Red suspects something

With the January 19 release of Netflix’s new series, "That ’90s Show," viewers are welcomed back into the world of Point Place, Wisconsin, where they previously left the stars of "That ’70s Show" as 1980 broke onto the horizon.

The story picks up in the familiar kitchen of Red and Kitty Forman (Kurtwood Smith and Debra Jo Rupp) in July of 1995, 15 years after the events of the last show’s series finale. If you think that’s condensing the timeline a bit, think again. It’s actually been a little more than 16 years since the aforementioned series finale aired. You’re welcome.

Everyone’s gotten a little older, though, and the show is ready to embrace that. Even Red is slightly softer around the edges, engaging in some hip-bumping dance moves with Kitty as Episode 1 begins. Things are at once familiar and new, comfortable and anticipatory. It’s a feeling the series carries throughout its entire 10-episode first season, focusing on the new generation of characters — with only brief appearances from original members of the Circle — and not forcing the era down viewers’ throats.

"That ’90s Show" has not forgotten its roots any more than it’s forgotten its new untapped decade of references. Each episode pays homage to both the old and the new in delightfully clever ways. You might miss some allusions the first time around, but uncovering them through multiple viewings is half the fun.

Leia Forman’s namesake

Eric and Donna laugh

Episode 1 of "That ’90s Show" opens with Red and Kitty waiting to greet their son Eric (Topher Grace), his wife Donna (Laura Prepon), and their daughter Leia (Callie Haverda), who have driven up from their home in Chicago to visit for the fourth of July. Kitty is predictably more excited than Red, giving everyone big hugs and smelling Eric’s hair at every opportunity. Everything is pretty much as it should be, including the name of "Star Wars" geek Eric Forman’s daughter.

Leia still wasn’t much used as a baby name in 1980, according to the Social Security Administration, but it wasn’t unheard of. However, any debate about the origin of Leia’s name goes out the window when her father tries to pull the disciplinary use of her full name and calls her "Leia Tatooine Forman." (Donna quickly shuts him down by reminding him their daughter’s middle name is actually Anne, a point he says he never agreed to.)

The real beauty of this "Star Wars" reference comes later in the episode, though, when Leia reveals she doesn’t want to attend Space Camp with her father and instead would like to stay in Point Place hanging out with the cool kids she met. Eric reacts badly, at one point even offering up one of Red’s old threats. Feeling bad about it later, he confides to Donna, "I study ‘Star Wars’ my entire life and in my moment of truth I turn into my evil father."

Upstairs people

Donna in the circle

"This feels weird," Donna says, in the first smoky circle of "That ’90s Show." Eric agrees, drinking a Zima. Kitty thinks it’s just great. Red wants to know why it’s so smoky in the kitchen, where they’re all seated around the table.

And with that, "That ’90s Show" has completed a rite of passage. The smoke circle was a staple of "That ’70s Show." It was used to work out problems; develop characters; transition between the A, B, and C storylines; and sometimes as just a silly interlude for a running gag. "That ’90s Show" could hardly be viewed as a follow-up series if it didn’t also feature that sacred space.

The kids aren’t there (yet), but Kitty is about to get them all set up in the basement. Soon everything will be theirs. Eric and Donna are upstairs people now, Red informs them.

Donna knew it would happen someday, just not so soon.

Kelso and Jackie’s second remarriage

Kelso and Jackie in love again

With their status as fan favorites and real-life marriage, Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis needed to come onto "That ’90s Show" and briefly reprise their roles of Michael Kelso and Jackie Burkhart. And brief it is. The series has no interest in wading around in the lives of characters we’ve already spent so much time with; it wants to maintain the same winning structure of "That ’70s Show" by focusing on the kids’ lives as much as possible. Kelso and Jackie are just stopping by, literally in story terms and figuratively as they pass the torch to the next generation.

Michael informs Red that the good-looking boy hovering around Leia is, in fact, his son Jay (Mace Coronel). Kitty gets just as flustered by Kelso as ever, and Jackie steps in to remind Michael they’re going to be late for their wedding. They’re getting married!

