Resurrected television shows and movies go to great lengths to avoid being labeled with the odious term “reboot.” You’ll often hear the people behind this kind of content refer to them as “reimaginings” to soften the stigma — as if Hester Prynn insisted that the scarlet lettering on her chest stood for “autonomous.” It’s a more appealing word, but in the end everyone still understands that we’re talking about a piece of media dug up from the grave, dusted and tossed with some fresh spackle.
Restart, by the title alone, understands that stigma perfectly. That’s also how it knows it’s rife for parody. Helped by Modern family co-creator Steven Levitan, the new Hulu comedy, due out Tuesday, follows the events on the set of the cast of a fictional 2000s sitcom called come on once they’re tapped for a “redesigned” reboot of their show. although Restart exists to deftly dig through today’s television landscape, and does so with pleasing reverence. That Modern family-like combination of heart and hilarity can sometimes make Restart feeling uneven, although it’s always fun.
From the opening scene, Restart enjoys using the power of its own meta privilege. The thirties, progressive writer Hannah (crazy ex girlfriend‘s Rachel Bloom) takes a pitch meeting at Hulu, where executives sit around a table to hear her ideas. When she tells them she wants to reboot come on with its original cast and an edgy new outlook, they are interested. “You’re talking to the man who gave the green light to the… fifth season of The Handmaid’s Tale!” says one executive, while verbally patting his subordinates on the back.
That the actual executives at Hulu, where Restart airs, let jokes like this stay in the final cut, not only surprised me but excited me. If the streamer was willing to acknowledge that most long-running shows at some point just become money cows with no meaning whatsoever, I was intrigued by what could potentially be coming.
That kind of high society grant gave us one of the greatest satires of the century, 30 Rock, and last but not least. You can’t see Netflix – a streaming platform that is so far up its own ass that it constantly pushes its own features into the background of the content it produces – has so much humor about itself.
As soon as the new come on gets the green light, it’s underway. The only problem is regrouping the cast, who have all split up for tumultuous careers after the cancellation. There’s Reed (Keegan-Michael Key), whose Yale School of Drama-trained ego has kept him from playing a major role; Bree (Judy Greer), who had a small role in a sci-fi show she left to become a duchess in a fictional Nordic country; Clay (Johnny Knoxville), who settled into a crappy, drunken stand-up career; and Zack (Calum Worthy), a child star who grew up mostly normal, starring in a bunch of teen movies with titles straight out of a Arrested Development episode.
Every cast member hopes this reboot will be their ticket back in the spotlight, but it won’t be easy. There are messy relationships and old flames flare up again, while Hannah has to cope come on‘s original showrunner, Gordon (Paul Reiser), when brought in to direct the show (he still technically owns it). Gordon’s moody Gen-X sullenness makes the perfect foil for Hannah’s millennial writing, and it’s true within that statement Restart finds his funniest comic beats.
It’s impressive how good Restart straddled between his warring perspectives of Gordon’s outdated sitcom humor and Hannah’s overly awake, winking reinterpretation of come on. As the competing showrunners team up, the writer’s room is filled with recent graduates on Hannah’s side and crabby, washed-up sitcom writers on Gordon’s. Some of the show’s biggest laughs come from the scenes of the generations flinching at each other, most notably the combination of genius character actors Rose Abdoo and Fred Melamed.
What’s even better is that Restart never makes his boomer writers offensive, only regressive. It’s the middle finger of the show to comedians who constantly claim that “wake up” is a castration comedy. Here is the irrefutable proof that there is still plenty of punch to be found from a more socially conscious world. Restart understands the demarcation between intentionally offensive “comedy” for shock value and genuine humor.
Where the show occasionally stumbles is when it tries to balance that humor with emotional resonance. The core characters all have built-in histories of their relationships, but it takes a few episodes to really care about their lives and struggles; we need to see their chemistry, but not just be told about it. By the time we do, half of RestartThe eight-episode first season has already ended.
If there wasn’t a clever twist that lands at the end of the first episode, the show might have gotten a lot more lopsided than it ends up doing. But every time it remembers that its conceit is built around relationships that are as fleeting as they are tender, Restart gets himself back on track.
And while the show takes a long time to critique both its own existence on a streaming platform and the critical opinion of reboots, I felt I wished the knife would spin a little harder. The jokes at Hulu’s expense usually drop after the first few episodes, despite the potential for the next combination of Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy in Hannah and Gordon. Bloom and Reiser have a great and believable chemistry, exchanging punchlines at breakneck speed, and it would be nice to see how hard the two could roast Hulu.
The show really comes into its own while researching the culture of the reboot — so much so that I often didn’t realize how expertly it was done until the end of the season. Most reboots spend much of their runtime on heavy-handed nods to their own existence, almost congratulating themselves for daring to persevere amid criticism that there are no more original ideas in Hollywood. From the beginning, Restart forwards the way these movies and shows often try to fool audiences to claim to be edgy, more modern and more relevant than their predecessors, while being nothing like that. And at the same time, it studies how loudly these behind-the-scenes productions scream for that provocative energy, highlighting the cultural differences between the old guard and the new generation, often to heart-pounding results.
Restart can’t always avoid the shaky transition of pushing its creator Modern family-inspired style on a streaming platform that allows for more swearing and sexual content. But even with those growing pains, it delivers a really clever mockery of the current state of intellectual property. And with captivating performances from an eclectic cast of comedic actors, all bringing something unique to the table, Restart has the potential to go wild with its premise in an ever-changing entertainment landscape. I just hope that doesn’t have to wait until 20 years from now when Restart inevitably gets its own reboot.