NOC Review: ‘That ‘90s Show’ is a Pretty Fun Return to the Basement

Hello, Wisconsin! The Formans are back, and so is the basement. Set 15 years after the events of That ‘70s Show, Netflix’s That ‘90s Show is a direct sequel to its predecessor. Season 1 takes a bit to get off the ground, but once it finds its footing, the sitcom mostly succeeds at being a fun, nostalgia-filled time.

Minor spoilers follow:

That ‘90s Show focuses on Eric and Donna’s snarky, but endearing teenage daughter Leia (Callie Haverda) as she spends the summer at her grandparents’ (Debra Jo Rupp and Kurtwood Smith reprise their roles as Kitty and Red) home in Point Place. She quickly falls in with a new crew, which consists of rebellious neighbor Gwen (Ashley Aufderheide) and her older half-brother Nate (Maxwell Acee Donovan), a sweet jock who’s dating the ambitious Nikki (Sam Morelos). There’s also Ozzie (Reyn Doi), an openly gay, surprisingly wise teen, and Jay (Mace Coronel), the charming son of Kelso and Jackie, who is Nate’s best friend and Leia’s love interest.

That ‘90s Show. (L to R) Topher Grace as Eric Forman, Laura Prepon as Donna Pinciotti in episode 101 of That ‘90s Show. Cr. Patrick Wymore/Netflix © 2022

In addition to Kitty and Red, several original cast members make appearances as their characters. This includes Donna (Laura Prepon), Eric (Topher Grace), Fez (Wilmer Valderrama), Jackie (Mila Kunis), and Kelso (Ashton Kutcher). Hippie Leo (Tommy Chong) and Donna’s father, Bob (Don Stark), also pop up. Notably absent is Hyde (Danny Masterson), which was to be expected given the actor’s legal issues.

It really cannot be overstated enough: Kitty and Red are the glue to the series. That’s not to say the new cast isn’t charming on its own (more on the new crew in a second), but it’s really Rupp and Smith’s presence that keeps things afloat. Some of the season’s strongest scenes are between Leia and Kitty — their relationship feels heartfelt and loving, yet is still realistically topped with good old teenage angst and silly squabbles. Red is also as sharp as ever, showing his rare soft side at times yet still unafraid to dole out his classic “foot in the ass” threat when necessary. It feels oddly comforting to know that no matter what shenanigans the kids get up to in the basement, there will usually still be a chat with the Forman parents afterward. Coupled with the show’s familiar formula, Red and Kitty’s presence not only adds to the nostalgia, but also keeps the summer from feeling like it’s dragging on.

As for the new kids, the group is a fun mix of characters that feels reminiscent of the original cast without trying too hard to recreate the old dynamics. Gwen is arguably very Hyde-coded, quick to dish out sarcasm but still clearly having a more vulnerable side underneath that rebel persona. Ozzie is reminiscent of Fez, yet somehow already feels more fleshed out — while he’s certainly a source of comedic relief, he also has some very sweet moments (one particular scene with Kitty comes to mind) that make Doi’s performance stand out. Having a main gay Asian character feels refreshing, and the show manages to portray his sexuality in a lighthearted way without sugarcoating the reality of being a queer kid in the ‘90s. Leia and Jay are both pretty much spot-on depictions of what one would imagine Eric and Donna’s daughter and Kelso and Jackie’s son to be like. Leia (named in honor of Eric’s Star Wars obsession) is a perfect blend of her parents: snarky, adventurous, and a little self-absorbed, but always well-meaning. Meanwhile, Jay feels like a smarter, more empathetic version of his father. He clearly enjoys his status as the neighborhood heartthrob, but he’s also very genuine and forthcoming about his feelings, even if he flip flops a little along the way. The romance between Leia and Jay may blossom a little quickly (this is a 10-episode season, after all), but the actors’ chemistry makes the pairing easy to root for, and I’d consider their relationship a highlight of the season.

The scenes between Leia and Gwen are also fun and undeniably seething with chemistry. Out of all the friendships in the group, theirs is the one I’m most invested in. Nikki is an intriguing character who has the potential to be like a more ambitious, book-smart version of Jackie. However, most of her screen time revolves around her messy relationship with Nate — although she and Gwen do share a great subplot together in one episode — making her character feel pretty underutilized. That’s disappointing since I was so excited to have a main Filipino character, but I’ll hold out for more scenes in (hopefully) Season 2. Nate is a bit hit-and-miss for me; he’s endearing, but his role in the group feels sort of all over the place. Overall, the new characters are pretty solid and have a lot of potential — it’s just the group dynamics that need more time to blossom. Personally, the overall chemistry between the new cast finally clicked for me around Episode 4. 

Of course, a big highlight of That ‘90s Show is the OG characters coming back. Eric and Donna’s dynamic as a married couple and parents feels remarkably spot on, and their scenes are a joy to watch. Prepon delivers an especially fun performance as Leia’s cool-but-still-doting mother. Fez makes a solidly funny comeback that’s thoroughly entertaining for fans, though I do feel like a certain storyline involving him drags on a bit as the season progresses. Jackie and Kelso’s cameo together is brief, but it’s arguably one of the best moments of the season. Although it feels ridiculous that these two somehow ended up together (let’s be honest, most of us were rooting for Jackie/Hyde back in the day), it’s undeniably a blast to watch Kunis and Kutcher, who are married in real life, play off of each other. Kutcher’s delivery of iconic Kelso phrases like “damn Jackie” and “BURN” are absolutely perfect. It’s disappointing that the two of them aren’t in the season otherwise, but the scene is still hilarious enough to stand on its own. For the most part, Hyde’s absence doesn’t hinder the show much. His character isn’t mentioned at all, but there really isn’t a reason for him to pop up. The new series also pays tribute to the water tower, the Vista Cruiser, the romantic setting of the driveway, and of course, the infamous high circle. Overall, the OG characters aside from Red and Kitty aren’t a huge part of the show, but their appearances will still make any ‘70s Show fan smile.

The biggest challenge That ‘90s Show faces is its short format. It’s already incredibly difficult to try to recreate the magic of one of the most beloved sitcoms of all time, but it’s nearly impossible to do so under the confines of a 10-episode season. It’s easy to feel like nothing can live up to the original group’s chemistry, but we also have to remember that we’re only just getting to know these new characters. It’s clear the show is still figuring out its pace — for instance, the emotional turn in the season finale doesn’t feel totally earned, at least in my opinion. But it’s also clear that this new cast has a ton of potential. If it gets the chance to grow with more seasons, the show could very well become a rare spin-off success.

That ‘90s Show is a little rusty at first, but it’s ultimately a great time. The show includes enough nostalgia for OG fans while still managing to (eventually) make us care about the new kids, and it offers plenty of ‘90s charm along the way. Overall, it’s at its best when it doesn’t take itself too seriously and just has fun.

Rate: 8/10

That ‘90s Show is streaming now on Netflix.

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