That '90s Show was never going to have an easy road to success. Not only would the new Netflix reboot have to somehow compete with the "lightning in a bottle" success of its predecessor That '70s Show — seriously, assembling that cast is some sort of magic — but it would also have to wash off the stink of the short-lived That '80s Show and prove that one could, in fact, go back to that basement in Wisconsin and create something for a new generation.That's a lot to ask of any series, never mind a new show in an environment where streaming services are proving to be quick to axe anything they don't believe is catching on with an audience.
That '90s Show is, interestingly enough, a perfect encapsulation of both the good and the bad that comes with the current revival craze. It's nostalgic in all the right places but struggles to find its own identity; it's funny at times, but too often the jokes flop and feel forced; it caters to fans of the original series, but the new characters feel dull; and there's an easygoing charm that comes from trying to re-create the vibe of That '70s Show, but something always feels slightly off.
The pilot episode sets the stage for this new generation of pot-smoking basement dwellers, as Eric and Donna (a briefly returning Topher Grace and Laura Prepon) visit Kitty and Red (Debra Jo Rupp and Kurtwood Smith, the only returning regulars) with their teenage daughter, Leia (Callie Haverda), in tow. When Leia quickly makes friends with some kids in the neighborhood, she decides she wants to stay for the summer, kicking off a season of teenage rebellion, romance, and self discovery.
The pilot is actually quite charming, as Eric struggles with the idea of leaving Leia in the same house where he smoked pot and got into typical teenage trouble, all while Red revels in seeing the tables turned. The first episode is really the only time when these characters feel like more than caricatures, because we know Eric, Donna, Kitty, and Red, and the show uses our knowledge to create new character dynamics while crafting good jokes based on their shared history.
But once Eric and Donna leave town and the show switches gears to focus on Leia and her friends, That '90s Show struggles to create any momentum. The plot lines here are all familiar. The gang finds weed, they smoke in the basement, they share kisses and failed romances, and they deal with the idea of the summer ending and what that means for their friendship. All of this is filtered through Leia, who's the "good girl" of the group, coming of age in the same way her father did.
Some of that synchronicity is engaging, as we watch Leia forge a path similar to Eric's, finding a healthy bit of rebellion that she didn't know she had inside of her. But more often than not the episodes fall flat. They lack any sort of consequence, and quite frankly, the new cast (or at least the scripts they're dealing with) can't compete with the magnetism of the original members. Leia and her friends have their character arcs and their moments of growth, but what's missing along the way is a sense of place and some really good punchlines.
That '70s Show may not have been interested in historical accuracy, but it did use its time period to craft a mood, to create a lived-in world that was then used to build comedy and drama. That '90s Show seems to be set in the '90s for no particular reason; you wouldn't know when the story takes place if not for the occasional mention of the flannel fad or Beverly Hills, 90210. Because of this, the show is mostly coasting on nostalgia, failing to create anything that feels rooted in time, place, and character. Sure, That '90s Show is an easy watch, another harmless sitcom added to Netflix's library. Unfortunately, being easy to watch isn't the same as being captivating or interesting.
Premieres: Thursday, Jan. 19 on Netflix
Who's in it: Kurtwood Smith, Debra Jo Rupp, Callie Haverda
Who's behind it: Bonnie Turner, Terry Turner, Gregg Mettler, Lindsay Turner (creators)
For fans of: The Conners, That '70s Show, The Goldbergs
How many episodes we watched: 6 of 10