The fact “That ’70s Show” premiered 25 years ago truly belongs in the “Time flies” basket, bathing the latest attempt to fire up the franchise in a misty haze of nostalgia. Yet while there’s smoke here, there’s not much heat, as an uninspired next-generation crowd offsets encores by most of the original cast, leaving “That ’90s Show” feeling at best half-baked.
To get the obvious out of the way, having Kurtwood Smith and Debra Jo Rupp reprise their roles as Red and Kitty Forman, now the slightly less-cranky grandparents to a teenage girl, Leia (Callie Haverda), and a new basement full of kids, is kind of a blast.
As she comes to the end of a visit with her parents (yes, Topher Grace and Laura Prepon are back, sporadically), the socially awkward Leia asks to spend the summer at her grandparents’ place, having befriended the free-spirited girl next door (Ashley Aufderheide) and her extended posse.
Said posse also includes Jay (Mace Coronel), the son of Michael and Jackie (Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis), who’s a bit of a chip off the old block, at least in terms of possessing an easy-going charm with girls.
Before it’s over, the audience will also be treated to a reintroduction to Fez (Wilmer Valderrama), who has his own amusing career trajectory. (Danny Masterson, whose recent rape trial ended in a mistrial, is notably absent.)
Yet the focus, ultimately, is on the kids, and as written they and other new characters (including Andrea Anders as the Formans’ single-mom neighbor) are the weak links in this update. That might be because instead of charting a new path, the show essentially uses those characters as cutouts to simply recreate aspects of the original series, including the swerving camera and smoke-filled basement epiphanies.
The writers also don’t take as much advantage as they could of the 1995 timeframe, which is largely confined to pop-culture references, like Eric and Donna having named their daughter after a certain “Star Wars” princess, and in one episode, a somewhat stale “Beverly Hills, 90210” homage.
What’s left? Mostly Red and Kitty adjusting to their new roles, with the former clearly delighted watching his son struggle with the vagaries of parenting; still, even that yields diminishing returns before the Wisconsin summer’s over.
Netflix doesn’t possess a particularly long history among entertainment delivery systems, but it has certainly been aggressive about mining the name equity in venerable properties, reviving series like “Full House” and “Gilmore Girls” while rebooting “One Day at a Time.”
The impulse is understandable, and with NBC’s “Night Court” turning this into a two-sitcom-revival week, an obvious means of seeking to knife through the programming clutter.
Still, “That ’90s Show” primarily serves as a reminder of what made “That ‘70s Show” popular in its day, creating an uncomfortable scenario in which the parents, even as they drift toward middle age, are a whole lot cooler than their kids.
“That ’90s Show” premieres January 19 on Netflix.