Hulu’s uneven comedy finds the funny, and some heart, in entertainment’s current nostalgia cycle.
It’s a familiar scene. A writer finds success on the independent scene with something artistic and boundary-pushing. They take a meeting and the Hollywood content machine devours them. The difference in Reboot is the writer, Hannah (Rachel Bloom), has bought into the system without hesitation. She’s after something far more compelling than art or commerce. She seeks revenge.
So begins the story of 90s cheese sitcom Step Right Up’s reboot. Step Right Up is, of course, a fictional show, but its type is immediately recognizable. It feels like a familiar TGIF series that you know you watched every episode of and yet can’t recall anything but the broadest of details. Hannah’s plan to sometimes have the characters do the wrong thing proves “edgy” enough for Hulu executives who insist they want to push the envelope but also require a list of other rebooted shows as reassurance before greenlighting the writer’s pitch.
The stars prove nearly as easy to lure back, due in no small part to how they’ve struggled since. Reed Sterling (Keegan-Michael Key) is a Yale-trained dramatist who ditched the original series for fame and artistic fulfillment and found neither. Clay Barber (Johnny Knoxville), a standup comedian said to be so profoundly offensive it is miraculous cancellation hasn’t found him yet, has spent years bouncing between substance-related arrests and comeback tours. Bree Marie Jensen (Judy Greer) married a Duke from a small Scandinavian nation to find pulling a Grace Kelly only really works for Grace Kelly. Finally, Zack Johnson (Calum Worthy), the once cute kid of the series, is entering his mid-20s, and his Olsen twins-esque series of direct-to-video film options are drying up.
A strong set of leads to be sure, but Reboot also boasts a murderer’s row of supporting players. Paul Reiser, giving another flavor of flawed father figure, is the show’s original creator whose return throws the new direction into doubt. Fred Melamed, Kimia Behpoornia, and Dan Leahy are just three members of the multi-generational writers’ room. The group increasingly becomes the source of the series’ funniest moments. Krista Marie Yu is a Silicon Valley programmer who, via merger and success, has somehow become head of comedy at Hulu. And that incomplete list omits the likes of Eliza Coupe, Lawrence Pressman, and Kerri Kenney. The cast is incredibly stacked.
Luckily for viewers, the actors here are strong enough to keep it entertaining even as the tone meanders.
Unfortunately, Reboot is not as flawless as its players. Throughout eight episodes, the series from Modern Family’s Steve Levitan can’t quite settle into itself. It starts strong as an industry satire piece, with Key, Greer, Knoxville, and Reiser giving their archetypes some great bite. Yu’s Elaine Kim as the number cruncher turned creative director is also very funny when this is where Reboot seems to want to go. Jokes about stage moms, creative types long past their expiration date, and the nature of reality television all connect. Soon the air goes out of that, however, and it becomes a sweeter show about co-workers.
Luckily for viewers, the actors here are strong enough to keep it entertaining even as the tone meanders. Whatever the show wants to be, it has more than enough talent to be equal to the task. While it figures it out, though, it may attract one audience only to leave them disappointed while initially repelling another that might quite enjoy its second half. Those who might enjoy a send-up of our current media landscape AND love a show about co-workers that care about each other will find plenty to stick with, but they’ll still see the seams.
The tonal mess is probably most felt in the season finale. The scripting brings back the industry focus, although it feels less satirical and more matter-of-fact. Then there are storylines about past loves possibly being rekindled, an engagement, and a huge life change that endangers one character’s progress. Again, no one in the cast isn’t up to the material, and there are laughs to be had. Still, ending the season on it’s bittersweet biggest bummer episode everything is a strange choice. It’s the kind of thing a sitcom can sell three seasons in. After only an eight-episode season? It feels like a miscalculation.
This all ends up making Reboot sound worse than it is. Each episode, taken on its own, is intelligent and funny. It often finds nonintrusive ways to remind you the people you’re laughing at are also human. However, the sense that it’s not making many choices becomes hard to shake when evaluating the season as a whole. That said, there’s no doubt these episodes guarantee that if there is another season, this reviewer will absolutely be back for more.
Reboot rolls camera on Hulu starting September 20th.