Reboot and Our Nostalgia for a Family-Sitcom World That Never Was

9 minute read

You’ve never seen Step Right Up, but trust me, you already know it well. It’s a Y2K-era family sitcom about a couple co-parenting the wife’s young son with her ex—who also lives with them. It’s Full House meets Step by Step, with a dash of Two and a Half Men boorishness. There are zany antics, slapstick gags, and a laugh track. The characters are broad but lovable and eager to learn from one another.

The fact that the show doesn’t exist hasn’t stopped it from being revived—in Reboot, a smart, perfectly cast Hulu comedy premiering Sept. 20. Created by Steven Levitan, whose credits includes both family sitcoms (Modern Family) and TV shows about TV shows (The Larry Sanders Show), Reboot is meta to the max. It opens with 30-something indie filmmaker Hannah (Rachel Bloom) pitching executives from, yes, Hulu on a Step Right Up sequel starring original cast members played by Judy Greer and Keegan-Michael Key. The suits are incredulous. What, they ask, could possibly interest an edgy, young auteur about reheating 20-year-old schmaltz? “You know how, in the old sitcom, the characters always did the right thing?” she explains. “They don’t do the right thing anymore.”

New Girl
Paul Reiser and Rachel Bloom in 'Reboot'Hulu

Just as Hannah’s vision of the show starts to take shape, the execs drop a bombshell: Step Right Up’s baby boomer creator, Gordon (Paul Reiser), thinks her script is too dark and socially conscious, and has returned to “fix” it. “Now the world is just a mess,” he tells the shocked cast. “And people need comfort. They don’t want kale salad. Let’s give ’em mac and cheese.” As he and Hannah play tug-of-war in the writers’ room, and actors desperate for a second chance awkwardly reunite, Reboot becomes an observant show about the tension between a generation raised, in the late ’80s through the early aughts, on artificially sunny family sitcoms and the elders who manufactured that false optimism. But the conflict isn’t solely intergenerational. The millennial characters are also working through their love-hate relationships with a show that played such an outsize role in their childhoods.

Reboot is hardly the first series to get self-aware about TV’s endless torrent of reboots, remakes, and remixes. (In 2019, Fox’s BH90210 followed the original Beverly Hills, 90210 cast, playing exaggerated versions of themselves, as they tried to make a revival of their era-defining teen soap.) What it does so insightfully, and without spoiling the fun, is to frame that profit-motivated industry trend within a present where the cheerful family sitcoms of two or three decades ago have proven to be pure fantasy. The show suggests why so many viewers, millennials in particular, are so eager to revisit old favorites—and also why those revivals rarely work. Nostalgia for a world that never existed can never be satisfied.

From left: Andrea Barber, Jodie Sweetin, and Candace Cameron Bure in 'Fuller House'Michael Yarish—Netflix

It’s hard to say when TV’s recycling mania began in earnest, but the acclaimed mid-’00s reboots of sci-fi classics Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica certainly proved that such projects could succeed. Streaming supercharged the trend, starting with Netflix’s 2013 revival of Arrested Development (technically a family sitcom, but one whose absurdist humor would be lost on the elementary-school set). The next year, Disney Channel made ’90s Boy Meets World sweethearts Cory and Topanga the parents of Girl Meets World’s titular tween. And since then, platforms have made a practice of snatching the wholesome family comedies whose intellectual-property rights they control from the purgatory of after-school syndication.

More often than not, these comebacks have been, like Girl Meets World, straightforward attempts to recreate the kind, comforting vibes of the original series. Netflix’s 2016 Full House sequel Fuller House moved the Tanner girls back into their famously overstuffed childhood home and slotted Candace Cameron Bure, Jodie Sweetin, and Andrea Barber into versions of the tripartite parental roles played by Bob Saget, John Stamos, and Dave Coulier in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Updated with a few nonwhite cast members and the occasional joke about social media, its tone—saccharine-sweet and optimistic to the point of delusion—could have come straight out of a time capsule from ABC’s bygone, family-friendly “TGIF” lineup.

At first, Fuller House was a hit that seemed to justify Netflix’s investment in the same bland millennial-nostalgia content that had, years earlier, fueled everything from VH1’s talking-head franchise I Love the… to the rise of BuzzFeed. Although it would ultimately last a solid five seasons, perhaps because it aired at a time when Netflix rarely canceled its originals, viewership reportedly dropped off by 52% between seasons 1 and 2. Meanwhile, Full House creator Jeff Franklin’s ouster midway through the revival’s run, after a misconduct investigation, cast the franchise’s signature gently didactic voice in a more cynical light. In 2021, a similarly straight-faced sequel to ’80s plucky-orphan comedy Punky Brewster—one that had Soleil Moon Frye’s title character, now in her 40s, repeating cringey catch phrases like “Punky power!”—had the distinction of becoming the first half-hour sitcom canceled by Peacock.

Bel-Air - Season 1
Olly Sholotan and Jabari Banks in 'Bel-Air'Evans Vestal Ward—Peacock

These shows existed in a time warp. American society at the end of the last century was no utopia, but it was an innocent-enough era that family entertainment could get away with twee depictions of domestic life. A generation later, however, these lovefests rang false to every kind of viewer. They weren’t for parents raised on the Tanners, who’d spent adult lives plagued by economic instability and political flux bingeing Game of Thrones. And they weren’t for kids growing up with school shootings, global warming, and a pandemic, in an Internet-poisoned culture defined by nastiness. (Didn’t it just figure that ABC’s 2018 Roseanne revival had to kill off its lead and become The Conners after some nasty Twitter invective from the real Roseanne?)

In recent years, streamers have begun to acknowledge changing times with irreverent revivals, yielding slightly better results. Peacock’s 2020 remix of Saved by the Bell from millennial creator Tracey Wigfield added working-class kids, a Trumpian heel turn for Zack Morris, and a much-needed sense of irony to spice up what was once an NBC teen sitcom so tame, it made Boy Meets World look racy. But jokes at the expense of the original series got old fast, and Wigfield’s take got canceled after two seasons. Now, it remains to be seen whether Bel-Air—a gritty, teen-drama reboot of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air that premiered on the same platform in February—will survive past Peacock’s initial two-season order.

'BoJack Horseman'Netflix

Television’s family-comedy-nostalgia complex has, by my count, yielded two masterpieces, neither of which is an extension of an established brand. “Too Many Cooks,” the viral 2014 Adult Swim short, spun a hokey, Full-House-style opening credits sequence into a delirious sendup of late-20th-century TV that succinctly surveys its hundreds of nonsensical tropes. More poignant was Netflix’s BoJack Horseman, an animated dramedy about a vice-addled anthropomorphic horse who starred in a ’90s sitcom, Horsin’ Around, as the surrogate father to three human orphans. In a monologue that Reboot’s mac-and-cheese analogy echoes, BoJack explains the appeal of shows like Horsin’ Around: after a hard day in the real world, people want to watch something where “no matter what happens, at the end of 30 minutes everything’s gonna turn out OK.” But what if those fictions only set up audiences for a lifetime of disappointment? As BoJack spent six seasons wrestling with addiction, depression, and childhood trauma, his long family-sitcom hangover felt like a magnification of our own.

Despite their considerable differences in tone, there are other parallels between BoJack and Reboot, which includes a sort of BoJack-lite character in the rootless, debauched, intermittently incarcerated comedian Clay Barber, played by Jackass ringmaster Johnny Knoxville. More importantly, both shows are interested in wholesome family sitcoms’ relationship to the experience of growing up in a real, imperfect family. In one scene, Elaine (Krista Marie Yu), a young executive, confesses: “When I was a kid, my parents worked all the time, and I was usually home alone, studying and watching TV shows about families that always seemed happier than mine.”

Step Right Up
Keegan-Michael Key in 'Reboot'Hulu

Hannah has plenty of her own formative wounds wrapped in the show. And instead of offering viewers the empty comforts of a world set right within half an hour, her priority is the truth, to the extent that such a standard can be applied to fictional characters. She wants to hold them accountable for their sometimes-indefensible actions, and to see the grim realities of 2022 acknowledged within the three walls of their cozy living-room set. This is how she hopes to reconcile childhood fantasies with a long history of disappointment.

BoJack took a dim view of such efforts; modest personal change might be possible after decades of hard work, its character arcs allowed, but the damage of the past can never truly be undone. Reboot, an essentially optimistic comedy that exposes the artifice of a more antiquated brand of optimistic comedy, makes the case that kale and macaroni belong on the same plate—that Hannah and Gordon are better off collaborating across the generation gap. In one of the show’s smartest touches, Gordon disrupts Hannah’s diverse, young, high-achieving writers’ room by bringing in a handful of politically incorrect veteran comedy writers. At first it looks like the two factions will go to war. Yet through mutual good faith, they learn to not only work together, but also enjoy each other’s company.

I don’t think the aim of Reboot is to heal millennial trauma or mend the rift between generations or teach any kind of hugging-and-learning lesson. (That assumption would, for one thing, erase the pure fun of story lines centered on the self-dramatizing actor characters.) Rather, it channels viewers’ ambivalence toward the unrealistic shows that shaped us into a compelling blend of comedic sensibilities new and old. Sappy sitcoms age poorly, but kindness is a classic.

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