too, that in these bits, Haverda’s performance sheds its tentative, robotic quality, and she displays genuine comic timing. It’s like she’s liberated by entering a world where she doesn’t have to make her over-the-top character seem “real.” Like the series itself, she succeeds when she embraces the story’s hardy-har-har essence.

    The complete first season of That ‘90s Show streams January 19 on Netflix. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    TOPICS: That '90s Show, Netflix, Fuller House, That '70s Show, Ashton Kutcher, Callie Haverda, Debra Jo Rupp, Kurtwood Smith, Laura Prepon, Mace Coronel, Mila Kunis, Reyn Doi, Topher Grace