Sitcom king Steven Levitan (from “Just Shoot Me!” to “Modern Family”) has done it again. The creator’s latest series, “Reboot,” is a hilarious vehicle for skewering generational clashes, writer’s room workplace dysfunction, cancel culture, actors’ bottomless neuroses and the sitcom industry that Levitan’s called home for three decades. Treated with affection and scalpel-like wit, “Reboot” doesn’t need a laugh track because over eight half-hour episodes on Hulu it’s consistently laugh-out-loud funny.
Here’s the premise, which on its face seems as recycled as the title, “Reboot.” An appealingly mensch-y Rachel Bloom (co-creator and star of the musical-dramedy “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”) plays the deeply relatable, anxiety-stricken first-time showrunner Hannah. Hulu has given Hannah the greenlight to reboot an early 2000s sofa-anchored family sitcom, “Step Right Up.” Made it, Ma! Or maybe not.
Hannah, backed by the diverse younger comedy writers she’s hired, wants to reinvent the show with a new, dark, edgy twist. In her update, the characters misbehave and suffer the consequences. Her success hinges on reassembling the original cast. Funnily enough, they’re available. Very available. Enter the now-struggling stars Reed (Keegan-Michael Key), Clay (Johnny Knoxville) and Bree Marie (Judy Greer), dragging with them the baggage of egotism, addiction and a failed marriage.
Levitan raises the stakes on Hannah’s first day at the studio. The past rears its ugly head in an unexpected way. The show’s originator, the old-school Hollywood joke-meister Gordon (Paul Reiser, shooting zingers, at his pissiest) barges in. He throws a wrench in the works, wanting to resurrect the old sight gags and hierarchies of the show he created using selective bits and pieces of his private life. His presence reduces Hannah (temporarily) to Jell-O, and sets up conflicts between old and new, privileged white men and the rising tide of diverse talent, and a battle for the soul of funny.
There’s endless material about actors behaving badly, with Peel, Knoxville, Greer and the child actor who played the kid now grown up into the awkward 24-year-old Mama’s boy Zack (Calum Worthy). Peel and Greer, both gifted with comic timing, slip easily into their sitcom roles: the Yale School of Drama alum reluctantly returning to the arena he’d always considered beneath him; and the insecure ditsy blonde still pining for her co-star while trying to get a handle on her life following a very public break from a European duke.
A part of one episode has the pair canoodling under the covers. When the director instructs Reed to climb atop Bree with the cameras rolling, his little soldier jumps to attention. In the new era, is that harassment, a sign of love on the rise, or just shaming? Potentially, all three in riotous competition as the intimacy coordinator offers Reed a thick rubber version of Depends to avoid future embarrassment.
Knoxville is the surprise, still boyish in looks but with his moussed hair now sterling grey. He plays an addict trying to 12-step, frustrated by his own limitations and immaturity. Clay lacks self-control, which gets him into all kinds of trouble, like the risky antics he gets up to with Zack’s stage mother in the youngster’s trailer between takes. He’s just a boy-man who can’t say no, but at least Clay is trying.
“Reboot” has named each episode after familiar sitcoms – “New Girl,” “Growing Pains,” “Who’s the Boss.” Viewers will have their favorites in this large ensemble comedy that nimbly plays with sitcom conventions, while echoing workplaces comedies like “The Office” and “30 Rock.” Among my preferred parts is the generational gap between the old politically incorrect comic dinosaurs shepherded into the writer’s room by Gordon, and Hannah’s inexperienced, multi-culturally sensitive writing crew.
Of the oldsters, there is one salt-and-pepper haired woman with a gravelly voice who tends to say the dirtiest jokes. As Selma (fabulous “Gilmore Girls” vet Rose Abdoo) explains to Bree is Episode 7, “When I first started back in the 70s, I was the only woman in the room, just me and a bunch of chain-smoking neurotic chauvinists….Some of them resented a woman being there, but I loved the work, so I said f–k ‘em. I outpitched, out-joked every last one of them.”
Selma goes on to say that the “writer’s room is a sacred place,” which is the closest the new show comes to a manifesto. And, naturally, with this talented crew, no sacred cows go un-slaughtered. That makes for a comedy that takes unexpected twists and turns, and sticks the landing every episode, leaving me craving Season 2.
“Reboot” debuts on Hulu on September 20th with three episodes, with new episodes debuting weekly.