Netflix ’s That ’90s Show brings audiences back to Point Place in a worthwhile sequel series starring the adorable Callie Haverda as Leia Forman.
Oh look, another sequel television series has arrived on a streaming platform in the form of Netflix ’s That ’90s Show. Its predecessor, That ’70s Show, aired on FOX from August 23, 1998, to May 18, 2006, and is still largely beloved to this day. The original series is also credited with jumpstarting most of the careers of its cast including Topher Grace, Mila Kunis, Ashton Kutcher, Danny Masterson, Laura Prepon, and Wilmer Valderrama. Throughout its run, That ’70s Show would address various social issues, developments, and trends of the 1970s. It also spawned iconic catchphrases and the signature “circle”, in which the teenagers would smoke marijuana.
As a young kid, That ’70s Show was another series that I probably should not have been watching but did anyway. It was such a unique show that introduced me to a period in history that I had only read a little about up to that point. While it was not always perfect and like any show, there were filler episodes, this teen/period sitcom was always a joy to just kick back and watch.
That ’90s Show picks up two decades after the final episode of That ’70s Show and centers on Leia Forman (Callie Haverda), the daughter of Eric Forman (Topher Grace) and Donna Pinciotti (Laura Prepon) from original series. In the summer of 1995, Leia bonds with a unique group of fellow teenagers while staying in Point Place, Wisconsin with her grandparents, Red (Kurtwood Smith) and Kitty (Debra Jo Rupp).
Nostalgia will hit fans of the original series once the opening episode “That ’90s Pilot” begins. You will find references to That ’70s Show littered throughout That ’90s Show and old faces will pop up or be alluded to during the 10-episode first season. It is a joy to catch up with Topher Grace’s Eric again, if only for a little bit, and this is coming from someone that did not completely love his character. The same can be said of seeing Laura Prepon return to the role of Donna Pinciotti, who manages to be the coolest mom around. Michael Kelso (Ashton Kutcher) and Jackie Burkhart (Mila Kunis) also make memorable appearances and I wish we could have seen more of them.
Then there is Fez, a role that I was convinced Wilmer Valderrama would never return to given his success as a series regular on NCIS. I am so glad to have been wrong on that front, because Fez was and still is probably my favorite of the teenage (now adult) characters. While he was often used as the token funny foreign character in That ’70s Show, I could not get enough of him. His appearances in That ’90s Show quickly remind me why and are probably more memorable than any of the other original cast members except for Red and Kitty Forman.
Speaking of nostalgia, those that are not fans of the original series might be interested in That ’90s Show because of its 90s setting. The first season is set in 1995 (Here’s a fun fact: that is the year that this reviewer was born) and much like the original series, it leans into the aesthetics, trends, and music of the time. For example: Gwen Runck (Ashley Aufderheide), Leia’s first real friend in Point Place, is a Riot grrrl. For those that are unfamiliar: The Riot grrrl movement combined feminism, punk music, and politics and began in the early 1990s. I received my biggest nostalgic feeling when Leia and Kitty visited a local video store to rent a movie, because that was something I really loved to do as a kid. Audiences will likely be reminded of their younger years because this show fully embraces its time period.
One of the keys to making That ’90s Show work is while it may nearly overwhelm fans of its predecessor with early reappearances of their favorite characters, the series quickly puts the focus on the next generation of teenagers. That is where this narrative really shines compared to another famous Netflix sequel series, Fuller House. I appreciate that creators Bonnie Turner, Terry Turner, Gregg Mettler, Lindsay Turner never fully relied on the characters from That ‘70s Show coming back to make That ’90s Show work. Yes, Kitty and Red are a fixture in the first season, but much like in the original series, this is not their story. Debra Jo Rupp and Kurtwood Smith are here to aid this new group of teenagers, not run the show. Fuller House on the other hand was just a reskinned version of Full House with Candace Cameron Bure’s D.J. Tanner in place of her father, the late Bob Saget’s Danny Tanner.
Much like with Fuller House, the original gang from ‘70s will pop up in That ’90s Show but it is brief and organic to the lives of our new teenage protagonists. Even though the series gets off to a slower start in the first five episodes, you can tell that the writers are trying to get back into the groove and really allow you to get to know the new characters. Outside of Leia and Gwen, you have Gwen’s older half-brother Nate (Maxwell Acee Donovan), Nate’s girlfriend Nikki (Sam Morelos), the openly gay Ozzie (Reyn Doi), and finally, Jay Kelso (Mace Coronel), the son of Michael Kelso and Jackie Burkhart. You get to spend time with each of them in the first half of the season, which makes the storylines that unfold in the second half have much more impact.
