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The single sharpest joke of Netflix’s Blockbuster is the one contained right there in that phrase: This is a comedy set at the very last Blockbuster on Earth, premiering on the very platform that helped kill all the other Blockbusters.
The irony is so striking and unavoidable that the series tackles it head-on in the very first scene, as a customer admits he hasn’t come by lately because he’s been “doing Netflix, like everybody.” The recommendation algorithm’s been letting him down, though, and that’s where the store staff comes in. It takes a human touch to deduce that what he really needs for his broken heart is Under the Tuscan Sun, when he’d never have picked it out for himself.
But having made a point about the importance of brick-and-mortar retail in an online world, complete with a rousing speech ripped from Independence Day, Blockbuster struggles to make any similarly inspiring case for itself. It’s a perfectly pleasant watch, with jokes that go down easy and a solid cast anchored by Randall Park and Melissa Fumero. It’s just missing the special something extra it needs to distinguish itself in the Streaming Wars era.
Hailing from Superstore and Brooklyn Nine-Nine vet Vanessa Ramos, with Happy Endings‘ David Caspe and Jackie Clarke among its producers, Blockbuster has down pat the well-worn rhythms of a modern workplace sitcom. The will-they-won’t-they dynamic between boss Timmy (Park) and star employee Eliza (Fumero) mixes and matches elements of both Superstore‘s Jonah and Amy (with Eliza as both the overqualified dropout and the unhappily married mom) and Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s Jake and Amy (with Timmy as the man-child who never got over his parents’ split).
Meanwhile, the larger ensemble relies on the coworkers-as-family dynamic baked into the genre, coming in less sour than early Office and less sticky-sweet than late Office. Blockbuster‘s greatest asset is a cast stuffed with seasoned pros who need little time to grow into their roles. If you already like Park, Fumero or JB Smoove (who plays Timmy’s fast-talking BFF/landlord Percy), they’re playing very much to type here; if you’re most familiar with Olga Merediz from In the Heights, Blockbuster offers her a chance to show off a much different side as kooky mama hen Connie.
More of its jokes land than not, and the ones that don’t slip by quietly on a wave of benign cheeriness. The first season yields few belly laughs, but there are amusing cracks directed at everything from the phony niceness of James Corden to the creepiness of Precious Moments-type figurines, and a few more aimed at the quirks of working on the fringes of the entertainment biz. One episode’s subplot about a hellaciously difficult-to-construct standee for an Emma Stone release called Thimble 2: Thumb Wars manages to poke fun at franchise stans, Hollywood’s sequel obsession and the weirdness of movie promo campaigns all in one go.
But if Blockbuster isn’t doing anything especially wrong, its shortcoming is that it’s also not doing anything impressively right. After ten half-hour episodes, it has not yet found a spark like 30 Rock‘s distinctive comic sensibility or Parks and Recreation‘s knack for world-building or Abbott Elementary and Superstore‘s interest in social critique. In fairness, it may yet hone these strengths or find new ones if it scores a season-two renewal; plenty of comedies take a season or more to come into their own. At this point, however, even most of its characters feel like a relatively mild bunch, slotting into tried-and-true archetypes like the ditzy sweetheart (Madeleine Arthur’s Hannah) or the surly teen (Kamaia Fairburn’s Kayla) with few new twists.
If there is one standout exception, it’s Tyler Alvarez’s Carlos, who envisions the job as a necessary stepping stone to becoming the next Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez. Not coincidentally, he’s the character who feels most specifically tailored to the show’s premise and setting — his journey wouldn’t hit quite the same way in anything but a video store, whether he’s running around making shorts of the footage he captures at work or going toe-to-toe with an unpaid intern over horror movie trivia. The other characters, by contrast, might have been equally fulfilled or unfulfilled working at Percy’s party-supply store a few doors down.
The issue is not that Blockbuster should have featured only film nerds; plenty of people take jobs simply because they’re available rather than because they satisfy some lifelong passion. It’s that, outside of Carlos, the series does not so far seem to have any particular reason for being set in the last Blockbuster on Earth. Its plots hinge mostly on vague notions about the challenges of small businesses (because that’s what Timmy’s Blockbuster becomes without a corporate overlord) and the importance of community (mostly defined here as in-person transactions and the occasional marketing event).
Without much idea of how to capitalize on its uniquely compelling premise, Blockbuster winds up a fairly standard-issue workplace sitcom dressed up in blue-and-yellow logos that might strike a chord with viewers of a certain age. It’s certainly agreeable enough for a Blockbuster night, as we ancient millennials used to call evenings spent watching stuff on the couch, but come morning it may well disappear into Netflix’s endless rows of content.
“Never underestimate nostalgia. Nothing thrills people more than knowing their memory still works,” a character wryly observes at one point — while she’s not wrong about the pull of the past, old formulas do have their limits. Just ask the show’s namesake.
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