Actually, they’ve been married to each other before, so this is their remarriage. Well, their second remarriage.

Some things never change, and Kelso and Jackie have always been volatile together. Perpetually drawn to each other but unable to keep from driving each other crazy, they spent the ’70s breaking up and reuniting an untold number of times. It only fits that their love lives are still on that same relationship rollercoaster all these years later. From the outside, it might look dysfunctional, but it’s always worked for them.

The Candy Land callback

Nikki and Nate smoke circle

The premise of "That ’90s Show" is that Leia Forman, granddaughter to Red and Kitty, spends the summer in Point Place, Wisconsin, hanging out with the local kids. Once that setup is established, the show wastes no time moving directly into the lives of this new generation.

Kitty eagerly sets up the old basement where Eric et alia used to hang, assuring Red it will be the safest place for them and thereby cutting off any objections he has to people, kids, noise, or disturbances.

As the kids sit around admiring their new digs, Kitty brings over a box of Eric’s old games and records. While Nate (Maxwell Acee Donovan) is mistaking an 8-track tape for a video game cartridge, his half-sister Gwen (Ashley Aufderheide) is pulling out the Candy Land box.

Fans of "That ’70s Show" will remember Eric often kept his not-so-secret stash of emergency cash in that box, but the stash Gwen finds has been, shall we say, upgraded. Let the smoke circle commence and the conspiracy theories fly. "Did you hear about ‘Donkey Kong’?" Nikki (Sam Morelos) asks. "He’s a gorilla!"

Look at all this flannel

Gwen Ozzie flannel closet

Happily ensconced in the Forman basement, the kids of Netflix’s new series "That ’90s Show" have taken up the mantle of their predecessors with aplomb, but their mission is not just to reiterate the same old gags. References to the trends and events of days gone by are part of the appeal of period pieces. The only trick to a successful period piece is to immerse the story in the space and really live in it, rather than throw out a lot of catchphrases. The audience should feel like they’ve read the assignment, not just the CliffsNotes.

One of the best ways "That ’90s Show" does this is when they find a laundry basket full of Red’s flannel shirts. It’s 1995, and grunge is probably just now making its way in earnest into the small towns of Wisconsin, so obviously "Riot Grrrl" Gwen is the one most interested in the shirts at first. Before long, though, even smart and ambitious Nikki is turned on by how the flannel makes her boyfriend look. Without once saying the word "grunge" or mentioning any of the bands leading the trend, "That ’90s Show" seamlessly introduced a defining fad of the decade.

Kevin who?

Kitty Leia Blockbuster

To impress Jay on "That ’90s Show," Leia asks for his suggestions for a movie night video pick. Like so many teens of the decade, Jay was all about the breakout directorial debut of ’90s icon Kevin Smith, "Clerks." Critically acclaimed as it was, "Clerks" achieved cult status not only because of its reviews but also because it spoke to an entire generation in a language they understood. Director Kevin Smith — who plays Silent Bob in the film — became a legend. Just not to Leia.

Leia is a sheltered, bookish, awkward dork who has no idea who Kevin Smith is. In typical sitcom style, she bluffs and claims the movie as her favorite, to typically funny results. She even assumes Kevin Smith is a famous Hollywood star, because up until then nobody would’ve bet on a shaky, grainy, poorly mixed black-and-white film about the absurd goings-on at a convenience store being the movie every kid wanted to see.

The entire storyline brings back so many wonders of the time, like "Free Willy" and video rental stores with illicit back-room fare, but the idea of a ’90s kid not yet discovering Kevin Smith is the one that reminds us how innocent we all once were.

Every sitcom family needs a strange neighbor

Neighbor Sherri

In "That ’70s Show," it was Bob (Don Stark), father to Donna. In "That ’90s Show," the Forman’s next-door neighbor is Sherri (Andrea Anders), mom to Gwen and Nate. She’s bad with men, needs to borrow the Forman’s shower, and does her grocery shopping in their fridge, but also serves a larger purpose.

