Those of us old enough to remember the ceremony of renting a film at the weekend may be curious to see what nostalgia Blockbuster (Netflix) is able to conjure up. It hangs its coat, loosely, on the story told by the 2020 documentary The Last Blockbuster, about the final US outpost of the rental chain, but instead turns it into a gentle workplace sitcom so softly spoken you practically have to lean in to hear what it is saying.
That’s a shame, because nostalgia aside, there is plenty of material that could have turned this into a potentially fresh prospect. Boss Timmy (Randall Park) has worked at his local Blockbuster since high school, and now owns the store. In the first episode, as the corporate overlords finally go bust, Timmy’s store becomes “the last Blockbuster on Earth”. It stands in a once-thriving strip mall – is now a good time to admit that until shamefully recently, I thought a strip mall contained late-night establishments of a certain nature, rather than being a strip of shops? – where most of the other businesses have shut down. Everyone who works at the Blockbuster, and its few remaining customers, are pining for human connection and community, lost to working-class America in the era of late-stage capitalism.
Even more subversive might have been the fact that a show about the decline of a business that offered in-person recommendations and the human touch is housed on Netflix, which is, of course, part of the reason for its demise. They don’t shy away from that. One regular, who has been absent for a while, explains that he has been “doing Netflix, like everybody”. But the worst crime Netflix is accused of here is its algorithm recommending The Great British Bake Off to a man whose girlfriend left him for a pastry chef. It’s a soggy bottom of a punchline and a cop-out.
Maybe it is unfair to expect this to be a spiky dark comedy, despite its themes. I think it is aiming to be a warm workplace comedy, and it has all those elements in place: the hapless yet lovable boss, a spark of romantic tension between colleagues, an ensemble of characters with their tics and quirks. Connie is the older employee, a cosy grandma type who casually reveals shocking truths about her life, such as a sister imprisoned in South America for over a decade. Carlos is the ambitious young accountant-in-training, who harbours secret ambitions to make films. Hannah is like Karen from Mean Girls, but poor; abrupt Kayla is like April from Parks and Rec; and Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Melissa Fumero plays Eliza, who left Harvard after a term to return to her hometown and raise a daughter with her childhood sweetheart Aaron, and whose marriage is now on the rocks.
Despite this cloud of frustrated potential, in which everyone is striving but nobody is getting very far, the show plays a familiar tune as a workplace comedy. Eliza helps Timmy to get the struggling business back on track, and naturally, there is a frisson of attraction between them. Each team member has their own special quality, and one is called upon to solve whatever catastrophe befalls every episode, from an exploding inflatable gorilla to a candlelit corporate soiree gone wrong. Yet it could really be set in any struggling business. Aside from the occasional reference to Timmy’s awful taste in movies, or the odd film joke or actor-related pun (“You need to get out of your lane, and into Diane Lane”), it doesn’t dwell on its film nerd credentials. Again, it feels as if it has taken the timid approach, rather than be bold.
Blockbuster is perfectly pleasant, in an old-fashioned way, which is, perhaps, appropriate. It feels like a sitcom from long ago, where gentle quips and mild slapstick were enough to fill half an hour of pre-watershed television. But the streaming age has put an end to that, and there is now so much choice, doled out by algorithms, that to be fine no longer seems like enough. “Don’t you think that Blockbuster has its own nostalgic charm, and all this stuff might get in the way of that?” asks Eliza, questioning Timmy’s choice to go all-out for decorations at a store event. But it speaks to the show, too. If there is any nostalgic charm left in the physical film rental experience, Blockbuster on Netflix doesn’t have the energy to celebrate it in full.