Coming off the greatest success of his career, an award-winning writer and producer chooses an ambitious follow-up project carrying both a personal and professional edge. It’s exactly what you want to see from a sharp-minded, well-liked creator like Steven Levitan: Rather than rest on his laurels or repeat himself, the “Modern Family” engineer (who won nine Emmy awards for writing, directing, and producing the ABC smash) set his mind to a topical, tricky TV show in “Reboot,” a Hulu series about an early aught broadcast sitcom that gets a present-day revival… at Hulu. The fictional comedy’s original cast even returns, along with its creator, and the group has to navigate rekindling romances, generational divides, and matters of family, all while guiding the new-and-improved version of “Step Right Up” to success in the age of streaming.
Given the possibilities — meta jokes! office dynamics! “will they or won’t they” relationships! — there’s plenty to get excited about (and that’s before considering the talented cast). In the hands of a veteran writer (Levitan created “Just Shoot Me” and wrote for “Frasier,” “Wings,” and “The Larry Sanders Show”), it may even be tempting to say the story writes itself. But that’s the thing about challenges: They knock you out of your comfort zone, may take extra time to crack, and could even fall short of expectations. “Reboot” manages to do all three. Over the first season’s eight, half-hour episodes, the ensemble comedy gets pulled in so many different directions, only a few aspects feel fine-tuned by the end. The industry satire is inconsistent, in both bite and budgeting. The office comedy can’t decide if it’s playing for punchlines (a la classic sitcoms) or more of a mood (like more modern single-cam series). And the characters never fill out beyond the thin sketches of what they represent.
Watching “Reboot” is easy enough, amusing enough, and occasionally stirs up something more. (Judy Greer has never, and will never, let us down.) But it’s hard to tell if the bold endeavor just needs further refinement, or if it’s better to move on to the next idea.
As befits its origins and intent, “Reboot” begins with a writer. Hannah (Rachel Bloom), hot off an indie film you know is edgy because it’s got a curse word in the title, sets a meeting with Hulu and — to the shock of the studio suits — pitches rebooting “Step Right Up,” a family sitcom from the early 2000s. Her vision is for an edgier version of the show, where the main characters don’t always have to do the right thing. After assuring her he loves edgy shows (“You’re talking to the guy who greenlit the fifth season of ‘Handmaid’s Tale'”) and making sure “people are still doing reboots” — by listening to his assistants rattle off dozens of real-world examples, from “Fuller House” (Netflix) to “Gossip Girl” (HBO Max) — Hulu’s unnamed development executive gives Hannah her own green light, and it’s time to meet the cast. (After seeing Bloom’s incredible range in “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” her character’s singular trajectory — which revolves around the premiere’s foreseeable last-minute twist — makes her casting feel specious.)
Key among them is Reed Sterling (Keegan-Michael Key), who played the step-dad in the original sitcom and has since tried to make a go at dramatic acting. Despite now living in New York (of course) and his committed relationship with a theater director (Eliza Coupe), Reed is impressed enough by the new scripts to fly back to Los Angeles for the reboot. But, professional posturing aside, Reed’s real worry about returning (or perhaps his secret draw) is seeing Bree Marie Jensen (Judy Greer) again. Reed and Bree used to date when they made the O.G. “S.R.U.” — as befits two people whose first names share a coupling of Es — and his persistent nerves and overcompensating gestures make it clear he’s still hung up on his former flame. (Key, playing a skilled comedic actor who wants to be taken seriously, does an admirable job showcasing both skills in their respective scenes, but Reed is stretched too wide to ever feel real.)
Whether Bree is harboring affection for her ex is a bit harder to read, but the ease with which Greer guides her character between interested and uninterested makes the possible courtship more compelling. Plus, she’s got her own concerns about returning to the show — namely, that she’s leaving behind her life as a duchess in order to take one more swing at a sustained acting career — and Levitan wisely gives her more to do than sit around waiting as the one who got away. Her shared scenes with Clay Barber (Johnny Knoxville) are loose and fun, even if the “Jackass” star somehow comes across as too-buttoned-up to be a recovering Hollywood wild man.
Courtesy of Hulu
Rounding out the ensemble are Zack Jackson (Calum Worthy), the former child star who’s still stuck in arrested development, and Gordon Gelman, the original creator of “Step Right Up” who only wants to make more of the same show he made before. Both characters illustrate missed opportunities. Zack is awkward and childlike; he’s naive to what goes on around him, and his mom still comes with him to set. (There is a solid recurring joke about where Zack’s character actually lives.) But “Reboot” never tries to say anything about how being raised on TV could warp a guy’s life, or otherwise use Zack for specific satire. He’s just a goof, while Gordon is just, well, a stereotypical old guy. Reiser can deliver a punchline with the best of them, but he’s saddled with some real groaners — covering “what is that” misunderstandings from the Bechdel test to NFTs — and every choice he makes as a person is as predictable as the “classic” comedy he tries to defend.
And comedy is a problem outside of Gordon. During one telling scene in Episode 3, the writers’ room is split: The young folk hired by Hannah and the elderly staff brought in by Gordon simply can’t agree on what’s funny. Gordon’s crew pitches joke after joke, no matter how unbelievable or out-of-character. Hannah’s hipsters focus on issues and arguments, unworried about making the live studio audience laugh. Here is the perfect time to examine an ongoing divide in modern comedy: So many acclaimed half-hour series get all their goodwill through smirky vibes and not-so-stealthy drama. Meanwhile, legitimate, laugh-out-loud comedies are overlooked, either because judging what’s funny is always extra subjective or because society is conditioned to treat drama as the higher art-form.
But rather than have the debate or even attempt to appreciate either side, “Reboot” is too quick to punt the conflict entirely. The room eventually descends into laughter, implying an instinctual shared understanding that’s powerful enough to unify divergent tastes, even when the hilarious moment that elicits a roomful of forced laughter will never earn a chuckle from those watching at home. By the end of the first season, examples like this stack up too high, and the easy way out is taken too many times. Levitan’s latest is a pleasant enough diversion, but the more you focus on its individual parts, the more frustrated you get that they don’t add up to anything greater.
“Reboot” premieres Tuesday, September 20 with three episodes on Hulu. New episodes of the eight-episode first season will be released weekly.