‘That ’90s Show’ and ‘Night Court’ attempt to breathe life into a dying form

‘That ’90s Show’ and ‘Night Court’ attempt to breathe life into a dying form

Depending on the season, the opening credits for Night Court and That ’70s Show ran between 30 and 40 seconds. Their new legasequels – NBC’s Night Court and Netflix’s That ’90s Show – use intros that are around 15 seconds long, with updated versions of well-known theme songs that are either much less complicated (Night Court) or heavily sped up (That ’90s Show ). .

On the one hand, this should come as no surprise. Sitcom credits have drastically shortened since That ’70s Show debuted 25 years ago, particularly on network television, where commercial breaks consistently shorten the time for the actual content of each episode. Still, something feels wrong on both counts, in a way that carries through to most of what follows the familiar guitar riffs. Each is centered around children of the main characters of the originals, and each brings back some familiar faces in supporting roles, but none feels quite right.

That 90s Show and Night Court attempt to breathe life

That ’90s show. (L to R) Mace Coronel as Jay, Callie Haverda as Leia Forman, Ashley Aufderheide as Gwen Runck, Reyn Doi as Ozzie, Maxwell Acee Donovan as Nate, Sam Morelos as Nikki in Episode 101 of That ’90s Show. Patrick Wymore/Netflix © 2022 PATRICK WYMORE/NETFLIX

Let’s start with That ’90s Show, which just premiered its first season on Netflix. This one involves Bonnie and Terry Turner, the creators of the ’70s show, and their daughter, Lindsey Turner, although the showrunner and head writer is Gregg Mettler, who wrote for many years on the original series. The series begins in the summer of 1995, some 18 years after the series began. Our main character this time is Leia Forman (Callie Haverda), daughter of Eric (Topher Grace) and Donna (Laura Prepon) and granddaughter of Red (Kurtwood Smith) and Kitty (Debra Jo Rupp). Frustrated and lonely after being a good girl all her life, she decides to spend the summer at Red and Kitty so she can finally make friends and experience a teenage rebellion. Her new crew includes neighbors Gwen (Ashley Aufderheide) and Nate (Maxwell Acee Donovan), Nate’s smart friend Nikki (Sam Morelos), the sarcastic and withdrawn Ozzie (Reyn Doi) and Jay (Mace Coronel) – aka the son of Kelso (Ashton Kutcher) and Jackie (Mila Kunis), who divorce and remarry every few years.

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The kids from the original show are recurring players at best — Grace, Kutcher, and Kunis only appear in the premiere, and Prepon and Wilmer Valderrama appear in a few extra episodes

– which makes perfect sense. The focus is on that next generation, plus Smith and Rupp were always the most reliable laughs on the original show and still have those muscles in tip-top shape all these years later. But the new kids have largely been forgotten, with Ashley Aufderheide being the only one whose ability for verbal or physical comedy seems to be somewhere in the ballpark of the old group. Because while That ’70s Show was never great comedy, its young cast was quite remarkable. Professionally, Grace never turned out to be the next Michael J. Fox, but his timing and performance were always impeccable, and Kutcher, Kunis and the others contributed far more than was needed on the page. No one is actively bad this time, but no one pulls out some pretty limp punch lines either. Every once in a while, Smith gets around to ranting properly—”Down in Hell, there is this room in the way back, where the Devil shits fire in your mouth,” Red explains. “It’s the DMV!”—but by far not often enough.

Thankfully, Danny Masterson is nowhere to be seen, and Hyde is never mentioned.

The studio audience — or perhaps footage of the studio audience from That ’70s Show — goes wild whenever someone from the original show shows up, whether it’s a full-time cast member like Valderrama, a returning player like Don Stark or Tommy Chong, or even an actor whose name I won’t mention but who appeared a total of six times and is much better known for later works. But the audience’s applause is only occasionally rewarded by all returnees. Grace in particular, after years in films and now two-and-a-half seasons on ABC’s Home Economics, seems to have forgotten everything he knows about the role in a multi-camera sitcom, or he’s just making the cameo out of a sense of duty.


