That ‘90s Show Recap: The Same Old Thing That We Did Last Week

by 24USATVJan. 19, 2023, 6:01 p.m. 16
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In the recent, precrash days of network TV, it was considered more or less gospel that comedy pilots weren’t often especially good and that second episodes of comedy series would essentially reiterate the central conflict of the pilot. This trend has some utility, if not necessarily guaranteed quality: It eases any late-joining viewers and, presumably, it allows the show to perform a fuller version of that conflict unburdened by character introductions. (This is the truer version of the frequent exaggeration that entire first seasons of many classic comedies are skippable. Not so! Parks and Recreation is good by episode six! 30 Rock is great by episode four!)

With streaming shows, even those that blatantly or directly imitate their network forebearers, there’s a danger simply extending the pilot across the entire first season (especially dangerous when the first season may only be eight or ten episodes). So while there’s nothing inherently wrong with the fact that the second episode of That ’90s Show picks up exactly where the pilot leaves off (and, as a preview, the third picks up more or less immediately following the second), it does point to a certain wispiness of the show’s episodic premises. That’s particularly true of “Free Leia,” which has room to develop its comic conflict and promptly squanders it as if this were an episode of She-Hulk: Attorney at Law or something.

The episode kicks off with initiation: Of Leia into the world of marijuana and of the show into the circle-cam tradition, in which cast members sit together as the camera travels around for a series of rapid-fire jokes and assorted goofiness. Leia’s inability to fulfill her new friends’ stoned request for Raisin Bran sends her spiraling with insecurity — will she be able to impress these kids or quickly consign herself to outcast status in another state? (Red and Kitty attempt to counsel her, but it’s hard to receive their messages of goodwill when they’re appearing to Leia as Donkey Kong–like video-game characters inspired by Nikki’s zonked musings over the non-donkey’s misleading name.)

Without any means of sneaking more kegs or weed into her grandparents’ house, Leia settles on Kitty’s suggestion of a movie night, hoping to at least find a VHS tape to fake some coolness. At the video store, where Jay apparently works without noticing when his new friend has been spending ages prowling the shelves indecisively, Leia approaches Jay and asks him for a recommendation. (Even Kitty recognizes her go-to choice of Free Willy as “dork city.”) They arrive at the Jay-approved, Leia-unseen Clerks (perfect summer-of-1995 choice!), but the tape has been MIA for weeks. So Leia, in her fervor to rent something cool, sneaks a peek at the address of the delinquent customer and goes to retrieve the movie.

It doesn’t take an obsessive That ’70s Show fan to guess that the Point Place resident most likely to space out on returning a videotape is Leo (Tommy Chong), who Kitty amusingly/disturbingly describes as “the usual: an older man who used to hang out with your dad and his friends when they were teenagers.” Leo’s discombobulated shtick wore thin and then threadbare as the original series went on, but he’s admittedly well used here. Mistaking Kitty and Leia for trick-or-treating cops (?), he nonetheless provides the desired tape. But when Leia pops it into the VCR for movie night, she discovers Leo has accidentally taped over it with his unsent Real World audition. Between the dry, dry Raisin Bran that Leia has served as a snack and the lack of a promised cool movie, she freaks out and bolts. Gwen follows, Leia confesses her imposter syndrome, Gwen reassures her that she likes her and the others will follow — and that the inventors of a game called StickStick don’t have much of a leg to stand on, coolness-wise.

The bones of this story are funny and charming; there’s enormous child-of-video-stores appeal in the idea of chasing down a particular hard copy of a movie whose importance has perhaps been distorted by youthful nerves over impressing cool new friends. (Do I have an unpublished fiction manuscript involving this very activity? Possibly!) But all this episode really provides are the bones: A couple of amusing video-store farce scenes, a rushed non-conflict that leaves absolutely no doubt that Leia’s friends really don’t mind her dorkiness, and an equally fast resolution. This is what brings to mind She-Hulk: little comic escalation, no real payoff, and the general sense that the people making the show are reconstructing a sitcom episode from memory rather than inspiration.

That obligatory feeling also informs the episode’s grown-up side, which introduces a wacky-neighbor character: Sherri (Andrea Anders), the mother of Gwen and Nate, and clearly meant as a single-mom riff on Midge (Tanya Roberts), Donna’s mom from the original series. Anders is fine, gamely playing up a native Wisconsin accent, but there’s not much story to this B-story: Sherri introduces herself to Red and Kitty, reveals she’s dating a guy she’s trying to dump, and then reveals to us that the guy is … Fez! Then the episode ends. It’s setup for a continuing plotline no one really needs in a story about teenagers hanging out during summer vacation. Leia’s friends are all there in the basement, waiting for their character development or at least their laugh lines; why is the show so distracted by the looming presence of Fez? It’s moves like these that make “Free Leia” feel less like a summer repeat of the pilot and more like the show is already serving up leftovers.
• It may not be fair game to critique the C-story of a 25-minute sitcom episode, but “Nate covets Red’s old flannels and then Red gives him one” is not exactly a subplot for the ages. Then again, it is kind of cute to see the gang fawn over Red’s closet full of old work shirts.
• I love the runner of Leia attempting to show her familiarity with Clerks by referring to her sexual attraction to Kevin Smith.
• As someone with little Cheech & Chong nostalgia and an affection for Cheech Marin mainly from his character-actor work, I wasn’t especially jazzed to see Tommy Chong here again. (Bring back Kevin Macdonald instead!) But I have to admit, Leo’s fun fact for his Real World audition got me: “I’ve fallen off of three roller coasters … four if you count the fourth one.”
• ’90s reference watch: Kitty and Ozzie name-check Party of Five and Grace Under Fire as they lament the tired state of summer reruns. And the gang really does watch Free Willy with better results than poor Homer Simpson. Also as a ruthless peruser of onscreen video-store shelves, I can report that the titles lining the Point Place store are quite accurate to the era, erring on the side of slightly old (new releases that were actually circulating in late 1994) rather than too new.

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