‘That ‘90s Show’ Season 2 Review: Netflix Comedy Gets Better as It Embraces the Magic of Its Own Era

When “That ‘90s Show” debuted on Netflix last year, it tried to cater to audiences of “That ’70s Show” while delivering something fresh. The show failed to do either, throwing in too many awkward cameos by the flagship’s original actors at the expense of getting to know the next generation of basement-dwelling teens.

Fast forward to the release of “That ‘90s Show” Part 2 on Thursday, June 27, and the series has finally found its groove. After Donna (Laura Preppon) drops Leia (Callie Haverda) off at her grandparents’ house for the summer, the original gang stays away. That means no awkward Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher cameos, or Wilmer Valderrama returning to remind us what a problematic character Fez was from the start. Instead, the show remains focused on the new crew and their problems.

It’s the typical teen fare you’d expect, with episodes ranging from breakups and makeups to pregnancy scares and shoplifting. The season picks up on the cliffhanger ending from Part 1, in which Leia and Nate (Maxwell Acee Donovan) almost kissed. From there, much of the new part revolves around Leia and Jay (Mace Coronel) and Nikki (Sam Morelos) and Nate trying to navigate their respective relationships.

There are teachable moments along the way and lessons to be learned from the kids’ growing pains, but most storylines scratch the surface in that “special episode” way that comedies of the ‘90s tended to do. The show never goes super deep, even when tackling issues like racism, relying instead on quick resolutions to keep the story moving.

Where Part 2 lingers is in the nostalgia, leaning into the feelings of the era and embracing the pop culture moments that defined the generation. There are field parties, recognizable stores at the mall and commercial parodies that instantly transport you back to the 1990s if you were around to experience it the first time around. These references will probably be lost on younger viewers, of course.

The best moments of nostalgia in “That ‘90s Show” Part 2 come via the dreamlike sequences that bring character fantasies to life, such as Lisa Loeb recreating her famous “Stay” video or Carmen Electra dancing around the Formans’ kitchen. Elsewhere, “Jay and Silent Bob” duo Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith stop by in a non-dreamlike sequence that’s worth a smile. It’s these moments of core memory unlocking that will keep those of a certain age tuned in, despite the weak acting and often weaker writing.

Don Stark, Kurtwood Smith, Debra Jo Rupp and Callie Haverda in “That ’90s Show.” (Patrick Wymore/Netflix)

Like eating Fun Dip and Jolly Ranchers, the early Part 2 episodes often feel like empty-calorie viewing. You’re not moved or left fulfilled for having consumed them, but you’re pleasantly entertained and uplifted. An underlying layer of positivity keeps the show moving forward, anchored by Haverda and her sunny disposition. Red (Kurtwood Smith) and Kitty (Debra Jo Rupp) also help the pace as seasoned pros of this format, and their deliveries in the scenes with the kids help uplift the performances.

Toward the end of the episodes, the comedic timing improves and you can see the cast growing more comfortable with one another. Reyn Doi delivers several sarcastic zingers as Ozzie, while the brotherhood between Jay and Nate transitions into a loveable oaf status. That relationship is another ‘90s trope that’s layered into the season, and it works with this group of kids.

The girls get their chance to shine, too. Morelos has a big storyline as Nikki in Episode 7 that she manages to bring home, but it’s her musical, Jewel-inspired performance in Episode 8 that stands out. Elsewhere, Ashley Aufderheide’s Gwen gets a romance this season and a somewhat meaty race storyline. Unfortunately, the more poignant moments of that particular episode are lost in the scenes between Gwen and her mom, Sherri, played by an over-the-top, heavily accented Andrea Anders.

Max Donovan, Sam Morelos, Callie Haverda, Reyn Doi, Mace Coronel, Niles Fitch and Ashley Aufderheide in “That ’90s Show.” (Netflix)

With so much time and development dedicated toward the new class, the returning characters that do appear this time around make sense and service the fulltime characters and their storylines.

Seth Green reprises the role of Donna-obsessed Mitch in a fun way, while Don Stark returns as Leia’s other grandfather, Bob. Seeing the Bob and Red characters interact again makes for some of the season’s better moments, and it’s fun to see these opposites forced into family situations — like when they team up to teach Leia to drive.

Of course, Tommy Chong also returns as Leo because what would “That ‘70s Show” or “That ‘90s Show” be without at least one appearance by Chong? But even his participation is minimal, and leads to the “big thing” the characters need to deal with in the Part 2 finale.

“That ‘90s Show” isn’t award-winning TV, but it’s never claimed to be. There’s a place for fun and easy comedies in this TV landscape too, especially when you want to unwind and be transported back to a simpler time.

“That ‘90s Show” premieres Thursday, June 27, on Netflix.

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