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An Annotated Guide to Reboot

Hulu's new comedy about rebooting a classic sitcom has pop culture references galore. Here's your cheat sheet.
  • Photos: Hulu
    Photos: Hulu

    Premiering today, Hulu's new comedy series Reboot comes from Modern Family co-creator Steven Levitan and thus has its roots in one of the biggest TV shows of the 2010s. But the sitcom roots run even deeper for Reboot, something that becomes clear as you start watching the show and see how much it's in conversation with TV's reboot culture over the last decade plus.

    While Modern Family was changing the way network sitcom families looked, the rest of the industry steadily found its way to an environment where no classic show is safe from a pitch to revive, reboot, or reconstitute it for modern audiences. What Levitan's Reboot seems to be asking with his show is both a) can you really ever recapture the old magic, and b) is it possible to bring something new to something so stuck in the past?

    This may all all sound pretty academic for a show that's packed full of jokes and features funny performances from the likes of Judy Greer, Keegan-Michael Key, Rachel Bloom, and Paul Reiser. But recognizing the show's cultural reference points really does help enhance the enjoyment of an already very enjoyable series, so here's what you need to know as you watch along.

    Step Right Up

    Reboot's show-within-a-show is a reboot of the fictional '90s sitcom Step Right Up, a classic TGIF-style comedy about a blended family where the dad (played by Keegan-Michael Key's Reed) is step-father to his wife's (played by Judy Greer's Bree) son (played in the present timeline by Calum Worthy's Zack). Rounding out the cast is a wacky neighbor who lives in the garage apartment, played by Johnny Knoxville's Clay. Unconventional family structures have been a sitcom staple for decades — Modern Family played on that history in its own multi-layered vision of the Pritchetts. Step Right Up feels like it owes the most to a handful of shows:

    • Step by Step, the ABC series that starred Suzanne Somers and Patrick Duffy as a newly married couple determined to bring together their oil-and-water sets of kids. This in itself was an update of the classic Brady Bunch setup where both Mike and Carol Brady brought a trio of kids into their new blended family.
    • Full House, in which unconventional father figures played by John Stamos and Dave Coulier helped Bob Saget raise his trio of girls.
    • Who's the Boss? also offered blended family vibes even if live-in housekeeper Tony Danza and bougie Connecticut businesslady Judith Light didn't officially give romance a go until the show's eighth (and final) season.

    Any doubt about whether these shows were major influences on Step Right Up are dispelled when we catch a glimpse of the show's opening credits, which leans heavily on shots of the family playing touch football on the lawn. The outdoor intramural sport imagery was lifted almost verbatim from the original Full House credits, though the touch-football concept is also a direct pull from the opening credits of the 1986 comedy Valerie.

    Step by Step took an amusement-park theme for their opening credits, but you can still feel a spiritual connection to that touch-football vibe. And the early Who's the Boss credits leaned heavily on Tony's athletic career and Samantha's tomboyishness, even if their opening credits were more of the classic "clips from the show" style as opposed to having the cast pantomime an original skit.

    Stars Leaving Hit Shows

    One of the lingering wounds among the reunited Step Right Up cast is that Keegan-Michael Key's Reed chose to leave the show while it was still a hit so he could pursue opportunities in movies, and as a result the show got canceled. This is of course rooted in several real-world situations where breakout TV stars wanted to strike while the iron was hot and become movie stars. The most notorious ones like Shelley Long and David Caruso failed and became cautionary tales (although Shelley Long's movie career is not nearly the face-plant that this narrative would have you believe). George Clooney is almost certainly the best-case scenario for a TV star bolting for the big screen. But in all three cases, Cheers, NYPD Blue, and ER all continued long past the point where their original star left the show, and in many cases continued to thrive. A closer example to the Step Right Up storyline might be when Ashton Kutcher left The '70s Show right before it started to circle the drain, or even when Sarah Michelle Gellar decided she was done with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the show had little choice but to announce its final season as hers.

    Stars Marrying Royalty

    One of the early gags in Reboot is that Judy Greer's Bree left the acting business when married the Duke of "a small Nordic country." Almost any fictional accounts of American actors or actresses marrying into royalty is most certainly rooted in the story of Grace Kelly, who married Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956 and lived as royalty until her death in 1982.

