By Sarah Osman
Reboot is a razor-sharp sitcom about the world of sitcoms and represents Steven Levitan’s triumphant return to comedy.
When it comes to creating sitcoms, Steven Levitan is a legend. He helped launch Frasier, Just Shoot Me!, and Stark Raving Mad. His most recent show, Modern Family, which he produced with his partner Christopher Lloyd, was a ratings juggernaut and a clever take on, well, modern families. However, as the series churned on, its humor felt increasingly forced and the plotlines began to repeat themselves. Levitan’s latest series, Reboot (which premieres on September 20) turns out to be a bit of a rebirth: his sense of humor remains as relevant and hilarious as ever.
Reboot follows the reboot of Step Right Up, an early 2000s sitcom that was a guilty pleasure for tween millennials. Rachel Bloom (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) gets to show off her range as Hannah, the showrunner of the retread project, which Hulu executives are over-the-moon about (yes, the comedy airs on Hulu and the satire takes plenty of shots at the company and their impregnable corporate overlords, Disney). The old cast members are rallied together, all of whom have had less-than-stellar careers: Reed (Keegan-Michael Key), a Yale trained actor, left the series for more serious roles only to end up voicing a hemorrhoid commercial; Bree (Judy Greer), who has since become the Duchess of a small Nordic country; Clay (Johnny Knoxville), who has been arrested multiple times; and finally, Zack (Calum Worthy), who was a child when the show aired but has since starred in a number of straight-to-DVD teen movies. The vets are joined by a newcomer to the series, Timberly (Alyah Chanelle Scott). Among Hannah’s problems is that she has to contend with the original showrunner of Step Right Up, Gordon (Paul Reiser).
Much of the show’s humor derives from clashing generation gaps. Hannah and Gordon both bring in their own writing teams, and it’s clear from the get-go that the groups have very different visions for the return of the show. One writer suggests they pass the “Bechdel test” by having the women discuss Alison Bechdel — Paul has no clue what that is. Hannah’s writers are horrified by the habits of Gordon’s seasoned writers; at one point they spend an hour ordering lunch and one scribe regales the others with the time he hooked up with Paul Lynde. They can agree on one thing: physical comedy is necessary because it is hilarious. (Levitan makes sure to supply plenty of pratfalls .) Hannah and Gordon’s never-ending battle is one of Reboot‘s funniest bits: their conflict never feels too over-the-top. Hannah is exasperated but not driven to distraction.
Bree and Timberly are also in a time warp. Bree is confused by concepts such as the cameo (she needs to Google it) and struggles against the double standards Hollywood applies to women. Timberly helps her overcome some of her uncertainty by being a supportive comrade, happily teaching her older costar the lingo the kids are using. It’s an unexpected friendship and the surprise is welcome –theirs is one of the show’s many clever pairings. Because the performers work so well together, Levitan is free to mix-and-match in ways that keep each episode fresh. He also carefully stretches each actor’s talent by working against what they are best known for. Key is a brilliant straight man given an opportunity to lean into his zanier side; Knoxville plays a restrained character who still gets into a hot mess on occasion. Unlike Modern Family, which indulged in stereotypes, Reboot‘s characters are fully fleshed out, their kinks and desires hopefully to be expanded on in a second season.
Worthy, as Zack, is the breakout performer. He had a hysterical turn as honor student Alex Trimboli on American Vandal. As the perpetual liar in the faux docuseries, the actor made for a convincing obsessive fibber. But Alex was a buttoned-down clown — Zack is not. Worthy runs headlong here into absurdity, reveling in the delicious cluelessness of Zack. Haplessness becomes hilarious.
In terms of momentum, the series maintains the same quick pace of Modern Family but the jokes are more literate, more in-line with a Tina Fey penned comedy. Levitan is obviously having a great time lampooning every inanity practiced by corporate Hollywood — he rakes it all over the coals, from Reality TV to a “woke” writer’s room. It is about time that the ‘entertainment’ industry was taken down with merciless wit by an insider. With Reboot, Levitan has used his creative freedom to laugh heartily at the hand that feeds him.
Sarah Mina Osman is a writer residing in Wilmington, NC. In addition to writing for the Arts Fuse, she has written for Watercooler HQ, Huffington Post, HelloGiggles, Young Hollywood, and Matador Network, among other sites. Her work was included in the anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences in the Trump Era. She is currently a first year fiction MFA candidate at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. When she’s not writing, she’s dancing, watching movies, traveling, or eating. She has a deep appreciation for sloths and tacos. You can keep up with her on Twitter and Instagram: @SarahMinaOsman