TV review: ‘That ’90s Show’ charms when ’70s’ cast gets out of way


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Maxwell Acee Donovan (L-R), Sam Morelos, Reyn Doi, Ashley Aufderheide, Callie Haverda, Mace Coronel star in "That '90s Show." Photo courtesy of Netflix

Maxwell Acee Donovan (L-R), Sam Morelos, Reyn Doi, Ashley Aufderheide, Callie Haverda, Mace Coronel star in “That ’90s Show.” Photo courtesy of Netflix

LOS ANGELES, Jan. 19 (UPI) — That ’90s Show, premiering Thursday on Netflix, captures the charm of That ’70s Show — that is when the original characters get out of the new cast’s way. After some cameo-heavy episodes, the newbies establish a likable group dynamic.

Leia (Callie Haverda) is the daughter of Eric (Topher Grace) and Donna (Laura Prepon). She stays with grandparents Kitty (Debra Jo Rupp) and Red (Kurtwood Smith) in Wisconsin for the summer in 1995.

Leia meets neighbor Gwen (Ashley Aufderheide) and locals Ozzie (Reyn Doi), Nikki (Sam Morelos), Nate (Maxwell Acee Donovan) and Jay Kelso (Mace Coronel).

Leia and Jay take after their parents. With Leia, the coming of age story presents a female perspective.

Coronel simply nails Ashton Kutcher’s voice and mannerisms. This Kelso is not the requisite group dumb guy, though. That would be Nate.

The six teenagers hang out in Red and Kitty’s basement, just like the ’70s gang did. They also smoke marijuana, with a camera swiveling around the table as they make absurd observations, so times haven’t changed that much.

The episodic plots deal with problems relevant to teenagers, such as scoring a keg of beer, but having no tap to access it. One episode even exploits the classic sitcom trope of double-booking a date.

Another episode includes a subplot in which Kitty and Red get their first computer with America Online, so the ’90s does provide some decade-specific stories. Others are timeless, like Kitty decluttering the house and Red going to the department of motor vehicles.

Overarching those sitcom mishaps, Leia is discovering sex and relationships for the first time. She turns to her friends who may be more experienced, but they’re all still teenagers at different stages of figuring all this out.

The format and the types of stories on That ’90s Show are pretty consistent with That ’70s Show. The only difference is that the conversations now include references to Zima, Jean-Claude Van Damme movies and Ricki Lake’s talk show. The soundtrack now includes Alanis Morissette and Salt-N-Pepa.

Like That ’70s Show, ’90s breaks the sitcom format for occasional surreal interludes. Now that they’re in the ’90s, some of those can include Nintendo-esque animation and a Beverly Hills, 90210 fantasy.

The group has a strong dynamic as they go through their misadventures. Those basic plots lead to some pleasantly amusing, if not laugh-out-loud banter.

Fans of That ’70s Show obviously would want to see the original cast at some point, but That ’90s Show didn’t figure out how to incorporate them naturally. Kitty and Red remain consistent as their roles were always supporting, but the original ’70s kids don’t quite adapt to becoming supporting characters.

Episode 1 is weighed down by four cameos, and a fifth pops up for several episodes after. It’s great that Grace, Prepon, Kutcher, Mila Kunis and Wilmer Valderrama returned to support the show that made them stars, but it doesn’t incorporate them as naturally as Night Court or Saved By the Bell revivals.

It’s OK for the cameos that only show up for one scene, but That ’90s Show neglected to develop Eric and Donna as characters outside referencing their high school exploits. Considering that Donna shows up more frequently, she deserves to have had a life in the last 20 years.

Eric is a natural to be making dad jokes that annoy Leia, but the writing really reaches to make jokes about space camp versus giving your daughter space.

It does, at least, reinforce Red and Eric’s contentious relationship. Red remains relentlessly hard on Eric, but now he gets to judge Eric’s parenting and gloat.

The new cast is so endearing that you really want the originals to leave, which is saying a lot for a revival. Once the new cast takes over, That ’90s Show has a solid first season. Hopefully, a second season will understand the core cast is as big of a draw as the cameos.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.



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