TV veteran Steven Levitan already had a lot of success as a writer, showrunner, and producer before the premiere of “Modern Family” – a series he co-created with Christopher Lloyd – in 2009. That show turned out to be a cultural phenomenon, helping to redefine and normalize the representation of LGBTQ relationships on TV by including a gay couple within its ensemble of central characters while also becoming a long-running fan-favorite, winning scores of awards (including nine primetime Emmys) and being nominated for scores more before airing its final season in 2020. Even with a resume that includes shows like “Wings,” “Frasier,” “The Larry Sanders Show,” and “Just Shoot Me,” that’s got to be considered a career-topping triumph.
Now, Levitan is back with a new show, “Reboot,” which premiered on Hulu Sept. 20, and from its very first pre-credit sequence it signals a welcome return to the same rapid-fire comedic style that kept “Modern Family” on everybody’s weekly watchlist for 11 years – still inclusive, with prominent queer characters and storylines, but thankfully without the mockumentary format.
“Reboot” is a good-naturedly irreverent send-up of the Hollywood entertainment machine featuring “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” star Rachel Bloom as Hannah, a TV writer who gets greenlighted on her pitch for a revival of “Step Right Up,” a beloved sitcom from the early 2000s. She manages to convince the original cast to reprise their roles as the show’s “wacky family” – despite their complicated offscreen history – by promising to adapt the show for a contemporary audience, eliminating the corny, outdated humor and shifting toward a more sophisticated, realistic tone. At the first table read, however, Hannah’s plan for a reimagined series is met with a significant obstacle – the unexpected presence of the original sitcom’s creator, Gordon Gelman (Paul Reiser), who has wielded his industry clout to insert himself into the mix as a showrunner and ensure that “woke” ideas about comedy don’t get in the way of the laughs.
Obviously, this scenario provides a ripe field for jokes about the cultural conflicts that have become a fact of life in 2022 – mostly around the differing attitudes between older and younger generations, always a sure-fire bet for relatable comedy. The “OK Boomer” sparring at its core is common fodder these days, but Levitan and his creative team know comedy well enough to make it feel fresh – and their secret is to make sure that the characters are always the main attraction.
In this case, they’ve given us plenty of them to choose from. Besides Hannah and Gordon, whose rivalry for the reins quickly becomes just one of many thorns in their relationship dynamic, we also get the leading players of “Step Right Up”: Reed Sterling (Keegan-Michael Key), a Yale-trained thespian who ditched the show’s first run to pursue a movie career that never materialized; Bree Marie Johnson (Judy Greer), a once-popular star who left showbiz for a now-failed marriage to an obscure Scandinavian Duke; Clay Barber (Johnny Knoxville), a “bad boy” stand-up comic known less for his talent than for being a train wreck; and Zack Jackson (Calum Worthy), a former child star who seems to have reached his mid-20s without actually growing up. Rounding out the main ensemble is Krista Marie Yu as Elaine, a young production exec transplanted from the tech industry whose fish-out-of-water incongruity provides a necessary outsider perspective amid the show-biz histrionics that surround her.
There’s a host of supporting characters, too – a roomful of writers, for instance, hilariously bridging the generation gap with their common love of comedy even as they clash over cultural values. Drawn in broad strokes, all of them could easily be dismissed as generic tropes, stock figures updated to fit the latest cultural zeitgeist; that they come off as fully realized human beings instead of lazy stereotypes is a testament to Levitan and the real-life writers’ room responsible for bringing them to life.
It’s also a testament to the actors who play them. Key and Greer have the biggest challenge, in many ways; their characters, cut from the same egocentric cloth as so many other parodies of vain and pretentious Hollywood stars and clearly designed to be adorably insufferable, come off in early episodes as simply insufferable. As the season progresses, fortunately, their skill as performers permits them (and their characters) to rise above the flaws and foibles and win us over. The ever-reliable Knoxville does what he does best – sending up his own wild-man persona – and occasionally reminds us that he’s not a bad actor, when he gets the chance; Worthy, an ex-Disney-kid also spoofing his own real-life image, likewise injects surprising doses of winning humanity as the show goes on.
As for Bloom, essentially the main character though surrounded by an ensemble of zanies, she holds her own with all the juggernaut talent she used to make “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” a wildly popular cult hit; required to be a grounding force while dealing with her own whirlwind of personal and professional dysfunction, she succeeds more than well enough to anchor the show. Finally, Reiser brings his status as a venerable sitcom legend to give his old-school character an appropriate presence, while making him much more layered and likable than the Archie Bunker-ish throwback we expect him to be.
With such a solid cast doing the heavy lifting onscreen, “Reboot” is able to cast its satirical net wide enough to poke fun at our rapidly changing culture without losing the important human connection that keeps its never-ending bombardment of one-liners – something for which Levitan’s previous shows have been widely known and admired – from feeling hollow. That doesn’t mean the comedy ever lulls; on the contrary, even the show’s most tender and meaningful moments – which often take us by pleasant surprise – are punctuated by zingers. And while the series leans hard into the kind of uncomplicated vibe that usually marks popular mainstream sitcoms, it also lets itself play at more complex levels, getting a lot of comedic mileage out of the inescapable “meta” quality of being a show about a show – for example, the fictional series, like the real one, is produced by Hulu, just one such cheeky touch among many that make it feel more subversive and iconoclastic than perhaps it really is.
What might work even more to the benefit of “Reboot” than the considerable lineup of talent it boasts both on and behind the screen is its format – and we’re not just talking about its choice to eschew the mockumentary thing, a masterfully innovative tactic that has now become tired from overuse, even on Emmy-favored “Abbot Elementary.” In the new era of streaming content, the 23-episode season feels like an increasingly outmoded way of doing things; with only eight episodes to undertake, there’s far less chance of stretching the material (and our patience for it) thin, or of running out of ideas and undermining the show’s integrity with sub-par writing just to pad things out.
Unsaddled from that burden, “Reboot” manages to be laugh-out-loud funny throughout each episode of its first season. That alone is enough for us to look forward to season two.