Cast: Melissa Fumero, Randall Park, J.B. Smoove, Olga Merediz, Tyler Alvarez, Madeleine Arthur, Kamaia Fairburn
Created by: Vanessa Ramos
The concept of Blockbuster store is meant to evoke nostalgia amongst American movie goers. It inculcated a movie viewing experience wrapped in a sense of community. Plenty of people loved their local movie rental shops. And till now, even more miss walking the aisles, finding forgotten favourites, or discovering classic films for the first time. It was a local haven for movie buffs and video gamers – a place that had almost everything. That was of course, before Netflix.
Back in the day before the rise of streaming platforms, Blockbuster Video was a gigantic movie and video game rental chain with over 9000 locations and over 65 million registered customers. The many reasons for its decline are explicated in a 2020 documentary feature, The Last Blockbuster. However, cutting it short: in August 2018, Bend, Oregon became the home of the very last Blockbuster location on earth, and has now inspired a sitcom, on Netflix, the company that contributed a few of the thousand cuts that eventually caused the chain’s death.
This sitcom is located in the last standing Blockbuster store as its desperate and helpless albeit passionate manager Timmy Yoon (Randall Park) along with his eccentric group of employees tries to hold it together. Ideally, this show had the immense potential to impress the audience in favour of the comedy genre. Even in its downfall against capitalism, Blockbuster could have leaned deeper into the pop culture glory with film and character references… I mean, it is literally set in a movie rental store! Instead, it takes the path of uninspiring pop commentary moulded into jokes that are more of a miss than a hit.
It is not to say that Blockbuster is not funny. It has its moments. The series also reflects into the concept of how consumption of media should be more of a social experience, not one we experience by ourselves with our tiny individual screens.
Alongside Randall Park, who, although a delight to watch on screen is uninspiring insufferably whiny, Blockbuster features a roster of notable names. Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Melissa Fumero plays Eliza, who briefly worked at the store when they were younger, and has returned following her separation from her unfaithful husband. After her standout performance as Amy Santiago in B99, she is only halfway there in Blockbuster. However, she still remains quite memorable against the lacklustre character depiction of Park. Crush actor Tyler Alvarez plays Carlos, who dreams of being a director and spends time making casually mean jokes about their elders with Hannah (played by Devil in Ohio star Madeleine Arthur). Then, we have another snarky and whip-smart Gen-Z, Kayla (Kamaia Fairburn), her father, Percy (J. B. Smoove of Curb Your Enthusiasm fame) who is Timmy’s childhood best friend and manages Party! Parti! Parté a few doors down, whose character was clearly written to be the show’s charismatic and eccentric cameo star but his portrayal of man-child gets too old, too fast. We also witness the scene-stealing Connie played by Olga Merediz.
The series does get representation right. It showcases a great portrayal of America as the land where immigrants originally resided to thrive together and build on their great American dream and it’s so good to finally see a diverse world accurately represented on TV.
The 10-episode series has been created by Vanessa Ramos, formerly a writer on Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Superstore, and aspects of both shows are reflective in Blockbuster. She has aimed to create a feelgood workplace comedy (Much like The Office, Parks and Recreation or Veep) with a warm, nostalgic glow, but has instead created a chronically flat alchemy of Netflix algorithm. Viewers are now left with a mediocre show that gives us a few laughs, but they are few and far between.
It is the unexpected supporting actors who shine the most in the Netflix series.
Tyler Alvarez as Carlos is quite delightful in portraying an inspiring filmmaker who’s specifically sought out the chance to work in a video store so he can follow in the footsteps of his idol, Quentin Tarantino. He’s almost the amicable film bro, providing the perfect reflection of young men who build their entire identity around the movies they like. His is also the only character that is tailored most specifically for this show.
Kamaia Fairburn as Kayla, a know-it-all Gen Z-er with a deadly pokerfaced delivery—is clearly working hard to wring something out of Blockbuster’s tired punchlines. Unfortunately, the writers have chosen to stick too close to the weak template leaving her very little space to explore her skills.
One of the most standout performances is witnessed from Madeleine Arthur playing Hannah and the youngest member of the team. Her portrayal of a naïve and lost doe-eyed teen works exceptionally well, especially when she focuses on the town’s economic distresses, stating “This town’s not exactly the land of milk and honey, especially since they shut down the dairy and the apiary”.
Quirky and most comical of the bunch is Olga Merediz as Connie who takes this opportunity to show off a different side to her acting in her portrayal of a little bizarre but wise old lady.
Netflix’s Blockbuster is surely an irony more than a comedy. Sometimes it is even meta. At one point in the first episode, Timmy even rallies the crew by saying that they must keep their rental store alive as a small business, to which Eliza comically points out that Blockbuster was once a huge corporation centered around movies that killed the success of indie films. With this moment, Netflix demonstrates that they know their success is precarious but in the age of capitalism (the platform recently witnessed a downturn in subscribers alongside increased competition from other platforms), no one is really the good guy.
However, it would have been an excellent viewing experience if the series tactfully touched upon the irony. A show about a dying cultural phenomenon could have also served as the chance to explore the broader struggles of our increasingly fractured sense of human connection. It all feels like a missed opportunity that makers could have deep dived into. The idea that Blockbuster stores represent a lost part of human culture and community building experience serving as a driving metaphor for each character’s need for authentic human interaction would’ve been a welcome nuance. But Blockbuster refuses to take the risk to expansively explore such themes. Perhaps the next season will be more courageous.
By: Sarojini Chatterjee