Much like the titular video store at its center, Blockbuster is meant to evoke nostalgia. And it does. It’s specifically reminiscent of workplace comedies like Superstore, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Parks And Recreation, or the sadly short-lived Great News in terms of tonality, its diverse ensemble, and how it tries to tap into the zeitgeist. But ironically, a rise in varied streaming content has proven that sticking to an old formula isn’t enough to stand out. A feel-good, lighthearted sitcom like Blockbuster is always welcome, but the 10-episode first season is also uneven and predictable, despite the cast’s best efforts.
Netflix has been trying to succeed in the traditional sitcom, so it’s not surprising they tapped into NBC’s triumphant workplace comedy model—all while poking fun at themselves because, as everyone knows, Blockbuster shuttered most of its stores as Netflix rose to power. In fact, the very first joke in the premiere is about how audiences have quickly pivoted to streaming over renting DVDs. (Is it cruel, ironic, or meta that Blockbuster is a Netflix original? Perhaps it’s a mix of all three). Only one store remains open in real life today (in Bend, Oregon), and is loosely the inspiration for the show’s setting.
Created by Vanessa Ramos, Blockbuster is thankfully not as disappointing as other Netflix originals (like Pretty Smart, Country Comfort, Dad Stop Embarrassing Me!, Disjointed, Friends From College ... the list goes on and on) that have tried to recapture old-school sitcom magic. The series is at least sincere, if patchy, in portraying how these employees hold onto hope as their jobs slowly become obsolete.
Timmy Yoon (Randall Park) is the lovable manager of the last operating Blockbuster. He’s passionate about keeping the place open even as business dwindles. In typical Leslie Knope or Michael Scott fashion, his employees are pretty much like his family (a trope that rarely exists in the real world). He wants to keep the store afloat to ensure they’re taken care of. There’s not much to glean about why this store hasn’t been shuttered, which feels like quietly pushing a major plot point aside. The location isn’t faring well, so what makes it special? But apparently we don’t have to worry about that. Instead, the focus is on Timmy’s perseverance to keep it going despite a rent increase, eviction notice, rivalries with other stores in the strip mall, and other day-to-day challenges.
Endurance is the recurring theme among all of Timmy’s employees, including his long-time crush, Eliza (Melissa Fumero). She’s struggling to keep her marriage intact after her husband cheated on her, but she’s clearly harboring feelings for Timmy. Their will-they-won’t-they romance takes up a huge chunk of season one, and it’s sweet to watch even if Fumero and Park’s chemistry as a potential couple doesn’t shine through. They’re no B99's Jake Peralta and Amy Santiago, a previous role in which Fumero made a lasting impact. Here, she’s saddled with a mostly one-note character as a disheveled wife fighting to find her “me time.” Fumero is quite entertaining, but the script doesn’t do her justice.
Actually, every performer in Blockbuster elevates the weak writing, transforming the show from passable to pleasant enough. Park and Fumero’s past experiences with Fresh Off The Boat and B99, respectively, aid the ensemble. And American Vandal’s Tyler Alvarez and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before’s Madeleine Arthur are MVPs as the other fun duo, young coworkers and BFFs Carlos and Hannah. (Alvarez gets to sneak in a mention of drawing genitalia, a fun nod to AV’s spectacular first season.) While they’re all individually given limited descriptors, their group dynamic is tender and effective, which is a benefit for any workplace sitcom.
However, Blockbuster truly struggles with the laughs, in that there are barely any. Yes, there are plenty of pop culture references—from namedropping Midsommar and La La Land to calling James Corden a bully and a menace—but none of it elicits as much as a chuckle. The humor is either cringe-worthy or forced, as are the situations that lead to it, including a prank gone wrong and a ridiculous solar storm that briefly turns off the internet. The jokes often feel as dated as the Blockbuster gimmick it’s trying to pull off. At one point, a film-obsessed Carlos asks, “How am I supposed to be the next Tarantino if I don’t work at a video store?” The question just doesn’t feel relevant anymore. Not even J.B. Smoove’s sporadic appearances as Timmy’s cunning landlord, Percival, can save the day. In the end, these performances, as delightful as they are, cannot shoulder all of the burden.
Blockbuster premieres November 3 on Netflix.