Reboot review – meta sitcom about a sitcom is breezy but uneven

<span>Photograph: Hulu</span>
Photograph: Hulu

Given the continuing fragmentation of entertainment and fame, it makes sense that a handful of TV shows – the vehicles for so many “what happened to them?” stars – have explored the tragicomedy of obsolescence. HBO Max’s excellent Hacks depicts a Joan Rivers-esque comic stranded in Vegas and enlivened by a zillennial writer’s assistant. Peacock’s Girls5eva follows a Y2K girl group gifted new cachet when a sample of their one hit goes viral. ABC’s Queens applied a similar formula to a 90s girl hip-hop group, while Fox’s dramedy The Big Leap pitted embittered dreamers against each other in a fictional dance competition show.

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For the cast of Step Right Up, a fictional 00s network sitcom in the new Hulu comedy Reboot, a reprieve from irrelevance comes in the form of a surprise revival. This is a boon for actor Clay Barber (Johnny Knoxville), a caustic former addict who struggled without the structure of a network job. It’s a desperately needed opportunity for Bree Marie Jensen (Judy Greer), whose hopes for stardom faded at age 30. It’s a chance for redemption for Reed Sterling (Keegan-Michael Key), the would-be breakout star who tanked the show for a shot at the movies and now finds himself bringing up his Yale drama school degree in auditions for bit parts. Hapless former child star Zack Johnson (Calum Worthy), a Peter Pan figure coasting on derivative kids movies and direct-to-fan schemes, is just happy to be included.

Reboot, created by the Modern Family co-creator Steven Levitan, is a straightforwardly meta project: a sitcom that pokes fun at networks, the changing business of television and the beats of the sitcom itself. “Let’s remake something original!” declares a Hulu executive as he greenlights the Step Right Up reboot pitch from Hannah (Rachel Bloom, always compelling), a self-marketed “queer feminist film-maker” whose first project was an indie feature called Cunt Saw. Another fictional Hulu executive lists the real reasons why a reboot makes good, if creatively dead, business sense: Fuller House, Saved by the Bell, iCarly, Gilmore Girls, Gossip Girl, Party of Five, Party Down, Boy Meets World, How I Met Your Father and The Wonder Years, among others. Hollywood’s nostalgia bait is ripe for parody, and Reboot’s riffing on how such a resuscitation would jolt those involved, for worse and often for better, is never less than intriguing as a premise. It gives Reboot a winning edge and consistent heart, even if it can’t decide how much of a sitcom it wants to be.

The A-plot of the eight 25-minute episodes made available for review is essentially everyone learning to work together after 15 years of estrangement. Former couple Reed and Bree handle dormant chemistry. Bree, insecure about her age, stews about the casting of beautiful twentysomething Timberly (Alyah Chanelle Scott), who brings a large following from her time on fictional reality show Fuckbuddy Mountain – a routinely funny concept run into the ground. Hannah has her own reasons for refashioning a sitcom without the expectations of wholesomeness; said reasons are revealed after the hiring of original showrunner Gordon (Paul Reiser), whose sense of humor is stuck in the 80s, at best. Hannah and Gordon reckon with fraught personal history and contrasting sensibilities: sensitivity and identity-signaling informed by the internet, respect for television’s roots as a workingman’s profession.

Reboot is at its best when it takes shots at a business that could withstand more of them, leaning into the meta spiral of a show about a show. Fictional Hulu executives are petty revolving doors. Silicon Valley grinder turned nervous Hulu exec Elaine (Krista Marie Yu, delivering the best comedic performance of the series) confesses that she’s “new to humor” before announcing that she’s vice-president of comedy. The writer’s room, a mix of younger woke stereotypes and old guard joke machines, can feel self-congratulatory but takes fair shots at everyone in the business of making entertainment.

Handling the meta-sitcom is trickier; Reboot struggles to differentiate its fictional stars from the caricatures they play, on Step Right Up and off. Key’s performance is often overdrawn, which works in comedy bits reminiscent of Key & Peele sketches – Reed unwittingly taking on schoolchildren in basketball, or any time he breaks out his “black character” voice. Knoxville is winning as Clay, even if he remains mostly a lewd, awkwardly sober shell. Greer, always endearing and deserving of a main role, adds depth to a character who barely evolves beyond a flighty, if talented, stereotype. Reboot does a better job inverting Gordon’s character from a chauvinistic TV veteran who conflates (and relishes) offense for humor into someone evolving on the job. None of the Step Right Up cast are quite sure how to exist as normal adults, let alone ones grappling with expired dreams, and Reboot drags in sketching them in as real people beyond their bits.

It’s indicative of the show’s general unevenness – like many a millennial reboot, Reboot feels stuck in arrested development, unsure of whom it’s for. Is it a sitcom about a sitcom? A satire of the stale streaming business? A naturalistic comedy about second chances? The jokes work often enough, and the overall tone is sufficiently breezy, to merit more opportunities for an answer.

  • Reboot is now available on Hulu and Disney+ in the US with a UK date to be announced