1674239064 316 That 90s Show and Night Court attempt to breathe life

The former seems more likely, simply because multi-cam has largely fallen out of fashion outside of Disney Channel and Nick sitcoms aimed at kids and tweens. The vast majority of comedy on cable and streaming is single-cam — some straight comedy like What We Do in the Shadows, others mixtures of humor and pathos like Reservation Dogs — and Broadcast Network TV is even enjoying something of a sitcom renaissance at two real hits in Abbott Elementary and Ghosts, both single cam

. There just aren’t many people, either writers or actors, who are still adept and proficient at hurling set-ups and punch lines on a stage in front of a live studio audience. That Smith, Rupp, and some of the other adults can still do it is impressive, and there are occasional inspired bits, like a stoned Leia imagining her grandparents as 8-bit video game characters, or a Beverly Hills, 90210 parody starring one of the original actors with intentionally bad wig. It just isn’t enough to keep That ’90s Show from feeling like it’s being presented in a foreign language that few participants are fluent in, rather than exploring the words phonetically.

That said, it seems audiences still have an appetite for the form. Tuesday night’s series premiere of Night Court was NBC’s most-watched comedy debut since Will & Grace’s return in 2017. At this pace, can a Caroline in the City revival lag far behind?

NIGHT COURT – "Pilot" Episode 101 – Pictured: (l-r) Melissa Rauch as Abby Stone, John Larroquette as Dan Fielding Jordin Althaus/NBC/Warner Bros.

The two main actors of Night Court are well versed in the rhythms of multi-cam. Star and executive producer Melissa Rauch spent a decade as Bernadette on The Big Bang Theory, and John Larroquette won four Emmys for his role on the original Night Court and spent another four seasons hosting his own self-titled NBC sitcom . They’re, not coincidentally, the main reasons to watch the sequel series, which has the occasional moment, and a pretty good episode (the fifth one, set on the night a blood moon brings special weirdness to the court) that really gets the anarchic feel evokes the version led by Harry Anderson.

Rauch, using her normal speaking voice rather than Bernadette’s high-pitched squeak, is Abby Stone, daughter of Anderson’s Harry. After growing up and working in the state, she’s moved to New York to run her father’s old courtroom and recruits Larroquette’s misanthropic ex-prosecutor Dan Fielding to get back to work, this time representing the defendants.

It’s a reasonable facility. Dan has had to change significantly from the misogynist user he was in the ’80s and ’90s, and while it largely feels like a new character, Larroquette remains incredibly well suited to multi-cam’s specific needs and challenges. Rauch, on the other hand, is gregarious and enthusiastic enough to summon Anderson. Unfortunately, she’s hampered by the fact that Dan is no longer the only character who doesn’t want to be a part. Both clerk Neil (Kapil Talwalkar) and the prosecutor (India de Beaufort) clearly have better things in mind, leading to Bailiff Gurgs (Lacretta) being the only character aside from Abby who seems to be really enjoying themselves in this setting.


Half the fun of the old show was the feeling that this was all a ridiculous party that the viewer was allowed to attend once a week. Without, say, the presence of a cheerful hype man like the late Charles Robinson as Harry’s employee Mac, that contagious spirit is lacking. So when things get more cartoonish — let’s say Neil dresses up as an extra from Grease in a misguided attempt to endear himself to Abby’s mother (Murphy Brown alum Faith Ford, who also features well-slicked multi-cam chops in a guest appearance ) – it feels silly in a way it wouldn’t have felt over 30 years ago. On trend Multi-cam was a tough, unforgiving beast back in the ’90s when there were so many of them to tame. It’s even harder now that the format has shrunk so much. Credit these two for at least offering genuine connections to the originals – unlike the deservedly short-lived, entirely independent That ’80s Show – but like most revival and reboot trends that have consumed television in the last decade, they exist much more to leverage a well-known brand than because they’re good enough to exist on their own. But, hey, at least someone in the Night Court pilot was able to say, “Maybe I really am Gary Buttmouth!” That ’90s Show Season 1 is streaming on Netflix now; I’ve seen all 10 episodes. Night Court airs Tuesdays on NBC; I’ve seen the first six episodes.