I vividly remember, as a child, listening to Atomic Kitten’s hits “Eternal Flame” and “The Tide is High”, and my father loudly complaining that “all songs these days are covers”. Well, the child is father of the man, as William Wordsworth might say, and after seeing The Addams Family, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Sabrina the Teenage Witch and, now, That ’70s Show rebooted for modern audiences, I have become my father. “Why did you open our house to chaos?” asks Kurtwood Smith’s cantankerous grandpa, Red, as Netflix’s That ’90s Show begins. “Again!?” That, Red, is a question for the studio executives.
We’re back in Point Place, Wisconsin, some time towards the end of the Nineties. Eric and Donna (Topher Grace and Laura Prepon) have, in the invisible Eighties, had a daughter, Leia (Callie Haverda). Over the course of a summer spent back with her grandparents (Debra Jo Rupp returns as Kitty opposite Smith’s Red) in Wisconsin, Leia finds herself falling in with a gang of slacker teenagers: cool girl Gwen (Ashley Aufderheide) and her brother Nate (Maxwell Acee Donovan), Nate’s smart-arse girlfriend Nikki (Sam Morelos), smoothie Jay (Mace Coronel), and acerbic genius Ozzie (Reyn Doi). Together, they are going to spend the vacation in Kitty and Red’s basement, surrounded by an ambiguous fog, the trademark swivelling camera locking on to their glazed eyes and goofy smiles.
That ’70s Show, which aired from 2000 to 2006, was a consistent ratings favourite, even if it was never a critical darling. But, more importantly, it was a showcase for future A-listers Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis (and reliable performers like Grace and Prepon). It’s no surprise, then, that the Nineties-set sequel wants to remind viewers of the original cast’s stellar charisma: Grace, Prepon, Kutcher, Kunis, and even Wilmer Valderrama, all appear from the first episode. And when Eric finally regurgitates his father’s catchphrase – “when you stand behind your kids it’s easier to put your foot in their ass” – Red replies that he “couldn’t be prouder”. This is broadly the show’s self-congratulatory reaction (aided by the studio audience) whenever someone strikes the nostalgia gong, whether via returning characters, plot devices or stylistic treatments.
The reliance on calling back to the eight-season run of That ’70s Show is understandable – if cynical – but it does slip the new series between two generational stools. The show is laser-focused on its Gen Z audience (who, I’m reliably informed, love the aesthetic of the 1990s). What will they get from references to the original series, which began in the early Noughties? Or, say, from an extended riff on Beverly Hills, 90210? Because ultimately this is a show for kids; edgeless and unthreatening. If your ambition was to create a Nineties sitcom for Gen Z, why lean so heavily on a show from 20 years ago? Or, if you’re going to do that, why not make it a bit more accessible to the audience who’ve aged in those intervening decades? “You’re upstairs people now,” Red says to Eric and Donna, with a dark smile. But the show is still firmly for the downstairs tribe.
All the same, when that nostalgia bell rings, I drool. Kitty and Red are always enjoyable as the odd couple inadvertently raising this adolescent brood (Red’s description of newspapers as having “no wires connected to the government” will doubtless make him a TikTok icon), and while it’s definitely too early to judge whether the young cast will have the supersonic careers of their forebears, Haverda and Doi, in particular, feel like they could become stars.
Everything depends on Netflix’s gamble that throwback-obsessed short-form video enthusiasts will tolerate 20 minutes of cheesy one-liners and canned laughter. That ’90s Show is milder than a Milwaukee cheddar, built to be watched while scrolling on your phone, but from the moment Leia takes her father’s place, yelling out “Hello Wisconsin!” in the opening titles, the lure of generations past might just drag you in.