“That ‘90s Show”: Helloooo Wisconsin!!… 15 years later?

Thoughts on the new sequel series to “That ‘70s Show”

Last month, Netflix released “That ‘90s Show,” which takes place in 1995, 15 years after the original “That ‘70s Show.” As a huge fan of the original show, I have many thoughts on what this sequel series did right and where, in my opinion, it fell short. 

When I first heard about the show, I had my doubts, especially considering that reboots and sequels have a history of damaging the legacies of their predecessors. Way too many Hollywood writers believe they can sell an entire show on the basis of nostalgia, without actually having a compelling, worthwhile plot. Additionally, it seemed odd to me that Netflix would create a series sequel on their platform, yet not offer its subscribers access to the original “That ‘70s Show.”

Given that the show takes place in the Forman’s house, I was expecting an exact replica of the original set: lots of harvest gold and avocado green. However, I was pleasantly surprised with how they revamped certain aspects to fit the ‘90s style. They even moved the infamous yellow living room couch down to the basement; these small details made it feel all the more realistic. It always weirded me out when reboots replicated the original set, as if people in the sitcom universe never develop different tastes or decide to redecorate.

I definitely had concerns about how “That ‘90s Show” would pick up where season eight of “That ‘70s Show” left off. As most fans of the original show would agree, season eight was a horrendous mistake: Eric leaves for Africa, the writers force new guy Randy into the mix, Hyde marries a stripper, and Jackie starts dating Fez. So my first thought when I heard about the new show was, how will they fix the mess they left fans with originally?

Another issue was the inclusion of the original cast, some of whom have limited appearances or are not included at all. Topher Grace (Eric) currently stars in another show, “Home Economics” on Hulu. While he made a few appearances in the new show, I assume we won’t see much of him in the future. Danny Masterson is embroiled in court issues involving SA allegations made by multiple women. Additionally, Lisa Robin Kelly (Laurie) and Tanya Roberts (Midge) have both passed away since the original show’s end.

For the original cast members who made guest appearances, I think the writers did a solid job of incorporating them into “That ‘90s Show.”  At first, I worried they would rework the old characters into completely different people, but this wasn’t the case. ‘90s Donna and Eric are now parents in their thirties, but they still maintain the humor and personality of their younger selves. Eric attempting to bond with his daughter, Leia (yes, like Princess Leia), over Space Camp and Star Wars felt very on brand for his character. It was also heartwarming to see him grapple with being a dad and learning how to let his teenage daughter grow into her own person. 

Jackie and Kelso made a far too brief cameo in one of the episodes, when it is revealed that Leia’s new friend/crush is their son. While it was fun to see them return (especially since Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher are married in real life), I didn’t like how the writers incorporated them into the show; it felt rushed and added very little to the plot. The writers also provided a vague, unsatisfying explanation for how Jackie went from dating Fez to getting back together with serial cheater Kelso. It seems like the couple’s appearance mainly served to attract fans of the original. 

In contrast, I like how they included characters like Fez, Bob, and Leo. It’s quite fitting that Fez would run a successful hair salon. I also liked the little competition Bob and Red had over Leia’s birthday gift. As for Leo, he randomly popped up a couple times, and honestly, his character has always been so bizarre that it makes sense for him to appear out of nowhere. 

When it comes to the main characters, I believe Red and Kitty are the heart of “That ‘90s Show.” The writers crafted genuinely funny, true-to-character interactions between Leia and her grandparents. I appreciate that they didn’t copy the original relationship between Eric and his parents, instead they gave Leia her own unique experience with Red and Kitty.

That being said, the new generation of teen characters is where the writers really messed up. It was a good idea to have Leia’s new bestie, Gwen (a female version of Hyde), living next door in the old Pinciotti house. Focusing on a strong female friendship is much better than reusing the boy-next-door trope. I also like that Leia reflects a perfectly balanced combination of her parents, awkward like Eric, but strong-minded like Donna. Another good character is Gwen’s mom, Sherri, who appears to be a mix of Bob and Laurie. While she’s over the top, she does provide a nice break from the kids’ plot.  

Unfortunately, these are the only enjoyable aspects of the new cast. All the other characters fell flat for me, especially Leia’s love interest, Jay Kelso. He’s basically a knockoff Joey Tribbiani from “Friends.” The writers gave absolutely no original thought to Jay’s character and they forced an unnecessary romance between him and Leia.

Another issue is that the writer’s want us to believe these kids are best friends, but their friendships seem surface-level and forced. While I appreciate that they aren’t exact copies of the old cast, they still lack substance. Maybe since there’s only ten episodes, the writers felt pressure to develop a rapport between characters that just didn’t pan out.

As for the plotlines, I loved that they paid homage to “That ‘70s Show,” like the kids discovering pot in Eric’s old candyland game or the keg episode. Sadly though, many of the other episodes gave serious Disney Channel vibes. What were the writers thinking when they had Leia running around the mall food court forcing boys to kiss her? In another scene, Leia nervously pumps a pile of ketchup into her hand in front of Jay and his new girlfriend. Does anyone else remember almost the exact same scene in “Hannah Montana” when Miley runs into her crush? 

Honestly, without Red and Kitty, “That ‘90s Show” would just be another average coming-of-age sitcom. Admittedly, the last episode did have a surprising twist, which redeemed the show a little. Overall, I will probably continue watching, but only with the hope that it will improve. For season two, I want to see more of the original cast and more developed characters for Leia and her gang.