The oddball neighbor is a sitcom staple, going all the way back to "The Honeymooners." Sherri offers an extra touch of chaos, collusion, and comic relief, plus whatever else the writers require of her. She can even be a backdoor path to sage advice, and she’s often revealed to be a genuinely supportive and loyal friend and mom.

Andrea Anders knows the role of the weirdo neighbor well; this isn’t the first time she’s played that role. Eagle-eyed viewers will also recognize Anders as the loud, impulsive Amber LaFontaine, neighbor to the Dunphys on "Modern Family." Her addition to the case of "That ’90s Show" instantly connects this family comedy to that one.

People stop being polite and start getting real

Leo's Real World audition tape

Another huge milestone of the 1990s was the birth of reality television with MTV’s "The Real World," that bastion of racially tinged insults, groundbreaking representation, and dramatic exits. "That ’90s Show" hasn’t forgotten about it. Trying to track down an overdue videotape, Leia and Kitty meet Leo (Tommy Chong), who is as spaced out as ever. (The man’s head might qualify as its own bong by now.)

Leo has a hard time following the thread of the conversation, to no one’s surprise, but what he can remember is that he can’t get enough of "The Real World." "Because think about it," he ponders, "if that’s the real world, what’s all this?"

A short time later, Leia pops the tape into the VCR, but instead of the expected movie, it’s Leo’s audition tape. He thinks he’d be a great addition to "The Real World" show, and we can’t disagree. He’s survived falls from THREE rollercoasters. "Four, if you count the fourth one."

Chez Fez

Sexy Fez Miata

On "That ’90s Show," Sherri is dating someone who is pretty successful. He drives a blue Miata and takes her to the kind of restaurants where you order at the table, so she finds it hard to break things off with him even though he’s very clingy and moving fast. Fans of the original series already know where this is going, but the reveal is better than imagined when, instead of saying his name, viewers are shown the local TV ad for his business.

Obviously, Sherri’s new lover is Fez (Wilmer Valderrama). He is teased in quick cut shots from the toes of his cowboy boots to the flip of his perfect bangs as he swings his hips and taps his fingers — an homage of sorts to the George Michael "Faith" video crossed with the self-important celebrity hair product ads from the likes of Paul Mitchell and José Eber. It’s glorious in every way.

Then, when it can hardly get any better, the logo appears onscreen: Chez Fez. Half a beat later, Fez subverts expectations as his voiceover rhymes Chez with his name. Finally, it closes with Fez’s signature line from "That ’70s Show:" "I said, good day." Sheer perfection, get it?

For an extra slice of awesome, when Kitty reveals they know Fez from way back, she tells Sherri where he’s originally from. Only the teapot whistles so the audience can’t hear her. But she assures us it’s supposedly lovely there!

Ozzie’s so-called life

Ozzie smirking

In 2023, having an out and proud gay character on a TV series is no big deal, but in 1995 it was monumental. Critically revered and criminally short-lived series "My So-Called Life" debuted in the fall of 1994 and featured not only an openly gay character but also a teenage one. Rickie Vasquez, flawlessly and fearlessly played by actor Wilson Cruz, was a landmark character for network television and a beacon of hope for millions of gay teens across the US. By including in its group of misfits an open-to-his-friends gay character in Ozzie (Reyn Doi) and gifting him a coming-out story, "That ’90s Show" honors the legacy of Vasquez/Cruz and the strides of everyone who came after.

That said, it’s also an incredibly funny episode. Doi is breezily apathetic and yet lovably earnest as he details to Leia his coming out strategy and his plan to make telling Kitty his next step. Coming out was a big risk in 1995 — and still can be in 2023 — but Kitty is probably just the kind of person to tell, as her love and acceptance of the kids have never known any bounds. She might be a little upset, though, when she finds out Ozzie really does have a boyfriend in Canada and that he’s been calling Étienne from her house.

