I like “Reboot”…but for better or worse, comedies are weighed against expectations. This is a comedy I feel I should love, in a year studded with standout comedies that range from the poignant to the absurd. “Reboot” feels surprisingly safe, which is limiting for a comedy that tries to lean into the shocking and subversive.
I’m a sucker for show-behind-the-show comedies. “Reboot” finds indie writer Hannah in charge of rebooting “Step Right Up”, an early 2000s sitcom in the vein of “Full House” or “Step by Step”. It’s 20 years later and she wants the original cast back for a darker, more mature take. She gets her cast, and the cast we get playing them includes Judy Greer, Keegan-Michael Key, and Johnny Knoxville.
Key’s Reed Sterling is a Yale-trained actor with an ego, Greer’s Bree Jensen is a former pageant queen with little acting experience and waning popularity, and Knoxville’s Clay Barber is an offensive stand-up comedian who makes terrible decisions. They all need the job, though, so they find a way to power through.
Showrunner Hannah is stuck with an overbearing co-showrunner – the man who created the original. Hannah’s played by the excellent Rachel Bloom, who mostly does voice acting but who you might recognize as the lead in “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”. Paul Reiser plays the show’s original creator, stuck in a mode of lame 90s-era sight gags.
There’s a meta element, too, in that they’re producing “Step Right Up” for Hulu. Props to Hulu for making fun of themselves as a bunch of yes-people chasing whatever trend other streaming services are doing. Their vice president of comedy Elaine, played by Krista Marie Yu, is “new to humor”. The meta gag works, but thankfully isn’t overplayed as a focus.
There are a number of plot twists and some solid character development, but “Reboot” feels like it’s aiming for what’s safe most of the time. Many other comedies have the ability to balance the short, punchy scene with longer banter. Comedies can’t just deliver a joke the same way over and over again. Timing isn’t just about the internal pace of the joke, but also how it’s balanced against your expectations. If all your jokes are a quick progression in short, choppy scenes, then there’s no surprise to the timing.
Take a show like “Abbott Elementary”. There are a lot of quick, cutaway scenes stitched into the overall fabric of each plot, but they’re balanced well against longer scenes and conversations. Not everything’s a plot point, and many of the quicker, punchier jokes work well because they rely on longer scenes that advance each character’s emotional perspective. As characters evolve, even in small ways within a single episode, those quicker jokes reflect a slightly changed perspective each time they’re introduced. This balance of different styles of comedy and the different timings they require creates an ebb and flow that keeps things unpredictable from one moment to the next. When a joke’s timing takes us by surprise, it disarms the part of our brain that anticipates and predicts the punchline.
A great punchline with the same timing as every other joke might be anticipated too much. A solid punchline with unpredictable timing can often be more joyful because we didn’t expect it.
When timing is predictable, punchlines that should function off of surprise suddenly don’t work. In the case of “Reboot”, we can often start guessing some of the punchlines because they’re the ones that fit that timing. Most of them are good to great jokes, but because they’re all delivered the same way, with the same predictable timing, I anticipated many of the punchlines before they happened. Chances are, you will, too.
This doesn’t ruin “Reboot” by any means, but it does make it feel like it’s squandering some of its considerable potential. It also feels like an underachievement given this cast and premise.
“Reboot” can justify some of this by its meta elements. Characters are constantly criticizing the shape and predictability of late 90s/early 00s sitcom humor, so some predictability is clearly designed as a meta joke that highlights how it doesn’t work. Some of the jokes in “Reboot” intentionally don’t work because they’re designed to highlight their own not working. These are the ones that end up working best because they’re surprising, unique, and can’t be anticipated.
It’s the humor that’s built to surprise or shock that comes off as predictable. I’ll use two minor spoilers in the next two paragraphs:
Knoxville’s Clay ends up sleeping with the mother of the now grown-up child actor from the show. This reveal is predictable and the show knows this, but they try to take this into shocking territory by having Clay describe some of it, and Zack (the son) walking up and grabbing an orange slice from Clay’s questionably clean hand. If the set-up was done with less predictability, it wouldn’t need these embellishments to sell the moment. As is, the comedy’s functional, but it’s asking Knoxville to play the material into shocking territory when we’ve seen versions of it before. It should hand Knoxville the shock and let him build on top of it.
An early scene has Greer’s Bree inadvertantly take off her bra in front of Key’s Reed. The two used to go out, so it’s an awkward moment. As is, the awkwardness feels acted rather than real. It relies on Greer and Key to play up the awkwardness, but if the scene itself had sold that awkwardness first, then the actors could have built another layer on top of it. That would have opened the door for something less predictable than the conversation that follows.
In both cases, the awkwardness is predictable. What we want out of those scenes is the unpredictable element that this awkwardness leads to. If the actors are the ones working to establish the awkwardness in the first place, then they’re doing the work of establishing the predictable. They’re building the show’s comedy, but not taking that next step into what the actor can do.
You want that predictable element already built by the time the actors are playing with it, because this allows them to surprise us. If we watch them build the foundation of the scene, then all we’re getting is the foundation of the scene. For the amount of plot movement that occurs in “Reboot”, it leaves many of its scenes in the actors’ hands to develop, rather than elevate.
“Reboot” might have been better served to progress at a slower clip. Its strength is that Rachel Bloom, Judy Greer, Keegan-Michael Key, Johnny Knoxville, and Paul Reiser are all very different comic actors. Bloom’s a put-upon everywoman, Greer’s satire balances the biting and empathetic, Key has a talent for reaction and parody, Knoxville is energetic and abrasive, Reiser is light-on-his-feet and quippy. They each bring a unique approach to comedy that doesn’t overlap much with the next. Their scenes together should be constantly unpredictable. If our time is spent watching them all do the same foundational work to build their scenes, then we don’t get to the point where they have the space to give us these vastly different paces and deliveries.
“Reboot” is good because the jokes are good and the cast is phenomenal…but the expectation for solid jokes and a cast like this is to push further out than “Reboot” does. This is the era of “Abbott Elementary”, “Angelyne”, “Harley Quinn”, “Killing It”, “Never Have I Ever”, “Our Flag Means Death”, “Reservation Dogs”, “Somebody Somewhere”, and “What We Do in the Shadows”. I laughed and I’ll keep watching “Reboot”. It’s an easy watch and a solid recommendation, but I just can’t shake the takeaway that it’s underachieving too noticeably. It wants to shock without taking the risks that develop shock, and its jokes boast some of the most unique comic actors telling each of those jokes the exact same way.
You can watch “Reboot” on Hulu.
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