Everyone involved is aware of the irony, of course. Blockbuster the show asks how an analogue store can survive in a digital world; it arrives on the streaming service that superseded and replaced Blockbuster the store. The series – initially developed at NBC before finding a home on Netflix – makes occasional references to that, not quite breaking the fourth wall but certainly leaning on it a bit. In the first few episodes at least it’s not unusual for a character to rail against the impact of large corporations and algorithm-driven entertainment, before laying that charge at the feet of Amazon Prime Video.
This is, probably unsurprisingly, where Blockbuster is at its weakest. If nothing else, it’s clearly not actually all that interested in making a particularly spirited case for the value of physical media – though would it even be allowed to on Netflix? – and most of its gestures towards the brick-and-mortar store’s local community value are glancingly superficial at best. Had it been on a real television channel, maybe Blockbuster would’ve possessed the wherewithal to push its premise a little further; at the very least, though, references to shows like ‘Trout Royale’ would’ve been a little less irritating.
Essentially, it’s not a show that puts its best foot forward. It picks up as it goes along as it finds, if not its own voice, then at least the right predecessor to borrow from: Superstore. Blockbuster settles into a kind of cover version of the NBC workplace sitcom, at its best when it doesn’t concern itself with the state of streaming in 2022 and instead just focuses on the breakroom antics and silly games they all get drawn into to avoid doing any real work. Most of the characters start to feel like 1:1 analogues to one another; in Blockbuster as on Superstore, the Cheyenne character – here Hannah Hadman, played by Madeleine Arthur – is the best one.
It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, anyway, but everyone involved is at least competent enough to know how to keep it spinning. It is any good? Strictly speaking, not really. The Superstore influence, after all, is so direct as to feel derivative – Blockbuster comes from former Superstore & Brooklyn Nine-Nine staffwriter Vanessa Ramos, so that similarity is expected to a point, but soon overstays its welcome. It’s one thing for a show to have a smart sense of what to borrow from; it’s only polite, though, to at then at least be as good as what it’s borrowing from. Blockbuster isn’t that, with its thin characters, tendency towards the saccharine, and clearly written-to-be-screencapped-on-twitter jokes.
Still, though, it’s worth asking whether the conditions for Blockbuster to meaningfully succeed actually exist on Netflix. We’ve noted already that it began life on NBC – home to shows like The US Office, Parks and Recreation, Superstore, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and now American Auto – and feels very directly influenced by those shows. Most of those are shows that have been available to watch on Netflix at some time or another, and indeed are shows that Netflix has hugely benefitted from having on its platform (maybe to the point of overreliance) – with Blockbuster, it feels like Netflix is making its first meaningful attempt at trying to replicate those shows for itself.
And yet, by virtue of the fact Blockbuster is a sitcom made for Netflix – and in turn subject to various styles, trends, and economic standards – it’s only a ten-episode series. Something like Brooklyn Nine-Nine can sustain a certain messiness or inchoate quality in its opening episodes, and indeed The US Office and Parks and Recreation both famously did, because they either have a bit more room to play around with or will return soon enough anyway; Blockbuster, by contrast, almost feels obliged to storm right out of the gate fully formed with a much more distinctive voice of its own, both because there are so few episodes and it’ll be such a long time before there are any more. (To shut down the obvious counterpoint: Superstore, which opened with an 11-episode series, was also just straightforwardly much better than Blockbuster in its first series.)
Blockbuster’s flaws, then, are exacerbated by its form. The standard network sitcom it imitates has room to self-correct across the course of a series, but Blockbuster doesn’t; the fact that Randall Park, talented though he obviously is, is miscast in the early Jake Peralta-esque overgrown-child role they’ve asked him to play can’t be written around until the series returns. Blockbuster tries to move through a classic will-they-won’t-they romance, but does so without much thought to how the shape of their season should impact the structure of the character arc; it ends up more derivative as a result, borrowing key moments from other sitcoms in an effort to keep up with their own self-set pace.
It leaves Blockbuster in an odd sort of place, anyway: at best it’s basically fine, defined mainly by an obvious potential it never fulfils and a nagging sense that it never quite will. In the end, this show that is on one level a big joke about something that Netflix has replaced (traditional video rental stores) ends up demonstrating the values of something else they’ve moved away from (traditional sitcoms). That’s the irony they don’t seem to have been aware of.
Blockbuster arrives on Netflix on Thursday 3 November; I watched all ten episodes before writing this review. You can read more of our TV reviews here and sign up to our weekly TV newsletter here – you might also be interested to check out our new TV podcast Screen Babble, where I take a closer look at Blockbuster.