Sponge-worthy

Donna buys sponges

Mistakenly believing that her granddaughter Leia is thinking of having sex, Kitty Forman of "That ’90s Show" frantically calls her daughter-in-law Donna. Without wasting a moment, Donna speeds her way from Chicago to Point Place to have a serious talk with Leia.

Leia assures her mom they’ve already had that talk, but Donna insists on having it again anyway, using the real terms for body parts this time, and she’s brought all manner of prophylactics to help educate Leia in the matter.

The most notable device in Donna’s bag is the contraceptive sponge, an artifact of the era memorialized in the iconic "Seinfeld" episode "The Sponge," in which the popular prophylactic is discontinued and Elaine buys all the remaining inventory in New York City, as one does.

"The Sponge" originally aired in December of 1995, only four or so months after this "That ’90s Show" episode takes place, so Donna picked one up just in time. Leia isn’t really looking to have sex right then, so that sponge can be saved for a later time. As for whether or not Leia’s love interest Jay Kelso is actually sponge-worthy, that is also to be determined.

Welcome to the Internet Age

Red hiding computer

There simply can’t be a TV sitcom called "That ’90s Show" if it doesn’t delve into the strange, new world of personal home computers and the internet, as both boomed in popularity midway through the decade. Kitty and Red have bought their own bulky PC and Ozzie is helping them set it up.

The show deals out some predictable jokes about Kitty not knowing where to click and initially thinking the mouse was a foot pedal, but it delves much deeper as well. It offers a subtle nod to the ’90s set piece "You’ve Got Mail" and the fear-slash-belief that the President could hear your conversations whenever you were online. It features the frequent crashes and long reboot times. Best of all, it provides an incredibly apt description of the sound of a modem connecting when Kitty says it’s like "two demons yelling at each other," which also pretty much sums up the Internet at large.

Red is unsurprisingly skeptical of this foray into the future, but soon Kitty comes downstairs one night to find him trying to cover up the whole giant boxy monitor with his robe. He’s found a picture of Raquel Welch. Instead of being shocked, though, Kitty is thrilled to see him embracing this new technology and would like him to find a picture of Kirk Douglas for herself.

Wait, they’re how old?

Jay driving Leia

In Episode 6 of "That ’90s Show," which takes place sometime between the fourth of July and Labor Day 1995, Leia Forman turns 15. Folks, that math is wonky.

"That ’70s Show" ended as the calendar was just about to turn to January 1, 1980, and 40 weeks after that date is October 8. In a conspiracy theory revelation suitable for a smoke circle, Donna must have been already pregnant when the original series ended. Furthermore, all personality signs point to Leia definitely being Eric’s daughter, so they were likely secretly hooking up before officially getting back together in the series finale. Naysayers may offer up the possibility that Leia was born prematurely. Fair enough, but it still means Donna and Eric got pregnant immediately. They did not pass Go. They did not collect $200.

Moreover, premature labor doesn’t address the issue of Jay Kelso at all. In Episode 1, Michael Kelso tells Red that Jay is his son, but Jay — who already has his driver’s license — is obviously older than Leia. There was never any onscreen indication that Jay was Jackie’s son, and this timeline certainly confirms that, but it opens up an even bigger question: Who is Jay’s mom?

Given the nature of the show, it’s unlikely any of these details will be addressed with more than a shrug, if at all, but in selecting the setting for "That ’90s Show," writers were no doubt aware of these details.

The Vista Cruiser

Vista Cruiser

Surprise, surprise, Eric’s old Vista Cruiser is still around and Red gives it to Leia in "The Birthday Girl" episode of "That ’90s Show." It’s a wonderful nod to the original series, a fun bit of nostalgia, and a great way for Red to beat Bob at the gift-giving game. Even better, it’s the source of a great throwaway reference only the sharpest viewers will catch.

Leia doesn’t have her license yet, so she can’t take the car out until her grandpa Red can get her to the DMV for her learner’s permit and show her the ropes. Luckily, Jay does have his license, so he and Leia go out for a romantic drive, just the two of them.

