Reboot Episode 5 Review: “What We Do in the Shadows” Digs Deeper

It would be easy for Reboot to rest on its laurels as a comedy with a talented cast and pithy Hollywood industry satire – in its first four episodes, Reboot‘s already displayed a talent for assuming a number of familiar comedic identities. But underneath those comedic stories about boner blockers, aging teen celebrities and second chances, Steve Levitan’s comedy is a reflection – on not just the mechanics of making television for thirty years, but on the passage of time and what it does to human relationships. Where the world shakes their fist at a culture Human Centipede-ing itself over and over again, Reboot sees an opportunity – and it’s becoming clear it aspires to be more than a collection of crass jokes and slightly insightful reminiscing about the sitcom days of old.

“What We Do in the Shadows”, though it is the series’ fifth episode, feels like the show’s first true departure from the pilot; in fact, with Elaine nowhere to be found, Reboot is explicitly avoiding its metatextual inclinations to crack jokes about TV production and famous people. At first, it certainly feels like its heading in that direction, with Reed’s pretentions and Bree’s burgeoning cult obsession driving the story in the episode’s early minutes.

Reboot What We Do in the Shadows

This is but a misdirection to guide us into what the episode is really about; as Hannah fools Gordon into dinner with Reed (who Gordon’s been avoiding since production began), “What We Do in the Shadows” slowly starts to turn its attention towards some of the unwritten stories baked into its premise. A show revival, after all, is almost like a high school reunion for a reunited cast and creative team – to the point that so many of these reboots and revivals just feel like an excuse for the cast to get paid to hang out again! (Exhibit A: Did anyone watch the Mad About You reboot on Spectrum Originals?).

But when you bring back together a group of people who parted ways decades ago, eventually things become unfrozen in time – old regrets, unresolved conflicts and jealousies, the good memories tangled up in them… each episode of Reboot has slowly dug into these with each character, a trend “What We Do in the Shadows” smartly accelerates with a clever shift in character dynamics.

Embracing the opportunity to switch up some of its established character pairings, the three running stories of “What We Do in the Shadows” are unique opportunities to build some depth into Reboot‘s world. With Reed and Gordon, it is releasing two decades of tension, exploring the proverbial lines drawn between creator and performer on the original series, and how that’s affected their relationship today. But what starts out as a pissing contest, slowly shifts into something much more affecting in the episode’s second act; rather than draw out a long, dramatic conflict between the two, Reboot turns its eyes towards the healing properties of time, turning the old-school restaurant (featuring legendary character actor E.J. Callahan as the elderly waiter, itself a bit that seems a nod to The Kominsky Method, where Reiser co-starred) into this transcendent space – one with very, very vague My Dinner with Andre vibes, of course.

Reboot What We Do in the Shadows

That surprising shift in tone is an interesting table-setter for the B and C stories, which each have their own, equally intriguing and unexpected emotional shifts. For much of the episode, Bree’s adventures into “feminist” MLM schemes seems a simple avenue for Reboot to blow off some steam with a light, goofy episode featuring Clay… that is, until “What We Do in the Shadows” pulls away from Bree’s ludicrous, mushroom-addled adventures and reveals Clay is in recovery, celebrating 30 days sober the night she goes to the world’s sketchiest vagina candle party.

I really like how Reboot teases these bits out of ostensibly “traditional” sitcom stories; the Clay material is a real highlight for the young comedy, something that takes advantage of Johnny Knoxville’s muted performance to reveal the true heart of the series, a comedy about a bunch of people down on their luck trying to find ways to be better, to evolve just enough that they can find some peace and solace in a world overrun by idiots driven by pain. That may seem like paraphrasing, but how “What We Do in the Shadows” so quietly introduces Clay’s journey of sobriety into a story about a former duchess taking psychedelics is the kind of story construction that makes one sit up and take notice, an arc that could feel incidental or weightless on a less carefully-measured series (hell, had Reboot introduced this earlier in the series, I don’t think it works).

That moment, and the connection formed between Bree and Clay as a result of it, is something modern sitcoms often don’t strive for – save for a select few that have aired on FX over the past few years (Better Things and Louie being chief among them). But something I’ve noticed about Reboot is its dedication to its insular exploration of self in a positive sense, not letting the inherently misanthropic nature of comedy to infect what is pretty clearly a show about reconciliation – with the world, with others, and most importantly, of the self.

Reboot What We Do in the Shadows

Now, that’s a lot of heavy shit for a show that’s ostensibly a comedy; and though Reboot‘s hit-to-miss joke ratio is still a bit underwhelming sometimes, there’s no denying the promise in how its blended its high-concept, meta premise into something more meaningful than simple observations on the State of the Sitcom (though those have grown more interesting by the week!). But in case you thought those stories were a little too weight-y for a half-hour comedy, along comes Hannah’s decision to get involved with the lives of her cast members – which is mostly just her in Zack’s ex-girlfriend’s apartment, trying to avoid the aggressive dog she is reluctantly working out a custody agreement with.

Putting aside the underutilization of Esther Povitsky as Zack’s ex Marcy, the obvious C plot of the episode still provides some value in helping establish Hannah as a character independent of her father’s presence (which we only had for a few scenes in the pilot episode). Peeling back the familial drama a bit for Hannah reveals an interesting character, one willing to blur the traditional lines between professional and personal lives, in the way all millennials do (you know, since all our community spaces are gone and we exist mostly to work off debt). Of course, here it is mostly utilized to serve as the other, more comedic side of the coin to Gordon’s story about about mixing work and empathy – but that’s an important role to serve, albeit one that doesn’t provide much value outside of its ability to machine gun fire jokes at the audience.

“What We Do in the Shadows” is easily the most interesting episode of Reboot yet, with a slight adjustment to the show’s formula that sets it up to for a (potentially) tremendous final run to its first season. As Step Right Up‘s production continues and Reboot beings to pull on these established threads of character, it is beginning to reveal a more challenging, versatile comedy than even its premise (or its pedigree) would’ve suggested; that kind of promise is not seen very often, and if Reboot can capitalize on the opportunity it has built, it could deliver one of the best freshman seasons of comedy we’ve seen in quite awhile.

Grade: B+

Other thoughts/observations:

  • All this, in the shortest episode of the season to date?! Yes please, and may I have some more!
  • Is pissing on Chuck Lorre’s Hollywood star a bit on-the-nose and petty? Sure, but it doesn’t make it any less fucking awesome. (Again, Reiser worked on Lorre’s The Kominsky Method, which sits right next to Mom as the best work on his oeuvre).
  • “Y2Gay” is one of the greatest episode titles I’ve ever heard.
  • There’s a quasi-commercial in the middle of this episode for Siri that I could do without… though it does teaches one how to place a pin, which I guess is more useful than most product placement bits?
  • Hannah’s “the fuck” reaction to the sight of Butternut the dog is goddamn priceless. Like Knoxville, Bloom is playing a role that’s a lot less bombastic than their most iconic roles to date, which offers a really nice textural contrast to their on-screen performances, and continues to reshape the expectations of what kind of series Reboot is aspiring to be.

Randy Dankievitch

Randy is the founder of Processed Media and The Mid-Season Replacements Podcast, and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved TV critic. He's written about TV and culture across the internet since 2010, and also writes for UpPortland Magazine and Goomba Stomp/Tilt Magazine.

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