When Netflix first reached out to “That ‘70s Show” creators Bonnie and Terry Turner about rebooting the show and setting it in the 1990s, their answer was swift: No.
“And then we thought about it some more,” says Terry Turner. “And we said ‘no’ again.”
But the notion had been unlocked. This was during the COVID-19 quarantines, and the Turners had plenty of time stuck indoors to think about it. Meanwhile, Carsey-Werner’s Tom Werner, who successfully brought back “Roseanne” (with one hiccup, of course, leading it to evolve into “The Conners”), was also in contact and asked the Turners about it as well.
The Turners thought about it some more, and started considering it — but only if they came up with an idea that worked. “Our first pass what that Eric [Topher Grace] had at some point gone to a rock festival and hooked up with someone, leading to an unknown grandchild,” Terry Turner says. “And at the doorway shows up a 14- or 15-year-old kid who says he’s Red [Kurtwood Smith] and Kitty’s [Debra Jo Rupp] grandkid.”
Netflix told them to try it again, as “audiences just don’t warm up” to a surprise love child. The Turners then approached Gregg Mettler — who wrote for them on “’70s Show” and “3rd Rock from the Sun” — about taking the reins as showrunner. Together, Mettler and the Turners (including their daughter, Lindsey) cracked a concept.
“We agreed amongst ourselves, we weren’t going to do it unless we could find a reason,” Lindsey Turner says. “And the thing that Greg said that I really loved, and I know mom and dad did too was, the ‘90s was the last time that people were looking up, they weren’t looking down at their phones. It was that last place of a real kind of engagement, having to make your own fun and really connecting with each other.”
The fruits of their 10-episode, live-action “That ‘90s Show,” starring Smith, Rupp, and a young troupe of newcomers, premieres Jan. 19 on the streamer. Variety has a first look at the teaser trailer and cast photos; scroll down for more.
“I wanted to have the same feeling as ‘That 70s Show did,” Mettler says. “The show had a very special tone. It was playful, it had a heart, it was sarcastic, it was filled with love within this family, within the friend group. I missed being in the basement with those kids.”
In “That ‘90s Show,” Eric and Donna (Laura Prepon) are married and have a 15-year-old daughter, Leia. (“Eric would have totally named his daughter Leia,” Mettler says of the “Star Wars”-inspired name. “That whole notion made me smile so much that I knew I had something to build on.”) One summer, Leia winds up visiting her grandparents, Red and Kitty, who are still living in the Forman family home in Point Place, Wisconsin.
Leia (Callie Haverda) soon meets next door neighbor Gwen (Ashley Aufderheide) — named after 90s icon Gwen Stefani, natch — and falls in with Gwen’s crew, including Gwen’s brother Nate (Maxwell Acee Donovan), his girlfriend Nikki (Sam Morelos) and their pals Ozzie (Reyn Doi) and Jay (Mace Coronel).
Every season will take place only during the summer, as Leia makes trips to see her grandparents while school is out. The producers say they like the idea of a fresh slate each season for these teenagers. “They physically change, they emotionally change, their lives have changed, their goals have changed,” Bonnie Turner says. “It just was great story fodder.”
Adds Terry Turner: “Setting it only during the summer gets the whole school and having-to-go-to-class thing out of the way, which we discovered on the original show, that wasn’t where it was interesting. It was more interesting in the basement… also, people change where they go away. They come back nine months later and when they’re teenagers, sometimes there’s a radical change, sometimes not. But sometimes people have decided to go a completely different path.”
Original “70s Show” cast members Grace, Prepon (who directed several episodes of “That ‘90s Show”), Wilmer Valderrama, Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis all make guest appearances. (Not back is Danny Masterson, currently on trial and charged with three counts of rape.) But the real continuity with the original is Smith and Rupp, who are also executive producers this time out.
“They didn’t need convincing for a second,” Bonnie Turner says. “They both said separately. If you’re there, we’re there. They read the scripts and were very valuable in talking to us about how Red and Kitty have aged and maybe they’re like this.” Says Lindsey Turner: “What was really key early on, was talking to Debra Jo and Kurtwood about who Red and Kitty became in the quiet, after the kids left. And how do the kids coming back change that. How has it reawakened pieces of them? How have they changed, how are they the same? Part of the reason that we knew we were doing good, was those conversations were funny, and nuanced and interesting.”
Mettler, who wrote the “That ‘70s Show” finale (also its 200th episode) in 2006, says he luckily hadn’t painted himself into a continuity corner with how the original show ended. But he didn’t go back and watch old episodes.
“I didn’t want to just write that show again,” he says. “And as far as the details of the characters, Wikipedia is a great thing to just refresh your memory. I didn’t want to get too heavily bogged down in it, honestly, because I just wanted to write more from the heart and the feeling of the piece. For the sake of the new series, the most important piece of it was where are Eric and Donna now, and where is their daughter. Outside of that, Red and Kitty are this classic couple that just never goes out of style.”
As for the look and feel of the sequel, original “That ‘70s Show” staffers that have returned include costume designer Melina Root, hair department head Gabriella Pollino, and others.
“That was one of the most amazing parts of this experience,” Mettler says. We had a lot of people returning that had DNA with the old show. When they put those sets up, which were exact replicas of the sets from ‘That ‘70s Show,’ I believe they used the old plans. When they started loading in the little details like the tchotchkes on Kitty’s shelves and the stuff in the kitchen, that is when I started to get chills. When do you get this chance ever in life, to go back home again like this?”
Adds Bonnie Turner: “I’ll never forget walking on the soundstage the first time and seeing the set again. I had all kinds of feelings. I was weeping.”
And then there’s the new theme song. Mettler says the pressure was high to come up with something as iconic as “That ‘70s Show” theme, “In the Street.” The original was adapted by Todd Griffin and Ben Vaughn from the original song by Big Star. Cheap Trick recorded it as “That ‘70s Song,” which became the version used from Season 2 on.
This time, Mettler said he batted around a lot of ideas and listened to a lot of ‘90s-era Spotify playlists, trying to find the right song. Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha, who served as the composer on “That ‘90s Show,” also weighed in.
Finally, Mettler himself arranged a version of “In the Street” but with a 1990s sound, and recorded a demo (with his daughter on vocals). Iha took that track, recorded it with Brett Anderson – the former lead singer for The Donnas – and it became the new theme for “That ‘90s Show.”
“I love all the music from the 90s, all the genres, and we try our best to weave them all into the show,” Mettler says. “And so, there’s something for everybody inside the show.”
Besides Mettler, the Turners, Smith and Rupp, executive producers also include Marcy Carsey and Tom Wermer – under their original The Carsey-Werner Co. banner. Jessica Goldstein and Chrissy Pietrosh are also EPs.
As for what’s next, would the Turners also mull a “3rd Rock” revival? “Actually, we were in London at the same time that John Lithgow was there doing ‘The Crown,’” Terry Turner says. “We were sitting with John, and I thought, there’s no reason why the aliens can’t come back to London.”
Says Bonnie Turner: “It may be, it may not be. It’s the same way that if somebody had asked, three or four years ago, ‘Are you going to reboot the 70s show?’ We would have said no way. But it turned out well. If the story is there, then it’s there. But you’ve got to be really careful about this stuff.” Chimes in Terry Turner: “Because otherwise you’ve made a deal with your own personal devil!”
Here’s a first look at “That ’90s Show”: