Netflix’s Shameless Blockbuster Series Is a Vapid, Saccharin Waste
Nostalgia has never been more diseased.Photo Courtesy of Netflix TV Reviews Blockbuster
The easiest way to describe Blockbuster, a workplace comedy set in America’s final store of the titular video rental chain, is “inoffensive.” It’s not very funny, or clever, or engaging, but the cast know how to act and the camera stays upright, so there’s nothing objectionable about letting it play on. The more accurate way to describe Blockbuster would be “shameless.” Its producer, Netflix, is largely responsible for making Blockbuster redundant, and the show repeatedly calls attention to Blockbuster’s appeal as a homely, personal service that fosters connection between movie-lovers. It goes as far to name drop Amazon as a big, unfriendly corporation, and mention how algorithms can “suck it”— meanwhile, the spectre of Netflix’s asphyxiating influence looms over everything like a shadowed vampire toying with its prey.
Blockbuster is out of business, and after the corporation dissolves, Timmy (Randall Park) is left as manager of the only running store. He’s aided by his peppy, quirky team, consisting of his long-term crush Eliza (Melissa Fumero), the older Connie (Olga Merediz), and a cohort of younger staff. If Blockbuster proves anything, it’s that the workplace comedy, at least of the sort that posits a staff as a surrogate family, was a mistake. The charms of The Office and Superstore notwithstanding, Blockbuster barely gets through a whole episode before it argues that the outdated video rental store deserves to stay open because everyone depends on and loves each other so much. Just to clarify: unless you work with your actual family, no one you work with is your family, especially not a bunch of people who recommend and rent out DVDs.
Blockbuster’s saccharin pseudo-charm is made all the more manipulative by the fact that it’s about a real-life, if defunct, brand, making the show a form of bizarrely conceived, hyper-focused marketing—not for a product, but for memories. Nostalgia has never been more diseased as it is in Blockbuster, as it attempts to wring fuzzy feelings out of its audiences for a false history of how warm, inviting and soulful the franchised business was, signed off by whoever owns what’s left of the Blockbuster brand (the title is trademarked!) This is despite the fact that the show depicts an experience of working at a Blockbuster that feels inauthentic to the real-world testimonials of what a crappy low-paid retail job it was (How Did This Get Made’s Paul Scheer has a cavalcade of stories about his unhinged time working there), and the fact that the Blockbuster conglomerate, in its heyday, was in large part responsible for the end of independent video stores.
Blockbuster should have been a period piece, but other than being a more laborious writing process, it’s also impossible with the show’s inflexible elevator pitch: that it has to be set in the last Blockbuster. It should be a soulless place with people aware of their fleeting job security, but while Blockbuster dedicates a respectable amount of time to the struggles of manning a dying business (rent due, checks not clearing, stock disappearing), it never makes the same effort to persuade us why it should stay open in the first place. What need do we have for Blockbuster, other than reminding us that we were once children, and that retro, physical media made our understanding of culture a lot more manageable and simplistic?
What makes Blockbuster distinctive is its video rental setting, despite the confounding fact that, with hundreds of DVDs visible throughout, Netflix couldn’t get the rights to display the actual posters of all these films. They’ve instead mocked up pretty much every DVD cover seen in the show, which is a major distraction during any scene on the shop floor. Netflix can’t even show their own programming on the shelves because they’ve committed to never producing physical releases of their films.
The cast involves an array of cinephiles and philistines alike, so there’s lots of people getting mad at other people for not getting references and jokes about Hollywood’s canon and celebrities. “What fun!” they expect the audience to say as they do, but the inane onslaught of characters mentioning movies results in a keen desire to never hear a fictional or famous person referenced ever again. It’s all predicated on the assumption that what movies people watch reveals a lot about their personality, but of course it doesn’t; they are, after all, just movies, consumed in a passive way that requires little direct action and thus provokes no compelling characterization.
These characters, especially the young ones, are so up-to-date on internet speak and identity issues that not only does it feel inharmonious with the pointedly retro setting, but none of them succeed in feeling like an actual person, just mouthpieces for underbaked dialogue and thinly sketched out dynamics. The people who work at Blockbuster, especially the last one in the middle of Anywhere, USA, should simply be a lot weirder, plucked from the Eastbound and Down universe and rather than glinting with the peppy, Michael Schur sheen that plagues overly nice sitcoms.
Structurally, each episode plods along in such a heavy-footed way that the sub-30 minute runtimes drag, with the unenviable hit rate of one genuinely funny joke per episode. The conventions of sitcom plotting mean that very little can actually change so that our setting and characters can remain constant, which is a concept worth exploring for a show where if anything were to change about their work, they would face immediate redundancy.
When characters start thinking about other opportunities— as Eliza, the divorcee back with her cheating ex, later does in the show’s most compelling stretch—the series neglects to engage with the thorny question of, “What does it mean to move on from Blockbuster?” Seeing interesting threads being flat-out ignored while character traits are inconsistently dropped and remembered makes every episode a frustrating experience.
There’s no sense of anarchy in Blockbuster. Nor tension, not warmth; it’s a shallow, tiresome journey that isn’t courageous enough to dip its toes into the wacky, unhinged potential of working in an unsupervised relic. Timmy will often make impassioned speeches about what Blockbuster symbolised, occasionally touching on the fact that Blockbuster is so fondly remembered from what it represents: a way to engage with popular culture that fostered more community and clarity before the age of streaming. But Netflix’s fingerprints over everything render Timmy’s didactic exercises useless. You have not earned the right to speak wise sermons if they are uttered from inside a temple of shit.
Blockbuster premieres Thursday, November 3rd on Netflix.
Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.