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‘That ’90s Show’ is a Wholesome Return to Point Place – Review

That ’70s Show concluded in 2006 after eight seasons, taking a special place in the heart of its fans, who followed the adventures of Eric (Topher Grace), Donna (Laura Prepon), and their friends while they tried to learn about the fundamentals of life while constantly sitting in a circle in a poorly ventilated basement. Seventeen years later, Netflix takes the audience back to Point Place, Wisconsin, where Eric and Donna now have a daughter named Leia (Callie Haverda), who will spend the summer in the care of her grandparents, Red (Kurtwood Smith) and Kitty (Debra Jo Rupp). As expected, the teenagers of this lively town are more than prepared to have fun, find romance and get on the Forman’s nerves.

(Courtesy of Netflix)

The younger cast has the formidable challenge of carrying the legacy of a successful predecessor, and, for the most part, they bring their immense charisma into this sequel. Especially Maxwell Donovan, who is particularly charming in the role of Nate Runck, one of Leia’s new friends. Donovan is delightful with his comedic timing and delivery, constantly becoming the funniest performer in any scene he finds himself in, even when he’s not meant to be the primary source of comic relief. Other members of the new Point Place gang include Gwen (Ashley Aufderheide), Jay (Mace Coronel), Ozzie (Reyn Doi) and Nikki (Sam Morelos). The group has the potential to deliver a consistently funny series shall the studio decide to renew the show.

The tone difference between That ’90s Show and its 70s counterpart might be off-putting at first, given how this version pulls back from topics displayed in the original series to keep a more family-friendly presentation. However, that doesn’t take away from the fact that the new cast has plenty of chemistry with each other. After they find their groove in the first couple of episodes, the relationships and dynamics they establish are engaging and emotional. They know they are not the original cast, but the beautiful thing about this new story is that they don’t have to be in the first place. Point Place has a new squad rolling up to the mall in the Vista Cruiser, and they are here to leave their mark.

But as enthusiastic as the younger cast is, the soul of the show is Debra Jo Rupp and Kurtwood Smith playing the elder Formans once again. The spark that made their performances extremely lovely back in the day is as present as ever, allowing them to have good chemistry with the new actors and with Topher Grace and Laura Prepon from the original show. Rupp’s warm, contagious laughter and Smith’s grumpy remarks could be appreciated for days without ever losing what makes them so compelling. It’s even mentioned in the show how Kitty Forman feels as if she was given a new lease on life when people started coming to their house again, mirroring how sincere this comeback feels, unlike similar attempts at revivals inspired solely by the need to cash in on an intellectual property.

(Courtesy of Netflix)

Even if That ’90s Show is named after the decade it is based on, the nostalgia factor on the show is focused chiefly on its predecessor instead of the actual period it was named after. While iconic locations such as the water tower and the coffee shop are revisited, returning cast members are treated very prominently when they hop in for a cameo. That is expected from a legacy sequel, but what made the original so refreshing was its need to engage the audience with new characters in a familiar setting instead of relying on as many recognizable things as possible. After all, the theme song does remark “the same old thing we did last week” in its lyrics, but that doesn’t mean nostalgia and familiarity should be trusted, given the tendency of stories based solely on callbacks not being able to find what makes them unique.

Thankfully, that is not the case in this series. It knows how to utilize its nostalgic goods while allowing the new generation of characters to stand independently. Another matter handled gracefully in this production is aging. Unexpected is the best word to describe how organically three different generations of characters are portrayed regarding their respective ages. While traditionally, everyone would be required to act older than they are to establish a tone or simply for comedic relief, these characters’ age, attitudes and behaviour are relatively realistic. Red and Kitty aren’t helpless, tired grandparents annoyed by the slightest noise, and Eric and Donna aren’t dealing with stereotypical middle-age complications. Grace and Prepon came back to play perfectly young and healthy parents, and their dynamic with Rupp and Smith is a cute sight to behold, with the parents in the first show watching their kid going through the tormenting process of raising a teenager.

Charming performances from the old and new cast members, emotional writing and the franchise’s trademark humour, make That ’90s Show a wholesome and beautiful return to Point Place, Wisconsin. Rupp, Haverda and Donovan shine in their respective roles, delivering hilarious and lovely performances, while That ’70s Show fans and new viewers alike are in for a treat.

That ’90s Show premiered on Netflix on January 19.

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