‘That ’90s Show’ Review: Netflix Spinoff Eventually Finds Its Groove

Debra Jo Rupp’s Kitty is the shining star of this sometimes awkward sequel series

Debra Jo Rupp and Kurtwood Smith in "That '90s Show"
Debra Jo Rupp and Kurtwood Smith in "That '90s Show"

There’s a moment early on in first season of Netflix’s “That ’90s Show,” after Eric (Topher Grace), Donna (Laura Prepon), Kelso (Ashton Kutcher) and Jackie (Mila Kunis) have finished making their required cameos, when it feels like it’s clear that this sequel series couldn’t possibly live up to the first iteration. The teens are as awkward as their jokes, the lack of parents is baffling, and the ’90s references are all over the place, and you might see where I’m going with this — “That ’90s Show” is the “That ’70s Show” of the 2010s, even though it’s 2023, and while that sentence might be a confusing mess, the show is a lot less of a mess than it could have been. It’s both bad and good in all the right ways, and deserves more of a chance than you might want to give it after the first couple of episodes. As the mostly new actors settle into their characters, the Netflix series settles into itself and becomes something really fun. 

Set in 1995, the show starts with Eric, Donna, and their 14-year-old daughter Leia (Callie Haverda) paying a visit to Eric’s parents. Leia quickly makes some friends and decides that she wants to stay with her grandparents for the summer and not go with her dad to space camp. Eric’s heart is broken, but everybody eventually agrees that it’s a good idea, and Kitty (Debra Jo Rupp) is thrilled to have her house full of kids again as Leia and her new friends take over the basement. Red (Kurtwood Smith) is less thrilled, but he has definitely softened since the ’70s, and only threatens to put a couple of feet in a couple of deserved asses. 

Leia’s friends are a mixed group of harmless troublemakers, only one of whom has a recognizable last name. Jay Kelso (Mace Coronel) is the cute and charming son of Michael and Jackie (who are on their second remarriage), and Leia immediately takes note of his swoopy hair and surprisingly well adjusted personality. Gwen (Ashely Aufderheide) and her half brother Nate (Maxwell Acee Donovan) live next door in Donna’s old house, and Nate is dating Nikki (Sam Morelos). The star of the group is Ozzie, played by “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar” breakout Reyn Doi, who is openly gay and loves both a rave and a hangout with Kitty. After a couple of bumpy episodes in which the kids find Leia’s lack of life experience shocking, they find a comfortable, familiar groove. It’s all about protecting the stash and having a good time, and just pretending that this arrangement isn’t only for the summer. 

Leia and the other kids take up most of the show’s time, but its true star is Kitty Forman. There aren’t enough TV shows about grandmas, but “That ’90s Show” is at its best when Kitty is dancing around the kitchen with a jar of mayonnaise or crying about lost times with parents with Gwen and Nate. She doesn’t bat an eye when Ozzie comes out to her, and is there with a pair of open arms no matter what issues any of the kids are having. While Leia is coming of age, Kitty is getting a second wind, and even her marriage to Red seems to be thriving. They’re a long-married couple on a sitcom who appear happy and still very much in love with each other, and that’s a rare thing. The show is worth watching even just for them. 

Unfortunately, “That ’90s Show” doesn’t avoid what have become the hallmarks of Netflix content. It’s too shiny and bright, and sometimes feels like too much of a copy of the original instead of its own thing. TV comedies have changed significantly since 1998, so the combo of the old school jokes, the old school setting and the present-day lighting takes some getting used to. It feels a bit uncanny valley at times, but by the end, I was ready for Leia to return for another summer, maybe with her parents in tow.

Let Eric, Donna, Kelso, Jackie and Fez reunite for a barbecue. Let Kitty and Kelso flirt some more. Let Fez, who is now a popular hairstylist, give everyone a makeover. The kids are all alright, but the parents and grandparents are interesting too, and there are a lot of questions for them to answer. If Leia turned 15 in the summer of 1995, was Donna already pregnant with her during the series finale of “That ’70s Show?” What has become of Laurie Forman? What about Kelso’s older daughter Betsy? Where is Hyde (Danny Masterson) within the story of the show? The teens are going to have to become a lot more interesting before the ’70s can be fully forgotten in favor of the ’90s. 

Netflix has waded into these nostalgic waters before with “Fuller House,” and in terms of continuations of beloved sitcoms, “That ’90s Show” is more able to stand on its own with new characters. “Fuller House” made better use of its established characters, sometimes to its detriment. There’s room for “That ’90s Show” to find a place somewhere in between, with enough of Kelso yelling “Damn, Jackie!” to make us feel something without finding it annoying, and enough love for Leia’s parents to make us care just as much about her as we do for them, if Netflix and audiences give the show room to grow. 

Season 1 of “That ’90s Show” is now streaming on Netflix.