The Surprisingly Enjoyable Rise of the Streaming Meta-Comedy
“Let’s remake something original!” a grinning Hulu executive says in the pilot episode of Hulu’s new series Reboot. He’s in the middle of greenlighting a remake of a corny early 2000s sitcom, and he couldn’t be more pleased with himself. He’s been charmed by the pitch for a gritty update on the family-friendly series from Hannah (Rachel Bloom), an indie screenwriter best known for her low-budget film Cunt Saw. The fictional Hulu suit radiates overconfident doofus energy; he’s so damn sure his show will be the mold-breaking original in a sea of insipid copycats. By the end of the first episode, though, the edgy script is scrapped for a more nostalgic, safer option. The only thing missing might be a live studio audience.
Created by industry veteran Steven Levitan (Just Shoot Me!, Modern Family), Reboot smuggles the comforting cadence of a network show within its self-referential streaming-era premise. Jabs at its streamer C-suite overlords are generally gentle, gentle enough that you can imagine how the actual self-congratulatory pitch meeting went: Instead of making a straightforward reboot like all those other jabronis … we’ll make a show about making a reboot … brilliant! It’s a bit smug, like watching someone chuckle at their own jokes. Luckily for Reboot, the show is funny enough to excuse this occasional clubby wink-winkiness. The stacked cast helps: Judy Greer, Johnny Knoxville, and Keegan-Michael Key play the three former stars of the Full House-ish Step Right Up, while Paul Reiser blusters in as the original showrunner unwilling to relinquish control and Alyah Chanelle Scott joins as canny newcomer Timberly, a reality star recruited from a show called Fuckbuddy Mountain to appeal to the younger demographic.
As with the show-within-the-show, Reboot’s charms are old-school: a will-they-won’t-they romance, a dirtbag on the road to redemption, a father and daughter trying to make amends, esteemed character actor Fred Melamed shining in a supporting role. (WIRED is a staunchly pro-Melamed publication.) Despite being a single-camera show about Hulu on Hulu, it hums along like a lightly modernized traditional network sitcom. The studio audience is gone, but the bones are the same.
Watching the Reboot scenes set in Hulu’s office may feel familiar, as they recall a plotline in the most recent season of another meta-comedy set in Hollywood, HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. In Curb, Seinfeld creator Larry David plays an exaggerated version of himself, and last season’s plotline involved him selling a semi-autobiographical show about his childhood, Young Larry, first to Netflix and then to Hulu. As with Reboot, the main Hulu honcho is a buffoon; as with Reboot, the buffoonery is portrayed mostly affectionately. They’re blockheads, but they’re our blockheads.
This summer, HBO introduced two more self-referential tales about the ins and outs of making television: Irma Vep, a miniseries remaking the 1996 Oliver Assayas film of the same name, which itself is about remaking a French silent film; and The Rehearsal, comedian Nathan Fielder’s recursive, weird-as-hell reality show that might not be a reality show (but which is definitely about the nature of reality). In contrast with Reboot, this pair of meta-comedies could not be further from traditional sitcoms, and both bend their forms into something that feels new. But The Rehearsal, where Fielder encourages people to rehearse important conversations or events in their lives, building detailed replicas of the environments in which they plan to have said conversations or events, is closer to performance art than anything else. It’s too unwieldy to compare to much else.
So back to Irma Vep. Like Reboot, Irma Vep sets itself within remake culture. Instead of a Hollywood backlot, it takes place in France, as a washed-up director tries to cling to relevance by reconstructing one of his old critical-hit films as a streaming television show. Both shows find humor in how futile attempts to create art from “IP” can be. As Reboot begins, Key’s lead actor Reed Sterling has struggled to find meaningful work since the ending of the original series, and hopes the ostensibly more serious-minded update will give him a chance to show the world he can really act. In Irma Vep, Alicia Vikander’s Mira Harberg is a sought-after movie star, but she takes on the project for a similar reason—she wants to be seen as a serious artist, and in this decrepit cultural moment, a rebooted story is somehow her best shot at prestige. Not all of Irma Vep hits (is Vikander’s wandering accent a deliberate commentary on the slipping standards of the streaming era or just plain bad?), but it’s still a fun, brainy romp. If Reboot is a paean to must-see TV tucked within a streaming meta comedy, Irma Vep is a paean to independent film nestled into the same.
The streaming-service mania for reboots, revivals, and remakes is, at this point, ancient news. (Wanna feel old? Netflix’s Arrested Development revival streamed nearly a decade ago.) It’s surprising that we’re only now seeing this strain of showbiz comedy crop up, since remake culture is an easy target. Hollywood always loves making movies and TV about itself. And after all, an optimization-obsessed network executive’s next logical step during a spree of green-lighting remakes might be green-lighting programming about remakes. More surprising, still: These shows are good.