Blockbuster, the new Netflix-produced series helmed by Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Superstore staff writer Vanessa Ramos, presents a nostalgic vision of a media industry past that is hampered by the media industry’s present. The series takes place in the last ever Blockbuster video store as the manager Timmy (Randall Park) does his best to keep it afloat.
As a former Blockbuster employee, I watched the show with a sort of grim fascination. What Blockbuster captures quite well is the camaraderie between people working on a sinking ship while dealing with whatever management thought would make the business work, and periodically sacrificing your dignity to assemble a promotional display, as you can see in Episode 9, or right here:
If I have one nitpick, it’s that the promotional tie-ins weren’t bonkers enough. Yes, a free bag of branded candy corn with a rental of August: Osage County is weird, but at the real Blockbuster we were giving out tubes of moisturiser with rentals of The Romantics. Why? What marketing deal made that happen? We will never know. The only question I can answer is yes, that conversation sucked every time. Thanks for renting the 2010 Katie Holmes vehicle The Romantics, here’s some lotion, is not a good sentence to say or to hear.
Blockbuster is, according to Forbes, the worst-reviewed show on TV right now. Many have pointed out that it seems like Netflix is dancing on the grave of a fallen enemy, and it can feel like that. The Guardian argues that it squanders its subversive potential, while RogerEbert.com called the show cute, yet forgettable. I enjoyed Blockbuster much more than a lot of reviewers, but I can see where these criticisms are coming from.
If the series is forgettable or squanders its potential, it is because it is structured like a weekly workplace sitcom but presented as a streaming mini-series to be binged over a weekend. While the series critiques Netflix, those critiques can only go so far. ‘Algorithms suck, long live Blockbuster!’cheers a character on a show that will probably be recommended by an algorithm on the service that killed Blockbuster. Ironic as that is, the series doesn’t mention some deeper problems with streaming services.
Netflix is in the habit of cancelling its originals after the second season, leaving viewers hanging and creators unemployed. According to reporting by Wired, it boils down to financial concerns. Traditionally, networks split costs with production companies, but Netflix acts as both producer and distributor, so fewer parties share the cost.
Much less was at stake when NBC renewed Parks and Recreation after its underwhelming first season than is at stake for Netflix to renew an under-performing but beloved show such as Santa Clarita Diet.
How Netflix measures a series’s success poses further problems. As Wired explains, and as Neil Gaiman echoed in a tweet about Sandman, Netflix judges success on how many subscribers watch a whole series within 28 days of its release. This doesn’t leave room for a series to build an audience via word-of-mouth, or for viewers to watch at their own pace.
Another problem with streaming that is hinted at in Blockbuster is that sometimes what you’re looking for will disappear without a trace. Timmy says Halloween is their biggest day of the year because people rent vintage horror they can’t find on streamers, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In August this year, HBO Max removed a huge number of movies and shows from the service, many of which were never available elsewhere.
The Blockbuster I worked at had a massive collection of foreign and arthouse films that were hard to find anywhere else, all copies of which were sold off or thrown out when the store closed.
Blockbuster could be terrific, but its potential is being crushed by the same company that killed the real Blockbuster. Its ideal format is the same as the shows that creator Vanessa Ramos cut her teeth on: Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Superstore. A 24-episode season that airs weekly would let the plot unfold in a more satisfying way, and give audiences time to get to know the characters.
Needs more time
Ten episodes isn’t enough time to properly develop the friendship between Carlos (Tyler Alvarez) and Hannah (Madeleine Arthur), or to erode Kayla’s (Kamaia Fairburn) too-cool-to-care exterior and reveal her caring and sensitive core in a way that doesn’t feel forced.
My hope is that Blockbuster is renewed for as many seasons as the writers want, so that it has room to become the show it deserves to be. Parks and Recreation and The Office (US version) are both beloved long-running sitcoms that could have been cancelled after failing to impress critics with their first seasons.
If Blockbuster is cancelled, it will be as forgettable as the first season of Parks and Recreation, but it doesn’t have to be.
Blockbuster is currently streaming on Netflix, and the Blockbuster where I used to work is now a gym.