At a recent meeting in Hulu’s offices over fancy coffee and bottled water, half a dozen executives enjoyed showing off a new series. Well, it’s not entirely new. Idea: Reboot of the beloved early 2000s comedy about a mixed family, “Step Right Up.” Although it ended abruptly after the departure of its presenter, the show did find, surprisingly, a strong audience on broadcast, particularly among the notes of an analytics, family and “live-to-laugh” quarters.
“Are we sure this isn’t just people leaving it to the dogs?” colleague asks.
Her boss expressed another concern: Do reboots still matter? His team answers him with a very long list that includes “Fuller House” “How did I meet your father,” “Veronica Mars” “Gilmore Girls” “gossip girl,” “Years of Wonder” “Party of Five” Party down over and over again.
“What the hell is this,” the chief said, convinced. “Let’s remake something original.”
This is the opening scene of “Reboot”, a half-hour Hulu comedy from the show maker Stephen Levitan (“Modern Family,” “You just tossed me!”) with a flawless premise that no one seems to have thought of bananas before. Part of the show, it features multi-camera family comedy, nested within one-camera workplace comedy, and pushed into a behind-the-scenes Hollywood parody. The series is also a referendum – very much fun – on the way sitcoms have progressed in the past several decades and their transition from network to cable and broadcast.
“It’s really a soulful look at our business,” Levitan said, speaking from a home office with slots for “Modern Family” in the background. “Weird characters and weird situations and important meetings you have over something incredibly trivial and embarrassing. It really is such wonderful fodder for comedy.”
Levitan first had the idea for ‘Reboot’ several years ago when ‘Roseanne’ came back. then disappearedafter a racist tweet posted by the movie’s star, Roseanne Barr, and later back againno bar, like Conners. It sparked his interest in the alleged behind-the-scenes drama.
“I remember thinking to myself, OK, this is the show I want to see,” he said. “Modern Family” still has several seasons to go. He assumed that someone else would dream up the same idea in the meantime, but no one did. Or no one was green-lit anyway. So he took his offer to Hulu. (He has a blanket deal with 20th Television, and is, like Hulu, part of The Walt Disney Company.)
I asked Karey Burke, president of 20th Television, who helped develop “Reboot,” whether real-life Hulu executives have expressed any concerns about the show’s satire. (There’s a startling critique of “The Handmaid’s Tale” in the beta, for example.)
“They love it,” she said. “And I don’t know that other platforms will be able to handle zingers as gracefully as they have.”
Craig Erach, president of ABC Entertainment, and Hulu and Disney original streams on TV confirmed this, saying that he and his real co-workers enjoyed sharing the joke. He said, “We loved it.” “That’s fun. And that’s funny because it probably sounds right.”
Not all of these jokes target streaming services. Targeting a group of networks, Levitan has spent most of his career. Others are chasing changes in the format of the sitcom itself. Many of the latter were expressed in the form of debates between Gordon’s Paul Reiser, who created “Step Right Up,” and Rachel Bloom’s Hannah, the millennial writer and director who provided the reboot.
“Comedy has evolved since I last wrote for TV,” Hannah says, warily. “I mean, frankly, whole species have evolved.”
Some of this evolution has pushed sitcoms away from the multi-camera style of live audiences, the realm of studio comedy like “Step Right Up,” to more visually sophisticated single-camera formats. The move from network to broadcast, a move the Replay program is exploring, has brought about other changes. This new “Step Right Up” no longer needs to stick to a 22-minute format with story lines A, B and C and pause commercial breaks. More sexually explicit material is now allowed, as are obscenities.
“It’s the world of sitcom, but it’s streaming,” Reiser said in an interview, speaking of the transition to broadcasting in general. “So you can say whatever you want, and you won’t necessarily laugh.”
But the old constraints are dying hard. Although “Step Right Up” has taken on a new look, most episodes of “Reboot” still honor the three-act structure. And if the perforation line, and the shape of the perforation group gave a floor, then the schemes A, B and C remain. “They are inherent,” Levitan said. “It’s so embodied in my bones now that the shows will have a certain sense of structure and plot.”
However, as “Reboot” shows, as most comedies of the 80s, 90s, and 2000s have been rewatched, the content has changed. It’s rare that jokes about women, gays, people with disabilities, and people of color get aired. Levitan coined this as a limitation, if good.
“The whole #MeToo culture has woken up, it has changed where you can go and, in general, in a positive way,” he said. “Where it gets tricky is when everyone is so afraid of offending someone that you don’t even come close to the line anymore.”
Bloom, who co-created the sitcom “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” He sees this new sensation as an opportunity, not a curb or cause for concern. She said, “There is a state of vigilance that is being asked of people now that has not been asked before before.” “I think it makes us all better people, better comedians.” And she enjoys playing Hannah, even with a lack of humor now and then.
“The girl who wears loose jackets with anxiety?” Bloom said. “I know that person.” Reiser, who described himself as “a bit more conscientious than Gordon,” agreed with his co-star. He said, “I never understand people who say, ‘You can’t make that joke anymore.’ I go, ‘Why do you want? How much do you want a joke? It’s kind of rude and insensitive.'”
Some of the strongest “Reboot” scenes are those set in the writers’ room that amplify that tension. The writers hired by Hannah—an eccentric man and two women of color—openly clash with Jewish writers older than Gordon’s acquaintance. In one scene, a younger writer criticizes a joke made by TV veteran Salma (Rose Abdo, best player in the hidden series).
Salma replies, “I thought gays were supposed to be fun.” But in the end they found a joke that everyone loved. It involves pratfall. Pratfalls are funny no matter what.
But “Reboot” isn’t just funny. There is a constant sweetness to it and a feeling that people can change, usually for the better.
“This is something very exciting about the show,” said Keegan-Michael Key, the “Step Right Up” star. “It’s a hallmark of Steve Levitan, isn’t it, that sense of openness to people?”
“Step Right Up” is the reboot at the center, but nearly all of the characters reboot themselves in one way or another, to recover from divorce, addiction, and regional theatre. Levitan mentioned how fans told him how “Modern Family” helped them get through difficult moments in their lives. He hopes that “Reboot,” a show about Hollywood elites with Bentleys, real estate wallets, and their relationships with the kings of the North, will do the same.
“Bringing a little laughter into people’s lives is really fun,” he said.
Reboot remains neutral on the question of the value of the reboots themselves. Many people in the real world seem to be nothing more than cheap intellectual property grabs, and few improve upon the original. Some are so gloomy that they retroactively poison their ancestors. The creators and stars of “Reboot” had mixed opinions about the look. Or no view at all.
“I don’t think that’s mine to say,” said Levitan. “Yes, I’d rather not irritate the comic book.” Reiser survived a restart “crazy of you” Pretty much intact and sounded upbeat about the look. Bloom was less than that.
“The most exciting part of the reboot for me is the upcoming reboot title,” she said. Usually the reboot itself was disappointing.
Key sounded more optimistic. He believed that reboots might work, at least in theory, and could be innovative if the idea of the animation was compelling enough. “I really think it’s possible,” he said. “It’s all about the angles.”
Until Hollywood finds out those angles, we just have to deal with something original. Like “reboot”.
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