As a sequel slash revival of That ‘70s Show, That ‘90s Show picks up where the original show abruptly left off in 2006.
The series follows the next-generation Point Place gang as they get up to teenage mischief, drama and romance in true coming-of-age fashion. More complicitly, the show brings fans of the OG sitcom—many of whom are now struggling with their twenties—back to the good ol’ days. Everyone enjoys a healthy dose of nostalgia, but there comes a point of diminishing returns to rushed guest appearances and a dialogue peppered with inside jokes.
Revivals definitely have a leg up when competing for a slice of the audience attention pie. They remind us of a past that they yearn to revisit, and this past does not necessarily have to be deeply personal. Personally, I see the offbeat vibe of That ‘70s Show as a reminder of the pre-mass production television industry, which is now perpetuated by streaming giants who fancy themselves directors. But I digress. When spinoffs have a beloved predecessor with a loyal audience, all there is to do is capitalise on or, even better, build on an existing foundation of good times and well-loved characters. When the producers of That ‘90s Show chose to do the former and run with it for 10 episodes, an up-and-coming show backed by a talented cast and associated with critical and public acclaim is reduced to cheap nostalgia bait.
I can’t lie, I was caught hook, line and sinker. I ate it all up—the return of Debra Jo Rupp and Kurtwood Smith as Kitty and Red Foreman, the familiar Point Place locale, the half-hearted appearances of Topher Grace as Eric Forman (whose major plotline was a tiff with his daughter Leia in the first episode before he disappeared to Star Wars camp) and Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher as Jackie Burke and Michael Kelso (who had two minutes of screen time combined). Even for avid rewatchers like me, the show started to feel like a very long crossover after a few episodes.
The new characters were noticeably underdeveloped, which is something I initially attributed to lazy writing but later realised was a result of nostalgia baiting. The audience is quickly introduced to the new gang: Leia Forman, siblings Gwen and Nate Runck, Nate’s girlfriend Nikki, Jay Kelso and the closeted Ozzie. However, before they are given enough screen time to grow on the audience, they are just as quickly forgotten and outshone by the old cast. Kitty is surprisingly feisty while Red is comically gruff. This allowed all of their lines, quips and mannerisms to be grounded in their unique voice.
On the other hand, the academic interests and Riot Grrrl obsession of the girls blend into each other, while Ozzie’s sassy personality revolves around his sexual orientation and Nate is your run-of-the-mill dumb jock. As the nepo babies of Point Place, Jay and Leia have a slightly stronger character direction. Even so, Jay is written as a legendary f*ckboy, following his father’s footsteps, but somehow falls in love with the first girl we see him meet. Leia takes after her dad’s awkward guy act with a fresh spin, which might be more to Callie Haverda’s credit than the writers’.
The riff-raff between the new gang was entertaining enough to keep me watching (and laughing), but none of the new characters had substantial presence. The only character-driven zinger was the incessant exchange of “bro’s” between Nate and Jay, which I guess is something for the World Star Hip Hop crowd.
The contrast is most apparent in the interactions between Fez (from That ‘70s Show) and Sherri (Nate and Gwen’s mum dating Fez), who carry an endearing trailer trash vibe. Sherri’s character-specific material in their scenes is limited by Fez’s signature blend of social ineptness and overt affection, which turns Sherri’s lines into mere reactions. By bringing back old characters in every episode for nostalgia’s sake, That ‘90s Show has unwittingly pitted their fresh-off-the-drawing-board characters against personalities that have been previously developed over eight seasons. This excludes Red and Kitty, who are cornerstones of the Foreman household setting.
While the fan service is appreciated by old-timers, the excessive nostalgia baiting diminishes, and sometimes even interrupts, entry-point attempts made to deepen the chemistry between the new characters and their storylines. Some of Ozzie’s best moments are with Kitty instead of his friends, such as him coming out to her as part of his 16-step coming out plan. While heartwarming, I would have liked to see Ozzie’s queerness being developed further than just as a reminder of how the show is keeping up with changing times. Outside of sass factor, Ozzie’s sexuality mostly highlights Kitty’s open-mindedness, which is something that her relationship with Fez already hints at. The writers could have elaborated on Ozzie’s mysterious relationship with his Canadian boyfriend, or perhaps even include a plot point involving the hypermasculine Nate and Jay. This would have drawn greater focus to the new characters and their group dynamics, allowing them to step out of the shadow of That ‘70s Show.
Another instance of nostalgia baiting getting in the way was Leo’s double appearance on Leia and Jay’s last date. A lost pothead is always good comic relief, but the last scene that the two had alone before breaking up could’ve been made a little more significant. It was an opportunity to highlight the differences between the two lovebirds to discuss their different outlooks and close that chapter of summer love poignantly. This missed opportunity could have even explained why Leia ends up having eyes for Nate instead. Considering the 30-minute runtime, guest appearances took away valuable time that could have been spent on the new characters.
The relevance of vintage and Y2K culture today already put That ‘90s Show in a prime nostalgia baiting position without the need to constantly reference its counterpart. The series opened to Groove is in the Heart. The music and TV references were spot-on from there, down to details in set design such as a display of movie classics Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Dumb and Dumber in the VHS store, as well as the posters of Calamity Jane, Nirvana and other rock bands plastering Gwen’s walls. The styling also spoke to many trends of the time, and I particularly enjoyed the neon colour-blocking and clunky plastic accessories incorporated into the rave outfits. Unfortunately, the show has received flak for its laugh track, which is considered “dated”. In this case, I find that it adds a retro touch to the show that is accurate to the ‘90s.
Much like day drinking and other forms of escapism, nostalgia bait is not something to be avoided at all costs (it works: That ‘90s Show has been renewed for a second season) but rather to be done covertly and sparingly enough to avoid critique. Friends: The Reunion is a reboot purely driven by nostalgia. It only ran for an episode, which is something that critics and audiences can accept and understand. When Kitty and Ozzie lament the humdrum that is Party of Five and Grace Under Fire summer reruns, That ‘90s Show gives itself a pat on the back on bringing back a beloved sitcom, while simultaneously validating Netflix’s decision to remove That ‘70s Show. The irony is lost on the writers.