On the Cannibalistic Dissonance of Netflix’s Blockbuster, from a Former Blockbuster Employee

Manufacturing nostalgia for the monster retail chain that murdered video rental.

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On the Cannibalistic Dissonance of Netflix’s Blockbuster, from a Former Blockbuster Employee

Consider Francisco Goya’s painting Saturn Devouring His Son, a gory and harrowing depiction of filicidal cannibalism by a man aware of his own encroaching madness. It’s a work of art about cyclical violence—Caelus oppressed his wife and children, so Saturn castrated him and ended his rule. We know that Saturn is destined to be defeated and usurped by Jove, hence the preventive cannibalism. The mighty know they will be overthrown, because they, too, were once usurpers.

I promise that I am writing about Blockbuster, not the corporate video rental chain that succumbed to a slow wasting death in 2014, but the show on Netflix, which is literally the company that killed the show’s namesake. It is a show that has such things as sets, camera angles, characters, and plots (I think). There’s the glimmer of a thesis in the first episode, and it would ordinarily be the sort of thing I’d say marks the show as an important one, because it is kind of exactly what I lamented about Blockbuster myself back in 2018 right here at Paste.

As noted in Rory Doherty’s properly scathing review, Timmy (Randall Park, who deserves better than this) is the last manager of the last Blockbuster Video on Earth. (The fictionalized location is in the grey Midwest, even though the true final Blockbuster lives on in Bend, Oregon.) Timmy is left holding the bag when Blockbuster Video, the corporation, goes under, and the show is about his attempts to navigate the needs of the store and his zany employees. In the pilot, Timmy laments that the small town shops surrounding them are all going out of business, that an algorithm can’t smile at you when you walk into a brick and mortar store and recommend just the right kind of movie you haven’t seen before.

It’s true, of course, and it is a truth at the center of what’s made our country into an archipelago of lonely living rooms connected, seemingly, by nothing more than the internet and a bunch of 16-lane highways. But where the hell does this show, about this dead retailer, brought to us by this distributor, get off saying so?

Like Saturn and Jove, Blockbuster and Netflix are two corporate titans who slugged it out, their war sundering the very land around them, the old howling as it fell to the new. These things always turn on ingenuity: Saturn reached into his mother Terra’s depths to create the adamant scythe, and his son commissioned the lightning bolt from the cyclops. Netflix snapped up a massive catalog that it would mail to you without ever charging one of those hated late fees, then became a streaming pioneer. It moved too fast and too smart, and it killed Blockbuster dead.

The metaphor breaks down here, because Blockbuster didn’t slay a titan to get where it was. It punched out local mom and pop video stores, bought up the fields once owned by the little guy and salted them, replacing quirky small businesses with row upon row of new releases and basically nothing else. Just as brick and mortar retail created its own economic landscape—a country terraformed into ratty little strip malls that are useless for any other purpose—digital retail is now outmaneuvering those physical stores in a way that is reshaping our world. In a throwaway line, Timmy laments that one of his Blockbuster Video store’s neighbors is now a ghost kitchen.

Melissa Fumero’s character, Eliza, kind of points toward the destruction underlying the show’s facile premise: Isn’t it ironic that Timmy is holding Blockbuster up as a small biz underdog when the name is literally “Blockbuster,” the kind of movie that has shoved out basically any other? That they are the last vestige of a company that mulched the competition? The writers clearly knew they needed to hang a lampshade on the whole affair.

If you didn’t click the earlier link to my story: I worked at Blockbuster, which you probably guessed, as nobody dislikes a business so much as someone who once got a paycheck from it. I am here to tell you that Blockbuster was terrible to work for and terrible to rent from. Customers were justifiably disgruntled about the extortionate late fees or annoyed by the constant promotions and poor availability of anything that hadn’t been released on video in the last three months. Like the MPAA, another unaccountably, inexplicably powerful entity, Blockbuster indirectly controlled what you and I watched: Their refusal to stock NC-17 films essentially broadcast to film studios that if they wanted to get the best returns on their investments, they better not go any harder than R.

Netflix is a different beast than Blockbuster was, but it’s making the same kinds of sweeping actions that trample on the little guy: Witness their fan-site/marketing arm, Tudum, from which they laid off a bunch of workers, many of whom were women and people of color they had just hired. Snipping at their heels are the dozens of other streaming services now, including world-swallowers like Amazon, which can just spend a billion dollars on a Lord of the Rings show. All the things that I liked about Netflix have been slowly eroded over the past 10 or so years to satisfy profits: Their selection has shrunk, their once-brilliant recommendations and granular genre sorting have been replaced by the same inability to find any of the amazing old gems that are lurking off the main page. How long before one of the young upstart services knocks it out for good?

The show, though: The show is not really here for any of that. Blockbuster Video is, in Blockbuster, a punchline or a peg on which to hang nostalgia. There isn’t much novelty going on in the episode-to-episode plots: Timmy wants to win a local small biz contest. Eliza’s daughter is writing mean songs about her. The store can’t make rent and landlord Percy (J.B. Smoove), who happens to be Timmy’s childhood friend, is conflicted about having to possibly evict him.

It’s basic level sitcom stuff, with little insight or interest to recommend it. In this short initial run of episodes, Blockbuster has nothing to do with its namesake beyond the set dressing. It could be about any video rental chain, it’s just that the creators knew they’d get some name recognition from sad millennials like me.

It’s unfortunate, because the one thing the show has to say about the importance of interpersonal connection is true. There are things we don’t realize we’re missing. Blockbuster tells us this but doesn’t show us.

One day (or night), I was behind the register in my blue and yellow polo and a man, younger then than I am now, came up to the counter. He didn’t have his membership card, so I was obliged to look him up by his name. There was something sheepish in his face as he handed over his license and I beheld his name. My face must’ve done something, because in despair he wailed “YES, MY NAME IS THOMAS THOMAS!”

Reader, it was. It was right there on his driver’s license, just like that.

First name: Thomas.

Last name: Thomas.

There are any number of things that might go through your head at being confronted by something so cruel and unusual, but I immediately wondered what kind of parents such an unfortunate man must have had. Or at least I did until he pointed to the couple standing directly behind him and said “It’s all their fault!”

And there they were behind him: His parents, tittering like school children whose prank has just been revealed to the teacher.

“That was us, all right!” his mother laughed. “We named him Thomas Thomas!”

I can’t even remember checking them out. I might have needed to sit down after that. Years later I remember it with a mixture of fondness and terror. It’s a moment I wouldn’t trade for anything, honestly.

That, folks, was Blockbuster. That was retail. If it’s not really fair to expect Blockbuster to deal in such hard-to-define things like that, I guess I counter by asking: Why, after scaling Olympus to overthrow Blockbuster Video and completely reimagine the way we watch movies, did Netflix feel they could turn in a lame show like this that is aimed at the nostalgia of people who remember the plastic-and-popcorn-and-candy smell of a Blockbuster location? And why would they think it would make us laugh instead of wonder what grim one-liners people will make about Netflix when it comes tumbling off the mountaintop at the hands of the next titan?

Kenneth Lowe is due back Friday by noon. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.

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