The first scene of That ’90s Show reveals its biggest problem

The wonderful radio sketch series That Mitchell and Webb Sound had a brilliant bit in its final series where an over-enthusiastic fan accosts star David Mitchell to compliment him on a particular sketch from earlier in the episode. “You should do more of that,” the fan exclaims. Mitchell struggles to understand why the fan wants more of the same: he can listen to the sketch they already did, why does he want them to make more sketches about the same thing? The fan explains, “If you have a sausage roll, and then the next day, that’s all right, isn’t it? It’s not the same sausage roll, it’s more!” Mitchell remains unconvinced: “But that’s food, not comedy. Food is better than comedy. People will eat the same thing over and over again.”

Which brings us, in a terribly roundabout way, to That ’90s Show, and modern television’s determination to prove that, actually, food and comedy are exactly the same, and audiences are willing to gobble up reheated sitcoms just as eagerly as sausage rolls.

Kurtwood Smith, Topher Grace, Debra Jo Rupp and Callie Haverda in That ’90s Show, a continuation of the sitcom classic That 70s Show. Credit:Patrick Wymore/Netflix

That ’90s Show (Netflix) is a revival of That ‘70s Show, which was a hit show from the 90s. Not a reboot, mind: a revival. That ‘90s Show, despite having a different title, is simply a continuation of the That ’70s Show story, based on the belief that this is what people wanted.

And hey, maybe it is. That ’70s Show was, apart from the dire final season, a good show. People loved it. The problem for That ’90s Show is that people who loved That ’70s Show can watch it whenever they want, if they have a Stan subscription or a budget that stretches to a few DVD boxsets.

Those of us who grew up with the characters can bask in our nostalgia for the ’90s by watching a show about the ’70s – much like kids of that era relive their childhood by watching repeats of Happy Days.

Nostalgia is a complicated thing, and the revival of this show just complicates it more: is this a show for new viewers to get a glimpse of what the ’90s were like, or is it an attempt to bring warm fuzzies to those of us who remember the ’90s, by simultaneously reminding us of the actual decade as well as the fictional decade we used to watch a TV show about in the actual decade? It’s exhausting just trying to figure out why we’re watching That ’90s Show, let alone actually watching it.

Ashton Kutcher makes a guest appearance as Michael Kelso in That ’90s Show, now the father of Jay, played by Mace Coronel.Credit:Netflix

And actually watching it is exhausting. Not that it’s unpleasant to see the likes of Topher Grace, Kurtwood Smith and Debra Jo Rupp return – none of whom has aged anywhere near as much as would be natural. It’s just that now they’re supporting players to a cast of incredibly annoying teenagers who fail spectacularly to come anywhere near the goofy charisma of their predecessors. The next generation is shown up to be somehow both blatant rip-offs of the characters of the original show, and painful reminders of the fact that they’re not them. Meanwhile, those of the originals who have returned find their own appeal dulled by age and lazy writing.

The problems with That ’90s Show become obvious in the first scene of the first episode, when the mere appearance of the original’s stars bring massive whoops of recognition from the studio audience, the presence of which automatically makes the whole thing feel horribly dated. The fear that this is a show that is going to lean heavily on those whoops doesn’t take long to be confirmed: this is a show that has almost nothing to offer besides “remember this?”

And that’s the trouble with the whole concept of reviving long-gone shows. “Remember this?” is the reason they exist in the first place, so why would the writers ever bother to try for anything more? Nobody greenlights a revival because they’re excited about fresh new ideas: they do it because they’re fresh out of new ideas.

The latest news is that a revival of Frasier is now in production. With a legitimate claim to being the best multi-camera sitcom of all time, here is a show with a long, long way to fall, if the new episodes fail to impress. What’s more, only the title character is returning: this will be Frasier with no Niles, no Martin, no Daphne, no Roz. So what’s the point? Unfortunately, the point seems to be an ageing star at a loose end who wants to feel special again – it’s hard to imagine anyone except Kelsey Grammar actually wanted to bring Frasier back.

The cast of the original That ’70s Show.

Not that revivals can’t be good: after all, if a show was good, there’s no reason why it can’t continue to be good. In theory there’s no reason season 10 can’t be as good as season nine even if it arrives two decades (rather than one year) later.

But the fact that the show’s return is inspired not by creativity but by nostalgia means any production team must make an almighty deliberate effort to fight the phenomenon of revival inertia, if there’s to be any chance of great TV resulting.

The history of revivals thus far ranges from “Sort-of OK but super disappointing” (Will and Grace, Arrested Development) to “Dear god make it stop” (Roseanne, Murphy Brown). And the sad thing is, we are talking about genuinely great shows that, like a champion footballer trying to make a comeback after five years of retirement, taint their own legacy by limping pathetically back onto the main stage, utterly deluded as to their ability to recapture the magic.

So maybe Frasier Volume II will be marvellous. But experience would suggest the odds aren’t great. TV revivals are a powerful reminder of the fact that no matter how hard streaming executives try, comedy will never be a sausage roll.

That ’90s Show is now streaming on Netflix.

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