Why Were ’80s Babies So Obsessed With ‘That ’70’s Show’? And Can ‘That ’90s Show’ Capitalize on That Magic?

I was still an early teenager when Eric, Kelso, Donna and Fez first appeared on my TV screen in 1998 via That ‘70s Show on Fox. Each week for eight seasons, I (a baby of the ‘80s) would tune in to this show (about the ‘70s) that featured all the signature sitcom tropes viewers still loved in the ‘90s (a laugh track, the sitcom set, the iconic ‘ooooooh’ from the audience when two of our favorite characters would kiss).

Despite having no real generational connection to the ‘70s other than growing up in a house with a basement eerily similar to that of the Formans’, I (and millions like me) became obsessed with this nostalgia-fest. But why?

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25 years later, the hit show’s creators are about to serve us another helping in the form of That ‘90s Show, featuring Kurtwood Smith and Debra Jo Rupp reprising their roles as Red and Kitty Forman, respectively. But aside from the return of Red and Kitty (and a plethora of promised cameos from the OG cast), the new iteration will depend on a band of fresh faces and unfamiliar names.

Is this spin-off a genius idea or a disaster in the making? The answer to this question is most certainly tied to the reason so many of us were obsessed with That ‘70s Show 25 years ago: TV viewers love to see themselves through a sepia-toned lens (metaphorically speaking). Think The Wonder Years, which came out in 1988 and gave us Kevin Arnold & co. in 1968. That show was obviously a huge success, playing off that “remember how great it used to be” energy, even if the people watching weren’t actually around yet during that “great” time. And then there was Freaks and Geeks, a show filmed in 1999, but about high school in 1980. Back to the Future managed to do it all in one movie, straddling the present (1985) and the past (1955). Box office gold! The point being, we love a glance back in time.

That said, I happen to think that tying the success of That ‘70s Show exclusively to nostalgia is an oversimplification. Sure, it was fun to see the ‘70s fashion and the ‘70s hair. It was a hoot to see Kitty’s ‘70s cooking served up in the Formans’ very ‘70s kitchen. But I would argue that this was simply a frame-work for the two things that made this show specifically so appealing: what I like to call the Red vs. Eric Dynamic and the Kelso Effect.

Still from 'That '70s Show.'
FOX Image Collection/Getty Images

The Red vs. Eric Dynamic is essentially the generational contrast between parents and kids. This trope has been used before and is a recipe for comedic gold. The stuffy conservative dad, Red, wants his kid to get his lazy ass off the couch and mow the lawn. The slacker liberal kid, Eric, wants to smoke pot, hang with his friends and borrow the car. Hijinx ensue.

The whole premise of the original series hinged on this battle between the old way of doing things and the new one. The past and the present. Them versus us (or us versus them depending on how old you were when you watched and whether you considered yourself more of a Kitty or a Jackie). And this was fun. It was relatable and ripe for genuinely funny situations, from the time Eric gets “the talk” from his parents to the time Red and Kitty accidentally eat pot brownies. But it also underscored a way for teenagers then (in the ‘90s) to relate to teenagers from way-back-then (in the ‘70s). Our parents were once like us, the show implied. And all of us are doomed to one day turn into squares.

The second winning element was clearly the Kelso Effect. As in, the casting directors struck gold with their young cast: Ashton Kutcher (Kelso), Mila Kunis (Jackie), Topher Grace (Eric), Laura Prepon (Donna) and Wilmer Valderrama (Fez). (I’ll leave scandal-plagued Danny Masterson off the list of actors I’m glamorizing here for a number of upsetting reasons you can Google yourself, but his Hyde probably would have been skipped anyway. He’s the notable cast member who didn’t go on to a big future career.)

kutcherkunis hero
Jeff Kravitz/Getty Images

The Kelso Effect seems hard to define, but it’s almost as if we knew watching the show at the time that we were seeing the next big stars emerge. Kutcher and Kunis had that “it” factor that made their supporting roles impossible to look away from. They struck a perfect balance of adorable naivety and idiot charm, and they found a way to actually glamorize the slacker lifestyle (something we previously only associated with the Hydes of the world).

In today’s world of streaming (or perhaps because of it), we lack the mega Hollywood stars of the ‘90s and early ‘00s—or at least the emerging ones. That ‘70s Show provided us with one of the last batches of them: Kutcher and Kunis, along with Grace and Prepon, were obvious screen-stealing stars from the get-go. And by the time the series signed off after eight seasons, it was clear that this cast was about to explode on the Hollywood scene. These days, in an age of content oversaturation, any “star” is facing an uphill battle.

Will That ‘90s Show be able to break the curse of the inferior reboot and rise to the level of success of its source material? That depends. It’s got the same “look back at that other time 20 years ago” framework as the OG. It features Red and Kitty as grandparents to the lead member of the new younger cast, setting up the same Red vs. Eric Dynamic. But will the new generation of stars have that same “it” factor as the previous gang? I’m not so sure. The trailer makes me think...we’re in for a bit of disappointment.

Still, there’s something about recent history that always enthralls teenagers. How else do we explain the rise of Y2K fashion and the reemergence of Avril Lavigne. Maybe this new helping of flannel-shirted ‘90s nostalgia will be enough to captivate Gen Zers in the same way That ‘70s Show mesmerized millennials. Or maybe we need yet a third Wonder Years iteration to really get it right.

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VP, News and Entertainment; 'And Just Like That' Podcast Host; Up-And-Coming Bowler

Philip spearheads PureWow's news and entertainment team. He has 10+ years experience working in entertainment coverage and viral media, previously serving as a writer/editor...