Reboot premieres with three episodes this Tuesday, Sept. 20 on Hulu.
Reboot may be super late to the game when it comes to meta-skewering Hollywood but its winning ensemble and cracking wit help it stand out as one of the better forays into this realm. It's clever, surprising, and manages to juggle a few disparate tones quite well. It's both adult and cartoonish at the same time, making for a good-natured takedown of the streaming wars/reboot game.
Comedy guru Steven Levitan (Modern Family, The Critic, The Larry Sanders Show) brings together a mix of humor, heart, and vulgarity here, taking a swipe at the TV business in the midst of the rise of streaming giants and how research data and viewing metrics drive projects, casting, and just about everything else that winds up on screen. Reboot is just mean enough without tipping over the edge. It presents flawed characters but not ones who push you out of investing. It doesn't break the rules, it bends them. And its cast — including Judy Greer, Keegan-Michael Key, Johnny Knoxville, Rachel Bloom, Paul Reiser, Krista Marie Yu, and Calum Worthy — is exceptional.
Reboot tackles a trend that's grown exponentially popular in the streaming era: revamping/refreshing a beloved old family sitcom, and it's got a killer angle (that won't get fully spoiled here). Bloom's "edgy" writer Hannah has such a close relationship to an early-aughts sitcom, Step Right Up, that she wants to bring it back with a darker, more acerbic take for Hulu (enter Hulu dabbling in self-parody). Unfortunately for her, Reiser's Gordon, Step Right Up's creator, is also legally attached and their generational scuffle over "new funny" vs "old funny," "smart" vs "corny" (plus some other more personal issues) provides the comedic centerpiece for Reboot.
The returning actors, now almost two decades out from their hit show, serve as the rest of the meal, with Key's Reed being the self-important "actor" in the group, Knoxville's Clay being the derelict standup comic, and Greer's Bree as the actress in her 40s paranoid about her age. Granted, these all feel like stock characters on paper. But Reboot practices elevated cliche use, allowing these three to evolve into way more than respective their "where are they now?" gags. They're all given wonderful stories, with Reed and Bree's former on-and-off-again set romance being a big focus. Each of them are given hangups and weaknesses that contain hidden gifts as Reboot is way more than a one-gag series.
The first episode, "Step Right Up" (each one is given a sitcom for a title, including this faux one), focuses on the set up and getting the original actors back in play… only for them to find out Gordon's also back and the edginess Reed was excited about is in danger of being hugely compromised by traditional sitcom humor. The second episode, "New Girl," involves Hulu stunt-casting a reality star (Alyah Chanelle Scott's Timberly) as a new series lead, but, in keeping with the M.O. of the show, no one is wasted here for the sake of one laugh. Everything builds and gets more complex — and funnier. There are some truly cackle-worthy moments.
The third installment, "Growing Pains," finds the show trying to establish a groove despite a writers room at odds over what constitutes a joke. By this point, as a viewer, you'll have learned that no one is as bad as they first appeared and that the righteous have imperfections and the supposed villains have the capacity to grow. Reboot has the perfect amount of cynicism for the business. Meta-lampoonings about the biz often go too far with nastiness and it ultimately hurts the laughs. Here, what we get are people working out their lives through the (sometimes begrudging) creation of a sitcom and, in turn, having said lives follow some of the patterns of a sitcom. Reboot, as its name even suggest, doesn't reinvent the wheel but it does weave very funny tale.
Though not as meta, Hacks shares some DNA here, from an old guard vs. new guard standpoint. And also as both a celebration and a denunciation of the industry. And like Hacks too, most of Reboot's weaker bits are saved by the performers themselves. Key gets to play a much better version of his actor character from Netflix's The Bubble (a lesser, crueler look at Tinseltown) while Greer is, as usual, phenomenal. And aside from the core cast, Kerri Kenney-Silver, Eliza Coupe, Fred Melamed, and George Wyner also come out to play. The in-show revival of Step Right Up may have found a middle ground, between edgy and corny, but so does Reboot itself. That's a tremendous trick.
The meta-sassiness of Reboot is old hat at this point but the show’s sharp writing, hilarious performances, and deceptively deep characters make for one of the better shows-about-show business in a while. The streaming era opened up a new doorway into this winking, deprecating dimension of Hollywood self-slandering and Reboot does a joyful job of balancing the wicked with the wonderful.