Like most (somewhat) well-adjusted adults, I find it hard to resist the warm, safe pull of nostalgia. While I had only seen a fragment of it That 1970s show before, That ’90s show called to me. A group of kids hanging out in the ’90s when I was born was right up my alley. And as someone who would really benefit from having his cell phone glued to him, seeing kids hanging out without texting or TikTok was an exciting prospect. (This may be the oldest I’ve ever sounded.)
I was very pleased to discover that That ’90s show has the look and feel of a classic sitcom, right down to the laughing studio audience. In an era of prestige TV, it’s nice to sit back and relax with a show that doesn’t intend to win the Emmys. That’s exactly what That ’90s show offers, and it does it with a charming cast of kids.
There’s one kid I couldn’t get enough of, and that’s Ozzie (Reyn Doi). I clicked with Ozzie right away, from the moment he said he was going to jail for telling his math teacher that his wife was having an affair. Ozzie is openly gay among his supportive friends from the jump, which is normal these days. But it still feels exciting for a ’90s show, especially one set in a small town.
He’s even in a relationship, albeit with a Canadian boy named Etienne who none of Ozzie’s friends have ever met. In a fun twist on the old partner-from-Canada trope, Etienne actually exists, even though we never see him. (As a Canadian, I ask, how dare they use this trope?) The pair met at a performance of The Phantom of the Opera. This is literally the gay agenda.
However, Ozzie’s sexual orientation does not define his character. Sure, his friends know he’s gay, but his wit and playful retort really make him a trusted part of the circle. He also knows how to make things more interesting in mundane Point Place, Wisconsin: In one episode, Ozzie embarks on a very silly quest to get weed out of an old man’s coat. In another, he organizes a clandestine trip to an out-of-town rave – and, in true sitcom fashion, Ozzie is left behind.
By the middle of the season I had actually changed into Homer Simpson throws Poochie to the creator of Itchy and scratchy. More Ozzie, please! It came as no surprise to me that Episode 5, which focuses on Ozzie’s coming out, is the best of the season. It’s a lovely episode that manages to feel fresh between coming-out stories and offers real insight into the challenges of revealing your authentic self without sacrificing the sitcom tropes the show abounds in.
The episode opens with a situation that is guaranteed to make me laugh: Ozzie teaches his girlfriend Leia’s (Callie Haverda) grandmother, Kitty (Debra Jo Rupp), how to use the Formans’ new computer. The technological divide is easy to mine for humor, because we’ve all been there – who hasn’t tried to help their mom set up her phone? Anything that reminds me of the computer therapy sketch out Inside Amy Schumer always works for me too. But the scene is important, as it establishes the surprising bond between Ozzie and Kitty.
There is something magical about the relationship between gay boys and our grandmothers. While Kitty and Ozzie aren’t related, Kitty is very much the show’s matriarch; since the kids spend all their time in her basement, it’s only natural that the two would find kinship in each other. Kitty doesn’t know that Ozzie is gay, but he’s about to change that by announcing to Leia that he’s going to come out to Kitty.
When Leia is surprised that he hasn’t dated anyone yet, Ozzie reminds her that he’s a kid in small-town Wisconsin. Coming out isn’t always easy in a place like Point Place. In typical heartwarming sitcom fashion, Leia tries to relate to Ozzie by telling him she had to tell her parents something equally difficult: that she wanted to switch instruments. That’s not even the same thing, of course, but what’s a good sitcom without some bad advice?
It turns out that Ozzie, like many other queer people, has spent an awful lot of time planning his coming out. In fact, Ozzie probably even spent Lake time than most. Telling Kitty is “step seven in my 16-step coming out plan,” he tells Leia.
Into this intricate plan lies step six, which is one of the funniest things I’ve seen: coming out to strangers Ozzie will never see again. The episode opens with a spectacular montage, in which Ozzie comes out to someone who dialed the wrong number, the pizza delivery boy, and the guy doing a bungee jump, to whom Ozzie yells, “I’m gay!” “I told him again when I came up again,” Ozzie assures us.
I laughed so hard I ended up cackling louder than the laugh track – which is no mean feat considering it screamed like a banshee when one of the original That 1970s show cast members showed up. And if we weren’t living in an increasingly contactless world, you better believe I’m adding Ozzie’s “keep the change, I’m gay” to my lexicon. The absurd scene works because it’s based on a very real context: Coming out is really, really hard, and you have to start somewhere!
Ozzie is then ready to move to the next step in his 16-step plan by telling Kitty. (I really, real want to know the other steps but That ’90s show keeps them a mystery.) Since this is a TV show, something is bound to go wrong. And it does! Before Ozzie has a chance to tell Kitty, he is interrupted by Donna (Laura Prepon), Leia’s mother, who panics that her daughter is ready to have sex. Leia has accidentally spun a web of lies, and she keeps messing it up to keep Ozzie from having to come out before he’s ready. It’s a classic last-second sitcom distraction, but it does a great job of establishing Leia and Ozzie’s friendship, raising the stakes for his eventual admission.
Ozzie finally gets his chance when he teaches Kitty how to use email again. He’s emailed her his coming out letter because he’s too nervous to say it himself. But instead of opening the email, Kitty reboots the computer – and this is the ’90s, so it’s going to take a while. Fed up but done, Ozzie privately tells Kitty that he is gay and that he has a Canadian boyfriend.
After a pause, Kitty replies with the sitcom-y “I don’t know what to make of this.” Ozzie is stunned, but it’s just a misunderstanding, as Kitty is worried he has a Canadian boyfriend, because her boyfriend married a Canadian and he stole her car. (At that point my Canadian slander meter was really maxed out.)
But Kitty has no problem with Ozzie being gay and pulling him in for a warm, loving hug. Kitty then says the words that should be adopted by parents whose children come to them: “You just made me feel really special.” It’s a perfect moment for both Kitty and Ozzie; their relationship can continue to flourish, and Ozzie can be his true self with her without reservation. It’s a perfect ending to a truly wonderful episode of television.
I didn’t have the courage to come out to my own grandmother before she died, but luckily my parents did for me. I should never have worried as she continued to accept and support me until she left this earth. I cried with relief when Kitty did the same for Ozzie, even though I couldn’t imagine it That ’90s show ever take a different path. I hope that Ozzie, and all the other kids like him out there, will find the same courage to come out to their own grandparents and be loved for who they are. Even if they have to tell a few random store employees first.