‘That ’90s Show’ Works Best When It Doesn’t Try Too Hard

Part of the appeal of the That ’70s Show, at least in the first few seasons, was that it made its characters relatable. Premiering in the 1998, it focused on a group of six teenagers in the fictional town of Point Place, Wis. On the surface, it looked mostly like it was going for the Happy Days style of feel, but it was a far different show, especially with the references to cannabis use and sex, something you wouldn’t dare find on the other show.

Happy Days was about post-WWII America in a Milwaukee suburbs. ‘70s was about a post-Vietnam/Post Watergate era in America where the teenagers were too young for the 1960s and they’d be too old for MTV. Like King of the Hill, it focused on a set of people who didn’t know it at the time but they were the last of the Boomers in the forever changing last quarter of the 20th century.

The show ran for eight seasons which considering it began being set in May 1976, it unfortunately suffered from M*A*S*H Syndrome by stretching out three and a half years over too long of a time the same way The Goldbergs has. I pretty much lost interest around about 2003-2004, maybe catching a show every now and again, but I avoided the disastrous last season when both Topher Grace and Ashton Kutcher, who had rising movie careers, left. Grace had appeared in the Oscar-winning Traffic and Mona Lisa Smile while Kutcher wasn’t really appearing in the best movies, but he was getting the lead.

So, when the final episode aired in 2006 focusing on New Year’s Eve 1979, it left us wondering what was next for the kids. And now we have the answer, somewhat. That ’90s Show, which has 10 episodes on Netflix, catches up more than 15 years later in the summer of 1995. Red Foreman (Kurtwood Smith) and his wife, Kitty (Debra Jo Rupp), are in the same house in Point Place awaiting for the arrival of their son and his family.

Eric (Grace) and Donna (Laura Prepon) arrive with their 14-year-old daughter, Leia (Callie Haverda), who is going through her own set of growing pains. The family has come from the Chicago area for a July 4 holiday weekend visit. But Leia is feeling bummed. Eric is professor working in Chicago but nothing much has changed. He’s scheduled a trip with Leia that summer to SpaceCamp in Alabama that he is more excited about than her.

Leia, named after Princess Leia as Eric is a big Star Wars fan, meets Gwen (Ashley Aufderheide), who lives next door to the Foremans in the same house Donna grew up in. As a matter of fact, Gwen’s bedroom is the same as Donna so the two make a connection. Gwen’s half-brother, Nate Runck (Maxwell Acee Donovan), also lives there and has a girlfriend, Nikki (Sam Morelos), who happens to be very precocious and intelligent as Nate seems to be not as smart.

Leia meets the other friends and this is my problem because they all seem to be similar to the cast from ’70s Show. There’s Jay Kelso (Mace Coronel), son of Mike Kelso (Kutcher) and Jackie (Mila Kunis), who seems to follow his father’s behavior of girl-crazy ways while not too bright. There’s also Ozzie (Reyn Doi), an openly gay student of Asian descent. He seems like the Fez (Wilmer Valderamma) who despite a gullible attitude is more insightful at times. Even Gwen seems more like a female Hyde (Danny Masterson) who thankfully isn’t mentioned in any episodes as Masterson is charged in several sexual assault cases. He’s also the only living cast member of the ’70s Show who doesn’t appear.

Where ’90s Show works is that it focuses on Red and Kitty more this time around. Not to say they didn’t get a lot of attention the first time around, but it just that they work better in the episodes. Maybe it’s because as the Boomers and Gen Xers who enjoyed the previous show identify with them more. And both Smith and Rupp are a delight to see together again. Part of what made them work in ’70s was how they seemed to try to cling to the nuclear family ideology but couldn’t get past their own faults.

The first episode is hard to sit through but begins to kick up some steam in the second episode. The arc is that Leia’s 15th birthday is approaching and she’s getting an attraction to Jay as her first boyfriend. There’s a new neighbor next door, Sherri Runck (Andrea Anders), mother of Gwen and Nate, is somewhat irresponsible and found herself dating Fez, a popular hair stylist in the area.

But there are some problems. Even though it’s set in 1995, it can’t shake the feeling that it looks like a bunch of Gen Zers LARPing as 1990s kids. Not much of the music from the era is used in the series. I guess this could be that Netflix could get the licensing fees finalized. There’s also an episode where they go to a rave in Milwaukee. The only problem with this is raves weren’t that popular in 1995 in Midwestern cities like Milwaukee. They really didn’t become more popular until around the late 1990s. I doubt a bunch of Gen Xers would be all that interested.

The fashion and style seems perfect for the 1990s with the jorts and the sleeveless shirts and blouses the women wear. There’s also Jay’s haircut that looks like it’s from the era. Since Red and Kitty don’t look like the type to change much of their house, things still look the same. There is a subplot about Red getting a massage chair and also Kitty getting a personal computer so they can search the internet.

Bob Pinciotti (Don Stark), Leia’s grandfather and Donna’s father, makes a reference that he got Leia a karaoke machine for her birthday. And there’s several scenes and episodes of the kids hanging out at the mall, which was very popular in the 1990s. But the series works best when it gives the teenagers situations most kids can relate to such as learning to drive or Gwen considering getting a tattoo. Thankfully, there’s not much reference to pop culture of the era which is what’s plaguing other comedy shows and movies.

Haverda seems to have the same geeky mannerism that Grace displayed. Doi is very good at making Ozzie his own character that he doesn’t seem like the token Fez character. Nate and Nikki seem to be the least interesting of the series and there’s really only one storyline that focuses on them with Nate thinking Nikki is making with her tutor. Like a lot of other people, I have noticed that Gwen has the look and behavior of someone who would be a lesbian or bisexual. There’s even a few scenes where it looks like she may be interested in Leia more than just a friend.

I don’t know if the writers will explore this the next season. Aufderhale is too underutilized just to be the best friend trope. I don’t want to say the show runners are doing queerbaiting, but I speculated Ozzie was gay when I first saw him. That being said, it was still the 1990s and many people stayed in the closet even around their tight-knit friends. As of this posting, Netflix hasn’t announced any plans to renew it for a second season. And other popular shows on other streaming services have been axed. Netfix doesn’t really have a good track record of keeping shows on for more than three or four seasons so they’re probably won’t be a repeat of ’70s Show broadcast history.

But the show has gotten good reviews and a good reaction on the streaming service. It’s all likelihood we’ll see a season two and hopefully the show will branch out a little, because some of the episodes felt too contained around the Foreman household.

What do you think? Please comment.

Published by bobbyzane420

I'm an award winning journalist and photographer who covered dozens of homicides and even interviewed President Jimmy Carter on multiple occasions. A back injury in 2011 and other family medical emergencies sidelined my journalism career. But now, I'm doing my own thing, focusing on movies (one of my favorite topics), current events and politics (another favorite topic) and just anything I feel needs to be posted. Thank you for reading.

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