As must happen in any sitcom scenario, plans are ruined by unexpected circumstances as the couple is pulled over. Red and Kitty are furious with Leia for getting in trouble with the car already, mere minutes after receiving it, but Leia points out they were only pulled over for expired tags and technically didn’t do anything wrong themselves.

The tags in question were registered in 1980, and therein lies the best, tiniest reference to the original series "That ’90s Show" pulls off. In its very last visual, as the closing credits roll, "That ’70s Show" ended with a shot of the license plate for Eric’s trusty Vista Cruiser and its brand new 1980 tags.

Kitty’s tattoo

Red kisses Kitty's tattoo

What better way for "That ’90s Show" to honor its decade than to give props to one of the biggest sitcoms of the era? The first "Friends" reference is overt, with Leia telling Jay she wants to just be friends. He asks if she means like Ross and Rachel and she clarifies that she meant Joey and Chandler. It’s an easy lay-up, but there’s a better, more subtle reference in the offing.

Wanting to prove to Red that Jay is responsible, Leia convinces Sherri to let them pick up Kitty from the dentist for her. Sherri’s maternal instincts are unsure of this plan, but a promise of a full tank of gas eases her concerns. After all, what could happen in the course of transporting a heavily sedated grandmother?

It turns out those magic dental surgery drugs make Kitty wild, not lethargic, and one thing leads to another, which ends in Kitty getting a tattoo of a cat outline on her inner forearm. Upon sobering up, Kitty is furious and mortified at this discovery. Worse, she has no idea what to tell Red, and he is predictably outraged at first.

Upon further inspection, however, things go just as they did for Ross and Rachel in the episode "The One Where Joey Moves Out." Red kisses her tattoo, and Kitty — who incidentally appeared on "Friends" as Alice, Frank Jr. Jr’s wife — giggles like a schoolgirl. The only difference is Red goes for dessert instead of "other stuff."

The missing sister

KItty and Nikki pre-interview

As the summer winds down on the debut season of "That ’90s Show," Kitty realizes she loves having the kids around and thrives on the activity so much that she considers going back to work. As luck would have it, a position has opened up at the school, and Kitty plans to apply. Her insecurities start to take over, however, as she imagines all the horrible — if unlikely — scenarios she might face as a school nurse. Coupled with the intimidating and unfamiliar process of composing a resumé on her new computer, and then forgetting it when she goes to the interview, everything seems to be telling her to give up and go home.

That’s when Red comes in to give her a confidence boost. When Kitty comes to report she got the job, he says he never doubted her. In a rare moment of vulnerability, Kitty asks how he can be so sure of her when she was so unsure of herself. Red says Kitty has always been able to do whatever she set her mind to. For example, he only wanted one child but she convinced him to have Eric.

Wait, what?

It’s a throwaway line and completely off-topic, but in that blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, the elusive Laurie Forman got her one mention of the season — a running gag on "That ’70s Show," as the character was frequently written off the series and never appeared again after the Season 6 episode "Going Mobile."

It’s the little things

Gwen rocks out

Most of the ways "That ’90s Show" honors and pays tribute to its era are barely noticeable, largely meaningless embellishments to the set, costume, or dialogue. In the aggregate, however, they form an entire atmosphere for the show to inhabit, filling up the space of the decade in an organic way that embodies not just the look but the feel of the time.

It’s Leia’s early season outfits — and especially her hat in the fantasy "90210" opening — which are distinctly Blossom-esque. It’s Brian Austin Green reprising the role of David Silver, freshman, in that same "90210" fantasy. It’s reading Sassy magazine in bed. It’s slap bracelets and Glamour Shots. It’s Sally Jessy Raphael’s signature red glasses. It’s dancing around in a bumblebee costume while "No Rain" plays over the soundtrack. In so many small ways, "That ’90s Show" brings the ’90s to life, and the show is all the better for it.