At the risk of kicking off an innocent TV series review on a downer: things suck these days. The economy is tanking, the Covid pandemic still isn’t over, your healthcare options may have dramatically narrowed, and we’re all staring down the barrel of the latest most important election of our lifetimes. When you think back to a time when things sucked less, you probably remember simple pleasures like playing with friends until the street lights came on, being excited about a phone call even if you didn’t know who was on the other end, or going to Blockbuster on a Friday night.
Back in the days before streaming online video, Blockbuster Video was a gigantic movie and video game rental chain with more than 9,000 locations. The many reasons for its decline are explicated in a 2020 documentary feature, The Last Blockbuster, but to make a long story 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. Call Alanis Morissette, we’ve got some irony here.
For the show, the blockbusting action moves from Oregon to Michigan. Timmy (Randall Park) started working at the Blockbuster as a teenager, and is now its manager. His high school crush Eliza (Melissa Fumero) briefly worked there when they were younger, and has returned following her separation from her unfaithful husband; Timmy still carries a torch. Timmy’s longtime best friend Percy (J.B. Smoove) manages Party! Parti! Parté a few doors down (guess what they sell); since Percy owns the strip mall that houses both their stores, he’s also Timmy’s landlord. Filling out the staff at this location are a few Zoomers (including American Vandal alum Tyler Alvarez) to make casually mean jokes about their elders, and one Boomer (Olga Merediz’s Connie) that even the old millennials can rank on. In the series premiere, Timmy hears from his corporate liaison that seven more locations have closed, making Timmy’s the last one standing.
The series was created by Vanessa Ramos, formerly a writer on Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Superstore, and aspects of both are perceptible here. Timmy is reminiscent of Andy Samberg’s B99 detective Jake in his general man-child manner, and specifically in his dangerously unresolved issues regarding his parents’ divorce. As Eliza, Fumero is only halfway to her B99 character Amy: she’s not quite the same binder-hoarding Type-A nightmare, but she does take every possible opportunity to mention her attendance at Harvard—a brief tenure since, like Superstore’s Amy (America Ferrera), she got pregnant as a teen and decided to raise the baby instead of pursuing college.
Superstore was memorable for its determination to show the grim realities of living under late capitalism, and confronted its characters with union-busters, ICE raids, and generally dehumanizing corporate policies before finally, and unceremoniously, converting the location where its characters toiled into an online shopping fulfillment center. Somehow, Blockbuster feels even darker. The employees at Superstore’s Cloud 9 at least had a large company as an antagonist; all Timmy has to fight against is his seemingly inevitable failure. Sure, he’s managed a retail franchise for years, but with no ties to any larger entity, he quite literally doesn’t know how to do it. The end of Blockbuster as an enterprise effectively doubles Timmy’s rent, and not even a decades-long friendship induces Percy to give him a break. (When Timmy tries to cut costs by laying off surly teen Kayla, played by Kamaia Fairburn, Percy does volunteer to cover her paychecks, but that’s just because Kayla is Percy’s daughter and he likes having her around.) Though there is a legitimate case to be made for the notion of attracting customers who miss human interaction in their retail shopping, the show undercuts it by making half the store’s staffers proudly movie-ignorant. What value is being added for the customer who’s hearing Connie’s guess at the plot of Michael Clayton? By the time Timmy is deciding to sell his car to pour the proceeds into keeping his clearly doomed business alive for a few more months, it feels fair to say this is less comedy than horror.
…Which is strange, because it’s been reported that Netflix’s comedy goal is to create more shows like New Girl, and Blockbuster is most assuredly not it. This isn’t to say that New Girl’s characters didn’t have their struggles—they ruined their romantic relationships, clashed with challenging family members, and even faced serious difficulties in their careers. But on New Girl, those stories weren’t taking place in the retail equivalent of a lifeboat with a hole in it. Given what they’re up against in Blockbuster, it’s no surprise that very talented actors who have been so magnetic in their other projects—Smoove in Curb Your Enthusiasm! Fumero in B99! Park in everything from Fresh Off The Boat to Veep!—here seem like they’re operating at half speed.
The Last Blockbuster has its own issues as a movie, not least of which is romanticizing a rapacious corporation just because it happens to have brought about its own demise. But it does introduce the viewer to Sandi Harding, who manages the Blockbuster in Bend. Sandi is both a married mother in her own family and “the Blockbuster mom” to her staff. She’s employed a significant portion of Bend’s teens during her years at the store, and is as compelling and competent as Timmy is helpless and desperate. If filmmaker Taylor Morden has apparently only tracked down one of her most devoted customers to be interviewed about the location, local film critic Jared Rasic at least manages to be very enthusiastic; Blockbuster doesn’t even manage to do that with a character it could have invented out of whole cloth. Furthermore, if what Netflix really wanted to do was exploit the oft-tweeted yearning to recapture how it felt to “make it a Blockbuster night,” it could have just leaned all the way in and set this show in 1993, bringing the viewer back to a time when America’s future felt prosperous and safe. Now, Blockbuster is just another organization collapsing around us. Watching an ostensible comedy set inside it just isn’t funny.