Hulu's meta-comedy Reboot features a scene in the early going when, after screenwriter Hannah (Rachel Bloom) asks Hulu to revive a classic sitcom for a modern audience, Hulu's big cheese wonders if a revival can be a success. Are viewers really into reboots these days? Then everyone else in the room names a bunch of the TV reboots and revivals of the last few years, a never-ending list of familiar properties brought back from the dead.
It's a funny, sharp moment that gets at the relative creative bankruptcy of so much television in the streaming era, and one that Reboot unfortunately doesn't have enough of. Here's the meta premise: Hannah convinces Hulu to bring back a successful old sitcom called Step Right Up. The idea is to bring back the original cast, but rather than re-creating the easy, broad punchlines of the original, this comedy will be more modern, a little edgier and deeper and driven by characters. But after getting the cast on board, things go south when Hannah butts heads with Gordon (an outstanding Paul Reiser), the show's original creator, who also happens to be her father.
Reboot is meant to be a satire of the TV industry, a workplace comedy, and a look at how ideas of what's funny have changed over time. The series is built around the idea of nostalgia and generational taste, and the meta hook involving adapting clichéd sitcom tropes for a modern audience is a solid idea, but across eight episodes the show never really manages to get any momentum going. The first few episodes really struggle to captivate, as all of the characters are introduced in very broad ways.
Partly, that's the point. Creator Steven Levitan, who made a hit out of Modern Family, seems to be grappling with the idea of traditional sitcom tropes in a world of network streaming, where curse words and longform storytelling have changed the shape of the genre. The idea here is that Reboot reflects the process of its fictional show Step Right Up. So, we have two leads (played by Keegan-Michael Key and Judy Greer) with a troubled romantic history who find themselves thrust back into each other's lives, the child actor (Calum Worthy) who's now grown up and wants to prove himself, and the foul-mouthed screw-up who can't be trusted to change his ways (Johnny Knoxville, whose Jackass-like energy and sarcasm works very well here), all trying to figure out how they need to change so that the show can change and be a hit.
Part of what Hannah wants to do with this reboot of Step Right Up is make sure that the characters are more than archetypes this time around, which ironically is exactly the problem with Reboot. The show manages to find a few interesting ways to make these characters thornier than their sitcom counterparts, especially with Bree (Greer) and Reed's (Key) dormant but not dead romance, but for the most part Reboot never manages to fill out these characters or give them interesting arcs. Most conflicts are resolved by the end of the episode, and few storylines carry any weight throughout the season.
Instead, most of Reboot plays like a mid-tier sitcom, where some jokes land but most are flat and broad. There's some juice in the scenes where the writers all talk about how best to write scenes, with the elder veterans clashing against the younger, more progressive staff, and Reiser is truly the series' best scene stealer, but the tension or the complexity never really goes far enough. It's all fancy dressing for a sitcom that, despite its great ensemble, is fairly run-of-the-mill.
Premieres: Tuesday, Sept. 20 on Hulu
Who's in it: Rachel Bloom, Johnny Knoxville, Keegan-Michael Key, Judy Greer, Calum Worthy, Paul Reiser
Who's behind it: Steven Levitan (creator)
For fans of: The Office, A.P. Bio, Modern Family
How many episodes we watched: 8 of 8