‘That ’90s Show’ proves that you can never go home again

Feb. 5, 2023, 5:55 p.m.

They say, “you can never go home again,” and this adage certainly holds for TV programming reboots.

Whether that home is at Point Place, Wisconsin — where the fictional events of “That ’90s Show” take place — or our own hometowns, what we pine for isn’t the physical locale but the cast of characters who peopled our little worlds. Set 20 years after the events of “That ’70s Show,” the reboot brings back Red and Kitty Forman, played by Kurtwood Smith and Debra Jo Rupp, respectively, who are now grandparents to Donna (Laura Prepon) and Eric’s (Topher Grace) child Leia (Callie Haverda). Although the show’s premiere episode brings back Eric and Donna to transition us to the new show and new cast of young trouble-makers, this hand-off is a sad reminder of the passage of time as these once-carefree teenagers are now adults with a child of their own.

The show attempts to recreate the charm and chemistry the original enjoyed with its cast of characters.  But how do you substitute Donna, Eric, Hyde (Danny Masterson), Kelso (Ashton Kutcher), Jackie (Mila Kunis) and Fez (Wilmer Valderrama)? For fans of the original, this particular ensemble of misfits was the show. Although the original guardians to the basement dwellers, Red Forman and Kitty Forman will reprise their roles, the new kids on the block don’t have the same chemistry, and their interactions seem forced and trite.

One of the reasons the original was such a hit was because it was set in middle America circa the 1970s.  There is something about the era, with its bell bottoms, sideburns and excessive use of marijuana, that lends itself well to the kind of comedy portrayed in “That ’70s Show.” While the ’70s have a unique and recognizable look and vibe, the 1990s and the subsequent decades are less remarkable. Although the ’90s are ancient history for most Stanford students, the era is too recent for most audiences to wax nostalgic about, particularly for the fans of “That ’70s Show.” Transplanting our nostalgia for the days when kids hung out in their parent’s basements to the 1990s is a big ask from the audience. Smoking pot in the ’90s, with its “Say no to Drugs” backdrop, just wasn’t the same as in the ’70s.

While some sequels, remakes and reboots do well with their audiences, others suffer from producers eager to cash in on the brand recognition and goodwill built into a show. James Cameron’s hit “The Terminator,” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, was bested by its sequel, “Terminator 2,” partly because the latter had a larger budget and technology had advanced enough to do the movie justice. While the beloved 1990s “Cheers” spinoff, “Frasier,” with Kelsey Grammer enjoyed much success (37 Emmy awards) during its 11 seasons, the “Friends” spinoff, “Joey,” met an ignominious end midway through its second season. And some movie remakes, like the one for “Total Recall,” should have never been made.  Where the original with Arnold Schwarzenegger was a summer blockbuster grossing hundreds of millions, the remake with Colin Farrell was a flop. Some fan favorites should be left in the past, and a remake should be limited to a few movies unless some technological advancement means a better product can be built.

Surprisingly “That ’90s Show” has a high Rotten Tomatoes score of 75%, and 86% of Google viewers like the show.  It would be interesting to see how these ratings cut across the prior-fan and new-viewer demographics. It remains to be seen how many fans will stick around after the nostalgia wears off. If the shine ultimately fades, this reboot won’t be alone in the halls of mediocrity. Rotten Tomatoes, a review aggregator for TV shows and movies, has an excellent and in-depth article titled “Yes, remakes do suck – and the Tomatometer proves it.” According to their data spanning 40 years of remakes and reboots, “only 40 movies had better Tomatometer scores than the original films they were remaking or rebooting — that’s less than 10%.” They showed that remakes made in the ‘80s were exceptionally better than their originals from decades past, but remakes of ‘80s originals made more recently fared worse. Only 3.2% of the Best Picture Academy Awards since 1927 were won by remakes.

As for “That ‘90s Show”, only time will tell if swapping out a beloved cast for another will keep fans of the original show coming back for more or if new viewers will love the show for its own sake. In his Daily Beast article titled “‘That ’90s Show’ Is Worse Than ‘That ’70s Show’ in Every Way,” Kevin Fallon writes, “even if [new viewers] had caught That ’70s Show in reruns, they wouldn’t recognize the humor of ‘That ’90s Show,’ which is much cringier and more predictable.”

The reboot’s creators fail to understand that fans of the original wanted to see a continuation of “That ’70s Show,” with the original cast somehow still stuck in the basement. Because that’s impossible 20 years later — although I can see a funnier premise where the original cast fails as adults and must return to the roost — a new cast of kids needed to be introduced. But these aren’t our pals. Just as today’s Lakers aren’t the Lakers your parents grew up with. They may be wearing the same jerseys, but that’s not Magic Johnson on the court. Whether it’s your favorite sports team or TV show, in the end, you just can’t go home again. But with all the talent and resources at Hollywood’s disposal, we shouldn’t have to. Build new homes, build unique stories and stop going to the nostalgia well every time you need a quick buck.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.

A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled Wilmer Valderrama’s name. The Daily regrets this error.

Elena Vasilache is a Sports Desk Editor and also writes for Arts & Life.

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