‘Reboot’ Is A Clever And Not Too Navel-Gazey Look Inside TV Reboots

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The new Hulu comedy series “Reboot” is a curious product of this particular cultural era. It follows the reboot of a fictional early 2000s family sitcom, “Step Right Up,” and the tensions it places on its dysfunctional cast and crew.

Among the stars of the show (and show within a show) are Keegan-Michael Key, Judy Greer and Johnny Knoxville, whose characters begrudgingly sign on for the reboot after many disappointing career and life changes since the original run. Paul Reiser — who was recently in a reboot of his own, with the 2019 revival of 1990s sitcom “Mad About You” — and Rachel Bloom play Gordon and Hannah, the father-daughter team of showrunners behind the relaunch of “Step Right Up.”

Premiering Tuesday, the eight-episode series marks creator Steven Levitan’s first show since the long-running ABC sitcom “Modern Family.” HuffPost Senior Culture Reporters Marina Fang and Candice Frederick discuss what they thought of “Reboot” and assess where it fits into the larger cultural conversation on the topic.

Marina Fang: All of us on the HuffPost culture desk talk a lot about the seemingly never-ending stream of reboots, revivals, re-imaginings, etc., etc. — what I often like to joke is the “reboot industrial complex.” So the idea of a sitcom about a fictional reboot of a sitcom, involving a lot of people who’ve been part of major sitcoms before, definitely piqued my interest. Candice, what did you think of “Reboot,” and how well do you think it captures this cultural moment we’re in?

Candice Frederick: Yeah, the reboot industrial complex is real, and it’s exhausting. So, I went into “Reboot” fearing it would be a bit navel-gazey and unnecessary.

But I was struck by how much it delves into what it means to actually go forward with a reboot, the human impact of it. Like, how the actors, who haven’t worked in forever — or who haven’t gotten the type of prestige work they thought would follow after the series — are ill-equipped to deal with the new celebrity industrial complex where media can be very vampiric with their personal questions, or what it means to bring a show from a certain period into present day.

What’s to become of the original staff writers? Can they write dialogue that pertains or contends with today’s culture? What does that look like when they have to share a writing room with younger writers? The generational questions were interesting to me.

What did you think going into it?

The cast of “Step Right Up” — Reed (Keegan-Michael Key), Zach (Calum Worthy), Clay (Johnny Knoxville), and Bree (Judy Greer) — take a promotional photo for the show, in a scene from the Hulu series “Reboot.”

Initial Thoughts

MF: Absolutely, I had those exact same fears. But I think it finds the right balance in its meta jokes about the industry. For example, the show within a show, like the show itself, is being produced at Hulu, and one of the characters is a fictionalized Hulu executive. That was all very funny.

Once I started watching it, I found myself wishing it had a sharper point of view about the concept of reboots — a specific thing it was trying to say about it all. But then, when you and I were deciding to do this “Should You Watch It?” article, you mentioned everything you said above. And I realized you’re totally right, that this is what really makes this show interesting.

In the larger cultural discussion around reboots, we don’t talk as much about what it means for the actors and writers to return to something they made 20 years ago, that probably hasn’t aged well, and how they’re probably in a very different place in their lives and careers when they decide to do these reboots. This show does a great job of exploring those dynamics.

Standout Performances

MF: The dynamic between Bree and Reed (Greer and Key) felt totally lived-in. Like, I totally bought that they had a thing 20 years ago, and being together again is bringing up all kinds of messy feelings. I loved both of those performances, part of a really stacked cast on this show.

Candice, what did you think of the cast, and were there any really standout performances for you?

CF: OMG yes! Loved that the comedy exec at Hulu (Krista Marie Yu) is hyperserious and actually knows nothing about comedy. I’m sure this happens a lot in the industry.

Krista Marie Yu as Elaine, a fictionalized Hulu executive in charge of the "Step Right Up" reboot.
Krista Marie Yu as Elaine, a fictionalized Hulu executive in charge of the “Step Right Up” reboot.