    The modern-day version of Princess Grace is, of course, Meghan Markl. Markle starred as Rachel Zane on the USA series Suits before leaving the show in 2017 after becoming engaged to Prince Harry of the United Kingdom. Meghan and Harry were wed in 2018 amid a media sensation that has never really died down.

    A less well-known example — but perhaps one more tailored to an actress like Bree is My So-Called Life star A.J. Langer, who played Rayanne Graf on the short-lived ABC show. In 2004, years after the show ended, Langer married Charles Courtenay, the son of the Earl of Devon and member of the British nobility. Upon the death of Charles's father, he ascended to the title of Duke and thus Langer as his wife become the Countess of Devon, and her children are Lord and Lady Courtenay.

    The Nick Nolte Mug Shot

    Johnny Knoxville's Clay Barton character is a comedian who, in the years since Step Right Up fell on hard times with a drug problem (see: countless sitcom examples too numerous to list here), made a return to stand-up comedy, and then relapsed in 2017, at which point we're shown a mug shot where a disheveled and wild-haired Clay is wearing a rather festive Hawaiian shirt. This is a blatant shout-out to the infamous Nick Nolte "mug shot" where his hair is similarly askew and he's also wearing a flowered Hawaiian button-down. The photo comes from a 2002 incident where Nolte was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving in Malibu. Nolte has admitted he was on GHB at the time. The photo, while not specifically a mug shot, was taken outside of the hospital where he was taken.

    "Unfunny" Comedies

    In Reboot, Rachel Bloom plays Hannah, a TV writer who pitches Hulu on a modernized reboot of Step Right Up, one which goes to darker, more realistic places than the former broad multi-cam sitcom. As she's pitching herself to the Hulu folks, they bring up her former film work, one of which is described as "both the funniest thing you've ever read, and you won't laugh once." This feels like a shot directly from the classic comedy writer Levitan against the subgenre of half-hour shows that get cataloged as comedies but which don't have much in the way of jokes. Your Transparents, your Nurse Jackies, and even current examples like Barry and The Bear.

    Reboot Culture

    Perhaps the greatest gag in the Reboot pilot is when a table full of junior development hacks at Hulu run down the laundry list of TV shows that have recently been rebooted. They take turns naming every one they can think of, and it takes a while. In order, the name-checked rebooted shows are:

    • Full House [originally 1987-95; rebooted 2016-2020]
    • Saved by the Bell [originally 1989-93; rebooted 2020-22]
    • iCarly [originally 2007-12; rebooted 2021-present]
    • Gilmore Girls [originally 2000-07; rebooted 2016]
    • Gossip Girl [originally 2007-12; rebooted 2021-present]
    • Party of Five [originally 1994-00; rebooted 2020]
    • Party Down [originally 2009-10; reboot upcoming]
    • One Day at a Time [originally 1975-84; rebooted 2017-20]
    • Boy Meets World [originally 1993-2000; rebooted 2014-17]
    • How I Met Your Mother [originally 2005-14; rebooted 2022-present]
    • The Wonder Years [originally 1988-93; rebooted 2021-present]
    • Battlestar Galactica [originally 1978-79; rebooted 2004-09]
    • Doogie Howser [originally 1989-93; rebooted 2021-present]
    • The Odd Couple [originally 1970-75; rebooted 2015-17]
    • Perry Mason [originally 1957-66; rebooted 2020-present]
    • Hawaii Five-0 [originally 1968-80; rebooted 2010-20]
    • Veronica Mars [originally 2004-07; rebooted 2019]
    • The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air [originally 1990-96; rebooted 2022-present]
    • Fraggle Rock [originally 1983-87; rebooted 2022-present]

    The first three episodes of Reboot premiere Tuesday September 20, 2022 on Hulu. New episodes Tuesdays through October 25.

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    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Reboot, Hulu, Full House, Modern Family, Step by Step, Calum Worthy, Johnny Knoxville, Judy Greer, Keegan-Michael Key, Steven Levitan