A TV writer, Hannah, pitches a roomful of Hulu executives on a reboot of a generic early 2000s network sitcom. The Hulu executives green-light the show, which Hannah has marketed as a potentially edgy intervention in an otherwise saccharine genre, with Hannah’s revisions. Reboots, after all, are a safe investment; almost a dozen recent and existing reboots—Full House, Saved by the Bell, The Wonder Years, Boy Meets World, Gilmore Girls, Fresh Prince, Gossip Girl, and many others—are mentioned among the Hulu team members to back up this claim.
So begins Hulu’s 2022 show Reboot, a fictionalized, behind-the-scenes look at the revival of Step Right Up!, a sappy sitcom about a man dealing with the ups and downs of living with his new step-family, spearheaded by Hannah (played by Rachel Bloom of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend). The plot is a humorous jab at the TV industry itself, but the real twist of Reboot—spoilers to follow—comes at the end of the first episode. The original Step Right Up! was not just about any generic step-family, as is the case with most sitcoms of the era. Instead, the show was about Hannah’s own father, Gordon, who wrote Step Right Up! as an ode to the family he married into after he abruptly abandoned Hannah when she was just seven years old (a detail that does not appear in the original sitcom, for obvious reasons). Hannah wants to reveal this real-life betrayal in her reboot, specifically by unveiling in the pilot episode the return of the long-lost daughter. It quickly becomes apparent—both to the characters as well as to the viewer—that Reboot is just as much about rewriting a piece of TV history as it is about rewriting one’s personal history, at times blending the two together in a fantasy of revision, revenge, and repair.
Hannah watched herself be written out of her father’s life not once, but twice (first, when he left to start a new family, and a second time, in the sitcom he writes about his step-family, where her proxy never even appears). And so Hannah’s looking backward in her desire to rewrite Step Right Up! is not an ode to her father, or even their shared craft of screenwriting. Instead, Hannah’s desire to rewrite Step Right Up! quite literally evokes one of the most well-known self-destructive impulses: repetition compulsion, the maladaptive desire to repeat a trauma—like one’s own childhood abandonment—over and over again either because one does not remember the original traumatic event, or because one does. In the latter iteration, the desire to repeat—or here, reboot—expresses the wish for things to go differently the next time around.
Hannah’s fantasy, then, and that of Reboot as a whole, is not the same fantasy that “reboots” supposedly enact. A reboot typically revisits history on the basis that the past bears remembering, and, more so, cherishing and replicating. But Reboot likens this remembering as an encounter with a past we had rather not have happened at all, so much so that we try to actively rework it in the present. This sort of revisitation is not the kind of narcissism that television typically has in mind, the kind where TV cannot resist its own image, reflecting on its glory days of yore. Reboot therefore turns the reboot’s function on its head, as it uses family trauma as TV trauma: Was TV really more fun back then, we begin to ask, when its comedic pleasures, often heralded as one of television’s best qualities, were often at the expense of others? What if the past was not as good as we remember it?
Despite their ubiquity on post–network era TV, reboots are a seriously undertheorized television form. It is perhaps because of the reboot’s pervasiveness—it feels like a streaming platform launches a rebooted ’80s sitcom or early aughts teen drama nearly every day—that television critics largely overlook the genre. Reboots also feel primed for the now overrehearsed refrains of postmodern critique that rose to prominence in the ’90s; reboots are nostalgic, superficial, imitative, and disingenuous, the peak cannibalistic genre of the most cannibalistic medium of our postmodern age: television. Always consuming other media to sustain its own existence, television, in the tale as old as the medium itself, cannot resist the lure of formulas, tried-and-true.
Yet we are no longer in the era where television needs to justify its own existence. Even if we are now on the downward-slope side of “peak TV,” (where any show, new or existing, seems vulnerable to an untimely death), we first arrived at the summit because television has become increasingly important. This significance, without a doubt, is somewhat correlated with the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused a massive shift to home entertainment and created captive audiences for newer streaming platforms like HBO Max (now “Max” after the WarnerBros. Discovery merger) that were trying to fill their libraries with fresh, original content. Now that we are on the other side of things (both of television’s peak and, as White House rumblings seem to indicate, the pandemic), shows that may have otherwise gotten a free pass only a year ago are subject to cancellation and sometimes to disappearing from platforms altogether.
What does post-peak-TV look like? As a recent Planet Money episode of NPR revealed, streamers have begun enlisting austerity measures—most notably, the return of commercial breaks, higher subscriptions fees, password-sharing crackdowns, and cutting back on residual payments—to curb their accruing debt. These austerity policies, though seemingly just a matter of how one watches TV, emerge in the narrative content of the series produced as well. Now, once again, the preference is to create watercooler series (TV’s equivalent of the Hollywood blockbuster) that amass as many viewers as possible.
Such mass appeal contrasts with streamers’ prior strategy of generating niche content that may garner smaller but loyal audiences. In this, platforms were adhering to a long-standing legacy of the “quality TV” strategy, an approach first enlisted by network television in the 1970s and 1980s to attract a more “upscale” clientele through boutique programming. Shows as varied in genre as The Mary Tyler Moore Show to Hill Street Blues to Twin Peaks became part of a television lineage aimed at improving the midcentury image of television as mindless, commercial drivel. Attributes like intertextuality, reflexivity, and literary authorship—all meant to draw attention to the television text as such—became synonymous with producing “quality” television images.
This television legacy, what Jane Feuer once called TV’s relentless “self-consciousness and obsessive self-referencing,” is the other side of the cannibalistic coin. In its endless consumption of itself and other media, another television truism often emerges: TV can rarely resist its own narcissism.
