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Hulu's Reboot is a Smart and Savvy Take on the Sitcom

Hulu pretends to add more to the algorithm-friendly mania of TV reboots (from “Fuller House” to "Quantum Leap" to "Beavis & Butthead") with “Reboot,” a witty meta series from Steven Levitan (the co-creator of “Modern Family”). In its best moments, this fast-paced circus of hilarious one-liners and dysfunctional creative relationships depicts the formation of its own family, created through the changing conventions of TV comedy. Treating meta storytelling with its mix of new and older senses of humor—the bounds for broad comedy have changed—“Reboot” proves to be plenty smart and funny while celebrating how much work goes into the eternal form of the sitcom. 

Nearly two decades ago, the (fake) sitcom “Step Right Up” charmed audiences with its cheery story of a mother (Judy Greer’s Bree Marie Jansen), a son (Calum Worthy’s Zack Jackson), and two father figures (Keegan-Michael Key’s Reed Sterling and Johnny Knoxville’s Caleb). The show is now being brought back to Hulu by Hannah (Rachel Bloom), who wants to reimagine it as having more serious character arcs, and more reflective of current times with jokes about global warming, etc. She gets the green light from Hulu (their back-patting in the series’ meta moments is limited), and the original cast comes back, excited about the new script and its possibility. But she faces her first greatest challenge with the original showrunner, Gordon (Paul Reiser)—revealed at the end of episode one to have a longer connection (or lack thereof) with her, which was reflective of the entire show. For people in front of and behind the cameras, the new "Step Right Up" has something personal on the line. 

Casting adds a great deal to the ease of “Reboot,” and as a fan of all the leads, I found it to be very watchable, if not a bit exciting to see these actors play with parts that let them riff on the industry. Greer has a lot of fun with the way she has to present herself as extra social and happy whenever the cameras are rolling, despite navigating a list of frustrations from her co-stars (her old flame, Reed especially), personal satisfactions, and even the sexism to women of her age in the business. Playing the fake show’s lead, Key nails the sincere haughtiness of an actor (“She couldn’t even internalize her primary intentions!”) who is classically trained and needs this role to not make him look like a joke. It’s a welcome surprise to see Knoxville in such a role, but he handles the surprising layers to Clay well, starting with how he isn’t just the dangerous bad boy he used to be and plays on the show, but needs to keep up that act for his image. (He has a good way with a serious line that’s equally a little funny and sad: “I need somewhere to go during the day or bad shit finds me.”) And Worthy is an always amusing product of the child acting industry, never getting what’s truly going on (because: young) but having plenty of forgettable previous blockbusters to name-drop, while everyone on set confuses him for a PA. 

The new “Step Right Up” is given a new character with Timberly (Alyah Chanelle Scott), a savvy addition to the fake cast given how she seems like a bad actor, but also is much more clever than she presents—she was on a reality series called “F*ckboy Mountain” after all. Timberly has her own amusing gamesmanship in this business of longer-term professionals, without only playing into her youthful nature. It’s all made possible by such an all-around smart performance from Scott. But the crowded space of “Reboot” doesn’t leave enough room for her, and her plotline feels neglected in the later episodes. It doesn't seem like a meta note that "Reboot" underestimates Scott, too (she's not even on the official poster). 

This new series of “Step Right Up” wouldn’t be possible without the diverging personalities of its two show runners, and the plotting crafts a sweet push-and-pull between Bloom and Reiser. They’re both set in their visions and come with shields from their personal relationship that they seem to look over as they sit opposite the long writer’s room table. But the series makes this part its own unexpected sweetness, sometimes with their personal business handled within the show’s writing, even if that means changing the “pages” right before the show airs. 

Throughout, “Reboot” doesn’t have a great deal of nervousness concerning the show’s creation—it’s more about building hang-dog plots from the different pieces that come together to make a sitcom, like table reads, rehearsals, dialogue looping sessions, and more—but it's also good enough on its own to not need those anxious stakes for us to stay tuned. Some plot lines show the series struggling to fill in time, like when Bree goes off on a retreat and takes mushrooms, or when Zack takes executive Elaine (Krista Marie Yu) on a tour of the lot. Still, it’s often just a good deal of breezy fun just to hang out with these people, and to see their relationships go through a course of surprising events. 

When it’s not about the actors, the show has a roster of scene-stealers in its actual writer’s room. Hannah leads a group of younger people (Kimia Behpoornia, Korama Danquah, and Dan Leahy) with less of a broad sense of humor. But then Gordon decides they must know what's classically funny, so he brings in comedian veterans—with an endless list of Jewish, sex, and bodily humor zingers, a walking HR nightmare—to create wilder gags. (They are played colorfully by the likes of Fred Melamed, Rose Abdoo, and George Wyner.) It makes for numerous combative scenes that let a bunch of funny people exchange one-liners with eyerolls, more and more building their quirky personalities that are, yes, believable and but not too broad. 

By framing an older sitcom with modern handling, the series also becomes a meaningful rumination on how TV comedy writing has evolved and also not changed in the slightest. Certain corny structures will always exist in creating a premise made for the fantasy of sitcoms—what if Reed were secretly a ballerina, and hurt his ankle so he can’t participate in the protest? And there's much to enjoy for its fast-paced wit, which can hit you out of nowhere: "My wife left me because I bought a jet ski without telling her" got my biggest laugh of many. The quality of this "Reboot" distills what has always worked: it always comes back to the intrigue of seeing what obstacle a likable character might stumble over next, with a similar comfort that the next ten jokes are coming up shortly. No studio audience needed. 

All episodes of season one screened for review. The first three episodes of "Reboot" premiere on Hulu on September 20th. 

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the Senior Editor at RogerEbert.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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