Over the past decades, Steven Levitan has worked on some of television’s most important and comprehensive sitcoms. Of fraser and The Larry Sanders Show to the recent success of the co-creation modern family, Levitan knows the ins and outs of making network TV comedies. This insight into formulas and tropes makes him the perfect creator for To restart, a series that both parodies the sitcom conceits we’ve all seen over the years, while also existing in this over-the-top world. While Levitan knows how that world works, his first off-network comedy often tries too hard to prove that the rules of streaming comedy are a whole new world to an entertaining degree.
As the name suggests, To restart centers on an attempt to revive an early 2000s sitcom called Go up to the right. The writer Hannah (Rachel Bloom) wants to support this family comedy, but with a modern twist that doesn’t avoid the real issues that sitcoms typically avoid. This reboot will also bring back the original cast, which includes Reed Sterling (Key Keegan-Michael), who left the original series to shoot a movie; Bree Marie LarsonJudy Greer), an actress-turned-duchess who was dating Reed; Clay Barber (Johnny Knoxville), a comedic bad boy with substance abuse issues; and Zack (Worthy of Calum), the former child star who has now grown up, well, physically, not mentally. The cast seems extremely committed to the idea of this new take on the sitcom, that is, until original series creator Gordon (Paul Reiser) decides he wants to return to the show as well, but with a more standard sitcom style in mind.
To restart is undoubtedly at its best when Levitan and the show’s writers parody the television industry and the absurdity of it all. The first episode, “Step Right Up,” begins with Hannah pitching her idea to Hulu, where executives brag about the audacity to renew The Handmaid’s Tale for a new season and throw up how many reboots there have been recently. Even Hulu’s vice president for comedy, Elaine Kim (Krista Marie Yu) admits she’s “new to comedy” and was put in her place due to a series of mergers, including Disney buying Fox. It’s in those times when To restart is the closest to showing teeth, insulting the fakeness of reality TV, especially with the show Mountain buddy fuck— and having a character literally pissing on a tribute to another infamous sitcom creator. There’s clearly years of irritations coming out here, and that’s when To restart also has the most fun with his concept.
But especially in the first episodes, To restart it almost feels like it’s trying to prove it should be streaming and not on network TV. In Hannah’s speech to Hulu, she says to Go up to the right that she wants to “fuck with it, but in a fun way,” and it really does seem like that was part of Levitan’s pitch to the streaming service as well. Especially with this first episode (with a Levitan story, a Levitan teleplay and John Enbom), there seems to be an attempt to push language, gender, and behavior that might not be allowed on network TV as a way to justify its existence on Hulu. Fortunately, the show calms down trying to push it that way after the early episodes and finds a good mix of standard sitcom ideals and a more realistic take on the concept.
However, what mainly To restart the work is this impressive cast, which allows for strong character combinations and storylines across these eight episodes. The show never quite goes beyond sitcom-y setups, although there are hints that there would be more in a possible second season, but with such a good cast, it’s not noticeable until the show tries to get a little more heartfelt. But every member of that cast gets a character that interestingly matches what we know they’re capable of, from Key being a straight big man, to some of the wackiest antics, to Knoxville being able to go wild in a role that demands always let him be more restrained than we are used to from him.
But especially in this first season, the strongest dynamic comes between Bloom and Reiser, as they try to make this show work as a team. In doing so, both Bree and Gordon fill the writer’s room with a team that matches their way of thinking. Gordon has a more seasoned comedy team full of inappropriate jokes and health issues, while Bree’s team is more forward-thinking and honest about modern comedy. While at first this dynamic is clunky and forced, it eventually becomes one of the show’s most charming balances. The same goes for Bree and Gordon, as they try to find common ground and begin to understand each other’s way of thinking in the world of TV comedy. It’s a great casting choice, as Reiser and Bloom themselves fit into these roles, but can also easily play in each other’s sandbox.
And yet, despite this excellent cast, perhaps the star of this first season comes from Worthy, as a child star who wants to be considered one of the adults in the cast. Worthy plays Zack with a charming openness and naivety that goes well with his childlike demeanor. While these other cast members are stuck in the complications of their lives and careers, Zack is a ball of joy that never stops. It could have gotten grating quickly, but Worthy’s performance always makes him a welcome presence in any storyline.
As Step Right Up’s writing room, To restart sometimes seems torn between two ideals: the standard world of sitcoms and an attempt to do something new and fresh. But like this writer’s room, the series eventually strikes a balance that will likely please both fans of Levitan’s more standard sitcom work and something that takes a few solid hits in the TV industry at large.
The first three episodes of To restart premiering on Hulu on September 20, with new episodes released every Tuesday.