Was TV really more fun back then when its comedic pleasures, often heralded as one of television’s best qualities, were often at the expense of others? What if the past was not as good as we remember it?
So too with Reboot, a television show about the making of a television show based on a television show. The opportunities for self-reflection are seemingly infinite, as Hannah does not just want to reveal her father’s dark secret but also the flaws and imperfections of the other sitcom characters. In Reboot’s opening episode, her identity as a lesbian, feminist, indie filmmaker (known on the indie film circuit for her SXSW debut Cunt Saw) repeatedly serves as shorthand for Step Right Up!’s newfound edgy potential, so much so that the Hulu executives are excited rather than horrified by the prospect of transforming the once-cheery, two-dimensional cast into characters who “don’t do the right thing anymore.” The original cast—portrayed by Judy Greer, Keegan-Michael Key, Johnny Knoxville, and Calum Worthy—is brought back to reprise their roles. Made rougher by the passage of time and various tribulations (stalled employment, divorce, and addiction), the cast is excited to break out of their stagnant television careers with Hannah’s more politically conscious and socially aware script.
Chaos ensues when the sitcom’s original baby boomer showrunner, Gordon (played by sitcom veteran Paul Reiser), unexpectedly intervenes and halts production of the series because the newer, edgier rewrites are neither true to the original nor to his liking. “You’ve got jokes with no punchlines, over-complicated characters, social commentary, blah blah blah. I told her I’m gonna fix it,” Gordon brags to the cast after Hannah storms out of his office. Disturbed by the prospect of going back to Gordon’s version of corny, slapstick, and occasionally offensive humor, the cast refuses to shoot the sitcom without Hannah’s contributions, going as far as to show up at Hannah’s house to beg her to come back. This is when it is finally revealed to the cast—and the viewer—that Hannah is not just a writer trying to break into the TV scene from an indie filmmaker career: she is Gordon’s daughter.
Whether it’s blurring genres like situation comedy or soap opera, or troubling the separation of personal and public space, television is famously “recombinant.” A term Todd Gitlin once used to describe ’80s prime-time TV, recombination is essentially repetition, but with an ever-so-slight difference. A step up from the mere copy or spin-off, recombinant TV is that which takes a successful formula and simply adds to it. Combining the pleasure of novelty and the desire for constancy, recombination is—much to television executives’ delight—a reliable strategy to keep viewers engaged and appeased. It is rare nowadays to see a series that adheres to strict and distinct conventions of genre and setting; if anything, recombination is almost required for a series to achieve any kind of longevity or acclaim.
Yet, Reboot perhaps reveals the limits of this logic. When the series was swiftly canceled in early 2023 after its first season had concluded, viewers and critics alike were disappointed and surprised. As with any canceled TV series in our social media age, responses varied from calls to save the show (the efforts to shop it out to another streamer failed) to speculations as to what might have prompted its cancellation, a decision made unbeknownst to even the actors and showrunner. The answer may lie in the show’s content. The recombination at the heart of Reboot is neither just a simple mixing of genres, nor is it a classic case of workplace drama overlaid with familial tones (though it is indeed both of those things). Rather, it is Reboot’s adherence to a reliable legacy of television self-reflexivity—where the medium serves as a siphon for the anxieties around television’s role in society itself, as well as for social issues more broadly—that may have dealt the series its final blow.
More than just a humorous imaging of the reboot process behind the curtain, Reboot tries to reflect on aesthetics of television through familial and generational metaphors. For example, the caricatured writer’s room becomes a tug-of-war between the baby boomer TV writers, who are painted as politically incorrect, crass, and socially inept, and the millennials, who appear “woke,” fragile, and moralizing in comparison to their elder counterparts. Predictably, debates ensue between the millennials and boomers about what does or does not make good TV humor. But the age gap plays out most prominently and most compellingly with Hannah and her father. It is ultimately Hannah’s character who is driven by a desire for change, determined to rewrite characters who “don’t do the right thing anymore,” not because there was a moment they ever did the right thing, but because they perhaps never really had.
Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the show would make Hannah a queer, feminist, killjoy filmmaker: the most readily available stereotype and widely reviled example of a person whose own pleasure comes from ruining the pleasures of others. As far as TV history goes, and specifically television that is about television, feminism is permitted only when its job is to make things look better than they appear. The Mary Tyler Moore Show, for example, used its associations with liberal feminism to improve television’s image (Mary was “not like other girls,” therefore The Mary Tyler Moore Show was not like other TV); in Murphy Brown, feminism was appropriated for humor at its own expense (feminism can be funny when it’s the butt of the joke!).1 Unlike feminism in sitcoms of the televisual past, Reboot’s latent feminism seems determined to reveal that television might be exactly what it appears to be and exactly how we remembered it.
Rather than the feminist revenge fantasy that might have been (a generous interpretation to be sure), Reboot marks yet another recent TV series met with a premature demise. Because it is merely a reflection on the mode itself, Reboot’s cancellation is certainly not an indication that TV’s current reboot mania will decelerate anytime soon. What it does indicate, perhaps, is the kinds of memories TV is willing to remember, and what it would rather repress.
- Kirsten Marthe Lentz, “Quality versus Relevance: Feminism, Race, and the Politics of the Sign in 1970s Television,” Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies, vol. 15, no. 1 (2000); Bonnie J. Dow, Prime-Time Feminism: Television, Media Culture, and the Women’s Movement since 1970 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996). ↩