That ’90s Show (Netflix) comes shrouded in layers of nostalgia. It is a spin-off from That ’70s Show, the sitcom that ran from 1998-2006 and wrung 200 episodes out of the adventures of a group of teenagers hanging out between 1976 and 1979 in a grandparental basement in the fictional town of Point Place, Wisconsin. So you can come to it nostalgic for the halcyon days of the late 90s to mid 00s when (I’m going to play the odds here) you were younger and happier and watching a warm-hearted comedy that launched the careers of Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis, Topher Grace and Laura Prepon. Or you can be nostalgic for the 1995 of the show, with all its carefully curated mid-90s sartorial and musical details. Or, as more of the old faces turn up – Debra J Rupp and Kurtwood Smith return as grandparents Kitty and Red Forman for the duration and most of the original gang make at least cameo appearances – you can lose yourself in misty reminiscences about the original show, its carefully curated version of the 70s or even (if you can bear so much brown nylon reality) the 70s themselves.
The show itself sticks to the original formula. The first episode sees Eric (Grace) and Donna (Prepon) return to the homestead with their teenage daughter Leia (Callie Haverda), to find his parents much as we left them. There’s grouchy Red with a heart of gold, forever threatening to plant his foot in the behind of anyone who annoys him (at least until he gets a massage chair that transforms him into a new man). And there’s Kitty, fluttering gamely around her empty nest and eager to fill it again. Her wish is granted when Eric and Donna agree that Leia can stay for the summer.
Like re-reading Adrian Mole and finding you now identify with his mother, or revisiting Anne of Green Gables and finding Marilla to be the greatest character, there is a profound sense of dislocation induced when you find yourself rooting more desperately for Kitty’s happiness than you ever did for Eric and Donna’s back in the day.
The new generation, who soon take up residence in the basement of old, comprise Jay Kelso (Mace Coronel, playing son of Michael who is a chip off the horny block but slightly more romantically inclined), feisty girl next door Gwen (Ashley Aufderheide) and her dim older brother Nate (Maxwell Acee Donovan), overachiever (except when it comes to boyfriends, as she has chosen Nate) Nikki (Sam Morelos) and Ozzie (Reyn Doi), who is gay. At the moment, he strikes me as a regressive caricature – all waspy one-liners and bitter flamboyance – but hopefully things will settle down and he will become a proper part of the gang rather than the disaffected commentator he is.
The new gang’s first act is – but of course – to get stoned on some old pot they find among the board games Kitty brings down and hilarity for them, if not quite for us, ensues.
The makers have obviously worked under a laminated sign saying “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, and who can blame them? The same character traits are all there, if redistributed among the youngsters’ parts, Red and Kitty are constants, Fez (Wilmer Valderrama) is now the local celebrity hairdresser, the children’s – yes, I call them children now – adventures are well within the formula’s parameters and their relationships, break-ups and unrequited loves will be the thing that keeps it going.
Whether it keeps going for as long or successfully as That ’70s Show, of course, is anyone’s guess. Fans of the original may find enough here to re-pique their interest. Viewers for whom the 90s are our 70s – well, their minds are impenetrable to me. I suppose it might be able to tear them away from The TikToks, The Snapchatter and The Google. Possibly it will be a useful resource for history majors.
But That ’90s Show will also have to face the new marketplace, where success is quickly measured and cancellation even – and for complicated contractual reasons, sometimes especially – for popular shows is an increasingly attractive option for streaming platforms.
So good luck to the new generation now in residence at Point Place. I hope Kitty is happy for as long as it lasts.
• This article was amended on 19 January 2023. The names Laura and Callie had been used instead of their character names, Donna and Leia, in a previous version.