To your point, though, it did stick out to me that the show doesn’t have a point of view about reboots — especially since you and I both definitely do! But I also wonder if these folks who decide to do a reboot actually have a point of view on that. Some need the money. Others need their careers reinvigorated. Others, especially women like Judy Greer’s character, need to prove that they still have it and that the industry can’t send them out to pasture just yet. That was all very interesting to me.

LOL, Judy and Keegan are comedy gold, totally agree. You know who I also thought was quite interesting? Alyah Chanelle Scott, who plays Timberly, who’s kind of a plant from the reality TV show industrial complex. She parlayed that into a scripted TV career. But when she tries to prove herself, of course people like Bree feel threatened. That was a totally unexpected storyline that actually made a lot of sense to me, and I think both women are very good there.

What did you think of Johnny Knoxville and his character (who I admit I have never actually seen on anything before)? I intentionally avoided the whole “Jackass” phenomenon.

Knoxville as Clay and Key as Reed on the set of "Step Right Up."
Knoxville as Clay and Key as Reed on the set of “Step Right Up.”

MF: Yes, I liked how that all felt very real!

I also have never watched any of the installments of the “Jackass” franchise. I did like that his character seemed pretty reflective of a washed-up, middle-aged white dude — like, you can easily picture a real-life equivalent.

CF: Same! He is definitely a major source of comic relief but actually has gravitas. Like a whole lot of these characters, he’s been sort of just … floating since this TV show. So, we get to see him really wrangle with that as well.

So, there’s a whole other section of the show that could have possibly been its own series, which is the relationship between Rachel Bloom’s and Paul Reiser’s characters, Hannah and Gordon. As a stand-alone character, I think Gordon is actually more interesting as the returning showrunner who’s trying to navigate the new turf and having to partner with his daughter, Hannah. Hannah is the more unsure character, who’s still getting her feet wet. But we again see how these two generations can work together.

Gordon (Paul Reiser) and Hannah (Rachel Bloom), the father-daughter team of showrunners on "Step Right Up."
Gordon (Paul Reiser) and Hannah (Rachel Bloom), the father-daughter team of showrunners on “Step Right Up.”

MF: Yeah, I liked seeing the writers room, which is another place where the show could have gotten a bit too navel-gazey, but it really works. Gordon is used to doing things the old way: hiring all of his friends, writing a bunch of hacky, tired jokes, etc. Meanwhile, Hannah is trying to make a more substantive show and hire a more inclusive writers room. The way they are constantly at an impasse feels like a lot of what we see play out in real life.

Were there any other high points for you, or anything else you wanted to shout out? I think it’s safe to say we both liked it.

CF: Yes! The genuineness of their reactions really worked. Like, that is exactly how I would imagine it would be.

Should “Reboot” Get Another Season?

CF: I think one question that came to mind is whether this deserves another season. Like, do we want more of this story? Honestly, I’d watch. I think there is more story to mine here.

MF: That’s a good question! Like a lot of streaming series, these eight episodes tell a complete story but also leave just enough of an opening for another season. I could go either way. If they do pick it up for a second season, I’d watch it.

CF: Same! I’d like to know more about these people. Somewhat related: Did you ever watch the show “Unreal”? I think this would make a good companion piece because of what they both say about the human impact of putting on what are ultimately scripted TV shows.

MF: Yes, I did watch and really liked “Unreal,” until it went off the rails in its later seasons. There was also a short-lived Fox show last year called “The Big Leap,” which is similar to “Unreal” but the show within a show is a dance competition series — another possibility, if you’re reading this and want to check out more of these shows with meta qualities about TV. Can we call them “Russian doll shows”? LOL.

CF: Haha I love that — and now I have to find “The Big Leap”! Never even heard of it.

So, Should You Watch It?

MF: Anyway, should you watch “Reboot”? Definitely.

CF: And yes, I really like “Reboot”! Would recommend.

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