All through its abbreviated ten-episode first season, That ’90s Show has hovered prominently between the charm of an excitable nostalgist running through the motions with great energy and the annoyance of an undisciplined legacy loafing through a new opportunity. The weak episodes count more on streaming series; when you do 25 half-hours a year, a few sloppy moves barely register. Then again, even in a 50-episode season, it would be hard to forget a finale that introduces a love triangle from nowhere, gives a lot of screen time to Wilmer Valderrama, and (perhaps less egregiously) shamelessly cribs a music cue from Clueless. That ’90s Show finale accomplishes all this and more!
I admit: I thought I had this show figured out. All season, it would build up an on-and-off and/or will-they-won’t-they relationship between fellow original-character spawn Leia Forman and Jay Kelso, then “surprise” us as Leia and Gwen’s close friendship leads to a passionate clinch, Jill Sobule’s “I Kissed a Girl” (released May 1995!) plays on the soundtrack, someone issues a quippy cliffhanger line, and credits roll. This isn’t particularly a shipping fantasy; Gwen and Leia’s closeness doesn’t need to be explicitly sexual to act as a corrective to the guy-centric first series, where friendships between the women took a lot longer to develop. Gweia (the ship name I just made up) simply seemed likely in the wake of Jay being such a nothing character. But, hell, the alternative is far less predictable, even as it plays out like a genuine 1990s show: In the finale, Leia goes in for a kiss with … Gwen’s doofus brother Nate?!
Rewatching multiple episodes of That ’90s Show does not, to this reporter’s knowledge, reveal any buried hints of attraction between Leia and Nate, apart from a few crumbs that shouldn’t count: a heartfelt conversation between Nate and Leia in the previous episode; Nate subsequently telling Jay that his girlfriend is, indeed, pretty cool; Nate feeling insecure about his relationship with Nikki. The twist that Leia and Nate find common ground in their vague allegiance to love remains concealed from the viewers, the characters, and perhaps the actors and writers as well.
So how does the show get there? Picking up on Leia’s last night in Point Place, the gang gets together to drink some remaining and presumably skunky beer from the keg they accidentally acquired in the pilot. They drink, jump around, and sing along to Skee-Lo (again, impeccable discipline from the music supervisors in refusing to cross the summer 1995 line!), and Nate blurts out how great it is that Leia took Jay’s breakup so well. In what has become a go-to move for That ’90s Show, Nate’s comment specifically directed at Jay happens at full volume in an audible radius from the rest of the gang, almost as if they’re all close together on a limited sitcom set and don’t realize it. When Leia attacks Jay with cheese spray for his insensitivity, the others mostly side with the Kelso Defense, agreeing that a long-distance relationship between two teenagers isn’t especially realistic. Leia, unconvinced, storms off.
The next day, Donna shows up to collect her daughter and bring her back to Chicago, and for the first time all season, Leia is more than ready to go. But Donna and Kitty — who fears Leia leaving in a huff and never returning for such an extended visit again — both urge her to make up with her friends. Leia finally agrees and heads over to Gwen’s to say good-bye. She’s intercepted by Nate, who confides that he doesn’t really agree with the Jay/Gwen/Nikki consensus (let’s assume that Ozzie, though he allegedly speaks from experience, doesn’t really care either way). Perhaps especially wounded by the idea that Nikki won’t commit to forever-togetherness, Nate is on the same page as Leia. Like, way on the same page. They pause and almost kiss until Gwen interrupts and lunges for the remote — er, runs out of the room.
Leia and Gwen meet back up at the same water tower Kelso the Elder fell off repeatedly (a slapstick action that apparently also killed one character in season eight?!) and reaffirm how much the summer has changed things — including their friendship, which they commemorate with graffiti. It’s a sweet moment. It also drives home how little time Leia and Gwen, or Leia and anyone, really, spends onscreen in this episode, so we can check in on Fez’s timeless rivalry with Fenton.
Who?! Exactly. Casual viewers of That ’70s Show would be forgiven for not remembering Fenton, the malevolent landlord played by Jim Rash, not least because the character was neither a landlord nor named at all until at least the fourth of his six appearances in the previous series. Maybe this is a delightful Easter egg for die-hard ’70s-heads; I’ll be sure to ask if I ever meet one. In any event, Red finds out that Fez is back with Sherri, and Fez wants to prove his dedication by getting Sherri’s neglectful landlord to remove a fallen tree from her property (rather than Red, Sherri’s initial landlord-whisperer of choice). He’s placed in a tight spot when it turns out that the landlord is Fenton, who hates him for various reasons. But a stoned vision of his old friends — first-episode cameo cooperators Topher Grace, Ashton Kutcher, and Mila Kunis must have sent over release forms when they were called in for their finale-bookend cameos — convinces him to step up and make a deal with his nemesis.
Look, it makes sense to include Valderrama in a few episodes of this show if he’s available. It makes substantially less sense to give him so much screen time in the last episode when fans presumably have already decided to stick around or bolt, and to sequester him in an eye-glazing callback plot that only makes glancing contact with the main characters of this show. What a strange, deflating distraction for a show intending to throw to a wistful montage of disposable-camera photos taken during the episode. Why not spend more time on the moments of those photos (or more time setting up how disposable those moments seemed at the time) rather than making them seem more disposable in retrospect with Fez’s antics? If the show wants a love triangle, they should make one, not just describe it. That’s all Jay’s last-minute reversal about staying together (and Leia’s I’ll-call-you ambivalence) amounts to.
From the clip-show appearances of Eric, Kelso, and Jackie to the left-field sexual tension between Leia and Nate, the That ’90s Show finale feels like a hastily rewritten compromise, whether it was one or not. Still, what’s likable about this show — the material given more room in the three-star episodes than the two-star episodes, in other words — does linger as it ends, despite Fenton’s nefarious efforts. Callie Haverda is a find. Reyn Doi is a delight. Debra Jo Rupp and Kurtwood Smith are always welcome, and Sam Morelos finds her footing by the season’s end. A second round taking us into 1996 doesn’t seem like a terrible idea, if only to keep searching for that elusive-or-whatever ’90s soul.
• ’90s reference watch: There’s some symmetry to the fact that Gwen is seen in the first episode listening to the Muffs and that the photo montage at the end of the episode is scored with the same band’s cover of “Kids in America.” There’s also referential value in that song appearing in the opening scene of Clueless, which was, as previously discussed, effectively the only teen comedy of 1995, and in theaters during the timeline of this series. (One thing I treasure about the also previously discussed 1995 film Mallrats is that it’s essentially an ’80s teen comedy starring characters who should definitely be old enough to know better and emphatically do not.) But look again at that classic first scene: Writer-director Amy Heckerling immediately goofs on her own conventions with Cher’s narration. “So okay, you’re probably going, Is this like a Noxzema commercial or what?” she intones before the soundtrack makes a segue into David Bowie’s “Fashion.” Basically, Heckerling is making a killer mix that understands that it’s both attractive and distractingly shiny. That ’90s Show plays the song straighter; any interplay between the show and Clueless doesn’t really come across. You live by the ’90s references, you die by the ’90s references. As ever, though, points for a non-anachronistic tune.
• In the spirit of this semi-rockist enterprise, here are my top-five rock-and-roll records of 1995: Different Class by Pulp; The Bends by Radiohead; Ben Folds Five by Ben Folds Five; (What’s the Story) Morning Glory by Oasis; Only Everything by Juliana Hatfield.
• However, the most 1995 rock album is Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.
• Thanks for hanging out with me on these recaps! Maybe we’ll all get together again for season two of That ’90s Show.