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:
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.
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.
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:
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.