In the summer of 1995, Leia Forman makes friends with a new generation of Point Place kids while visiting her grandparents, Red and Kitty, in Wisconsin.
It's been 17 years since the last episode of That '70s Show when Eric and Donna finally got together for good, and the gang rang in the 80s. It had an infectious charm as we watched a cast of misfit American teens spend their days finding themselves, making mistakes and giving Kitty and Red Forman constant grief. It saw a resurgence in popularity when it had a rerun on Netflix, prompting the ordering of a spinoff - That '90s Show. Helmed by one of the original show's producers Gregg Mettler, it has enough of the old one's spark to establish an audience despite its teething problems. And without the anchors of Debra Jo Rup and Kurtwood Smith as Kitty and Red Forman, the show would have been dead in the water.As its name suggests, this spinoff is set 15 years after the last episode of That '70s Show, in the summer of 1995, when Eric and Donna's daughter Leia spends the holidays with her grandparents. She makes friends with her neighbours and their circle, which includes the suave Jay Kelso, son of Michael and Jackie - much to Red's distress.
While this is a series no one really wanted, nostalgia for the original show does help make it watchable. Filmed in the exact same format, complete with a live studio audience and the same familiar set except for a few 90s tweaks, it captures a little of that 70s magic with very familiar writing. We have cameos from every one of the original gang (barring the obvious one embroiled in sexual assault charges), but the real lynchpin is Kitty and Red, Eric's parents whose basement served as the main hangout spot.
It feels like they never left, and Rup and Smith easily picked up exactly where they left off. With Leia (hilarious name if you remember Eric well), Kitty is ecstatic that the house is full of teenagers again, while Red is ready to put a foot up anywhere it's needed. They have perfected their comedic timing and physical comedy to a T, and luckily, they get a juicy enough script that works to make their characters shine. They account for 80% of all the laughs, making That '90s Show almost unwatchable without them, but there is the groundwork for the new cast to make their mark - if they're given time to build rapport with the audience.
Our new generation of 'dumbasses' is headed by Leia Forman - crippled with the same nerdy energy as her father - who ends up friends with her rebellious neighbour Gwen and jockish half-brother Nate. The circle is expanded by Nate's clever girlfriend Nikki, openly gay Ozzie and sweet-talking Jay - Leia's main love interest. Like That 70s Show, it's a cast of unknown actors that could see their careers fly with this series, but they're going to need time to find their groove - hard to do in a traditional sitcom format in only 10 episodes. At the moment, they feel like cheap copies of the original group, and in the beginning, it has spurts of Disney Channel-style acting that makes you want to cringe deep into your sofa, pulled back at the last minute by Kitty and Red or a fun cameo.
Callie Haverda, as Leia, does eventually grow on you, quirky and sweet as she navigates the comedy, and Kurtwood and Rup work smart with the younger cast to pull out their best. The roughest of the bunch were Maxwell Acee as Nate and Reyn Doi as Ozzie. Both are deeply rooted in stereotypes. They hammed it up to annoying levels that will make you want to switch off fast in the beginning but had surprising moments of vulnerability that would make you pause. I believe they, along with the others, will evolve as the series continues (who knows if it will with Netflix's bizarro moves). But they'll need more time to gain audience favour in its current format.
That '90s Show strikes a wonky balance between nostalgia and new material, but it has the potential to build something long-lasting if its showrunner puts in the effort. Kitty and Red will have to shoulder the brunt of the work for a while as the new generation finds their feet, but I don't mind the wait.
Cast: Debra Jo Rupp, Kurtwood Smith, Callie Haverda, Ashley Aufderheide
Our rating: 3/5 Stars
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE: