It’s hard to brutally satirize sitcom culture when your showrunner created ‘Modern Family’
Given the credentials of both the creators and cast, Hulu’s new series Reboot, about a beloved early 2000’s family sitcom being rebooted for Hulu, should offer peak comedic escapism. After all, creator Steven Levitan famously made Modern Family, a much-revered 2000’s family sitcom that ran on ABC for eleven long years. Though he clearly knows how to run a production like a high-functioning machine, this slickness inhibits the potential of his newest creation.
Reboot’s premise is fairly straightforward. Hannah (Rachel Bloom), a writer who achieved marginal success at the festival level, earns a meeting with executives at Hulu and passionately lobbies for the right to create an update of Step Right Up, a network hit that fell apart when one of its stars left to become a cinematic superstar. She doesn’t want to recreate the cheesy original; she yearns to make something edgy, modern, and real.
Hannah’s unique vision and appallingly barren schedules lure all the original cast back to their former roles. Reed (Keegan-Michael Key) failed to lift his career any higher than Step Right Up, and valiantly struggles to hide his shame. Manchild Clay (Johnny Knoxville) fell out of the spotlight while indulging in petty crimes and standup, and Bree (Judy Greer) retired from acting when she married into the monarchy and became a duchess. Former child star Zach (Calum Worthy) is the only actor who unabashedly loved being America’s favorite fictional son; he giddily brings his enthusiasm and helicopter mom to work.
Of course, once everyone reunites, their old insecurities immediately flair up, creating workplace tension and awkwardness. More chaos ensues when original showrunner Gordon (Paul Reiser) signs on to remind everyone who’s in charge, and swiftly nixes all of Hannah’s fresh ideas. Gordon also hires a bevvy of classic comedy writers who constantly hunt for zingers, while Hannah hauls in her contemporaries, who approach humor with gravitas. Unfortunately for us, it feels like the actual Reboot writers’ room may suffer from a similar affliction. There’s a general air of “oh, yeah, I’ve seen that before” that sort of hangs over everything in a way that makes me wish the brilliantly acerbic Rachel Bloom was here as an actual writer instead of a fictional one.
With its easy setup and top-shelf talent, everything should be right off to the races, whipping out jokes of at least 30 Rock caliber, laughing at the actors with the audience. Instead, Reboot suffers from an identity crisis. Ideally, it would seamlessly use every episode to take us on a wild ride exploring multiple levels of this world—the original sitcom, its cast member’s careers, their tangled interpersonal relationships, and so on. With the right sort of juggling, there’d be ample room to be meta while throwing in a bit of wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Instead, the show waffles, consistently errs on the side of blandness, relying heavily on unearned emotional gooeyness…the same way the fictional Step Right Up does.
In spite of the marginally feeble material, the robust cast approaches every scene with gusto. Because they are experts of their craft, every moment feels like playtime. It’s hard to choose one actor who engenders the most delight. Judy Greer’s multifaceted take on the clichéd aging starlet is must-see, while Keegan-Michael Key’s wounded bird artist is hilarious. Calum Worthy brings a doofy innocence to his part that elevates every scene he touches. Paul Reiser and Rachel Bloom effortlessly share the screen in a way feels like they’ve known each other forever, offering yet another boon to the production.
With its tremendous ensemble that intertwines together so nicely, this show needs scripts equal to its talent. Though the fictional Hulu execs on the series are gentle and understanding, the actual streaming wars are brutal, and second seasons, never guaranteed. Whether it’s meant to offer meta observational comedy or be a pseudo-emotional rehash of sitcoms of yore, if Reboot fails to find a distinct voice, it’s never gonna be loved enough to earn itself a reboot.