Speaking of reskinned characters though, Jay Kelso can feel a little too much like his father at certain points and it does not help that the casting department did such an excellent job finding someone that looks like he could be Ashton Kutcher’s real-life son. Mace Coronel is terrific in the role, and there is room for Jay to grow, but having watched the character’s father act the same way in That ‘70s Show, I wish the writers made Jay stand out more. Then there is the matter of Sherri Runck (Andrea Anders), Red and Kitty’s neighbor and Gwen and Nate’s mother. Even though Sherri’s storyline is satisfying, and Anders is quite funny, the character feels like an updated version of Bob Pinciotti (Don Stark). Bob would always be there during the original series to annoy Red and look to Kitty for advice, and Sherri is pretty much the same. She is another character that I hope can grow throughout That ’90s Show and Sherri shows more signs of growth towards the end than Jay.
Now on to the characters that I absolutely adore, and the ones that kept me invested in this narrative in the same way that Prepon’s Donna and Valderrama’s Fez did throughout That ‘70s Show. Leia Forman is adorable, combining the best elements of Eric, Donna, and even a hint of Red Forman while still getting to be her own person. She’s got brains, a bit of sass, and is at times hopelessly awkward. In other words, Leia is a teenager, and thank goodness the casting department cast an actual teen in Callie Haverda to portray the character. Haverda is such a talent, and she brings Leia to life with such authenticity. Watching her in That ’90s Show, Leia should remind you of that awkward, filled with nerves teen that wanted nothing but fun and to make memories. I have been in her shoes, and Haverda’s performance brought me right back there.
Leia is such a great protagonist for That ’90s Show, she is likeable but not perfect, which makes her growth throughout that much more of a delight for viewers. Of Leia’s new friends, Ozzie was my favorite simply because Reyn Doi was so wonderful in the role. It also helps that, unlike Fez, Ozzie is not that much of a stereotype. The writers and Doi have given him a great personality and wonderful comedic moments that for the most part have nothing to do with his sexuality or the fact that he is foreign. With Fez, early on, he felt more like the butt of jokes rather than a person (something that the writers would rectify later and in That ’90s Show) and Ozzie is a well-rounded character from the beginning. Doi’s character is so fun, and an absolute scene stealer throughout the first season.
Finally, I must highlight the amazing return of the short-tempered Red Forman, portrayed once again by Kurtwood Smith. When That ’90s Show begins, Red is more or less retired, and in a happier ish mood but it does not take long for him to once again threaten to put his foot in someone’s ass. Part of what makes his return so great is now that I am older, I can see things from Red’s point of view. I also never realized just how much I missed Smith in arguably his most iconic role. Another positive of his return is that we get to see the difference between Red as a dad and as a grandpa, which is interesting. At times he is the same old Red, but you can see deep down that he loves Leia and wants to teach her and help his granddaughter through life. Smith does a terrific job in stepping back into the role and adding new dimensions and emotions to the character.
As previously mentioned, That ’90s Show gets off to kind of a slow start, but that does not mean that there are not hilarious moments. You spend about five episodes getting used to the new teenagers and see the beginnings of certain storylines. It may feel slightly like exposition and filler to begin but all that is worth it once you get to the back half of the season. The storylines really pick up in the second half and the characters begin to feel very developed. From the sixth episode until the end, it felt to me like I was watching That ‘70s Show in all the best ways. The show really moves with purpose, and you are invested in the journeys of Leia and her friends once you reach that midway point. Not only that, but the comedy is constantly there, so you never really get bored watching the first five episodes, you just sort of vibe, laugh, and learn. Put everything together as the season races towards the conclusion and That ’90s Show becomes an absolute treat to watch.
With charming characters and a marvelous second half of the season, That ’90s Show proves itself to be a worthy heir to That ’70s Show. This return to Point Place could have been a pointless cash in, but has a lot of the elements and heart that made its predecessor so beloved. The show takes a minute to get into its groove, but once it does, you will find that Callie Haverda’s Leia and her friends are too awesome to leave behind.
That ’90s Show premieres on January 19, 2023 on Netflix.