It stands to reason that “Reboot” is immediately an entertainment biz turducken of industry lingo and in-jokes. From “Modern Family” creator Steven Levitan, the new Hulu series depicts the reboot — also airing on Hulu — of a family sitcom and all the behind-the-scenes drama that inevitably follows. Levitan, whose credits include “Just Shoot Me” and “Wings,” obviously knows his way around a multi-cam, and his pilot co-writer John Enbom made a meal in “Party Down” of exploiting the seediest corners of Hollywood ambition. The combination of the two sensibilities makes for a (mostly) realistic peek into life on a studio lot, but that’s probably a given. That it ends up (mostly) toothless comes as a genuine surprise.
Premiering with three episodes on Sept. 20, the series opens with harried millennial Hannah (Rachel Bloom of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”) getting the greenlight to revive the seemingly ordinary ’90s sitcom “Step Right Up.” It’s a strange career choice after getting so many accolades for her short film “Cunt Saw,” but nevertheless, Hannah is determined to make it happen. With original creator Gordon (“Mad About You” alum Paul Reiser) and cast — pretentious Reed (Keegan-Michael Key), outgoing Bree (Judy Greer), wild card Clay (Johnny Knoxville) and grown-up child actor Zack (grown-up child actor Calum Worthy) — on board due to a lack of anything better to do, both the reboot and “Reboot” can get down to the business of making a perfectly fine show, week in and week out. It would have been easy to turn “Reboot” into a “Modern Family”-style mockumentary given its conceit, but the fact that Levitan and Enbom resisted that urge is honestly refreshing.
All these actors — as well as guest stars Fred Melamed and Rose Abdoo as Gordon’s veteran TV writers — have proved time and again that they’re extremely capable of delivering a line with unique spin, and have often been the best parts of whatever project is lucky enough to have them. The same holds true here, with Greer especially seizing the chance to make her every scene a memorable one. Also deserving of a special mention are Krista Marie Yu (“Last Man Standing”) as Hulu’s young VP of Comedy and Alyah Chanelle Scott as the recurring “new girl” who makes a quick case for why she should be a series regular instead. Key and Knoxville are particularly good when their characters give in to their baser instincts, as is Bloom in the rare moments when she doesn’t have to spend all her time being the scold to Reiser’s looser boss.
For all the show’s smart performances, though, the scripts with which they’re working seem less assured of their direction. This clash comes most to the forefront in the relationship dynamic between Gordon and Hannah, who are not just bickering coworkers, but (SPOILER ALERT) estranged father and daughter. As actors, Bloom and Reiser make for a great comedic pairing; as characters, Hannah and Gordon too often get stuck in a loop that gets old, fast. Hannah in particular becomes more of a service to the plot and a “millennials vs. Boomer” divide in the writers’ room than the person that the pilot promised. Why would the woman who wrote “Cunt Saw” stick with a sitcom that, per the slivers of “Step Right Up” scripts we see her and the writers cooking up, rarely pushes the original version’s boundaries? Does she actually have any jokes beyond her desire to address Real Issues, or is Gordon — the clear Levitan facsimile — almost always right? “Reboot” seems to change its mind with every passing episode, making it hard to get as fully invested in either character as the conceit requires.
Most frustrating, though, is how each episode alternates between mocking the “sitcommy” humor of shows like “Step Right Up” while indulging its tropes completely. A show that, for instance, tries to make fun of clichés but still makes someone laugh at an oblivious statement before stopping with an “oh, you’re serious?” feels more confused than confident. In going out of its way to poke fun at “dramedies” without punchlines (“It’s both the funniest thing you’ve ever read and you won’t laugh once!”), “Reboot” sets itself up for needing to do better, but only occasionally does.
The first three episodes of “Reboot” are now available to stream on Hulu.