‘Blockbuster’ Doesn’t Know What It’s Doing — on Netflix, or in General

If there’s anything to appreciate about “Blockbuster” — and beyond its three talented leads, pickings are slim — it’s how quickly the new Netflix series tells you exactly what it is, and what it isn’t.

The opening scene sees Timmy (Randall Park) greeting a customer who’s hasn’t visited his local video rental store in three years. Before the manager can rattle off all the reasons why people get too busy to partake in at-home motion pictures, the shopper cuts him off: “I’ve been watching Netflix.”

Thank goodness, right? The Blockbuster/Netflix connection, after all, is the elephant in the room: “Blockbuster” is ostensibly about the last Blockbuster storefront in America, and it’s only available to watch on the service that many credit for putting Blockbuster out of business. (This isn’t entirely true.) Acknowledging the awkwardness right out of the gate could have been a good thing. Plenty of people still love their local movie rental shops. Even more miss walking the aisles, finding forgotten favorites, or discovering classic films for the first time. Why not dig into Blockbuster vs. Netflix right away?

Well, because “Blockbuster” is a Netflix original series, and a Netflix original series isn’t about to say anything bad about Netflix — not even if its characters are about to lose their livelihoods because customers are bingeing on streaming content instead of busting their blocks (or whatever you called shopping at Blockbuster — I was always a Family Video guy). The closest “Blockbuster” gets to saying anything negative about its angel of death is that “the internet sucks” (not Netflix, just the entire internet).

Instead of letting Timmy and his co-workers vent after their corporate parent company goes bankrupt, Vanessa Ramos (creator, executive producer, and writer) has to bend over backwards to explain why this patron came back, without disparaging an easily disparaged service. It’s not that Netflix lost a ton of their licensed TV shows, or that prices have become untenable, or that the irrefutable algorithm only surfaces the same 100-or-so options. The algorithm is the problem, but only because it doesn’t realize the show he used to love (“The Great British Bake Off”) now reminds him of his ex-girlfriend.

In making sure Netflix remains innocent at all costs, “Blockbuster” comes across clueless. After the “tu-dum” references dissipate,  there’s a shaky attempt to make the Michigan-set office sitcom an ode to American small business, but that doesn’t stick either. (Enjoy the McDonald’s shout-out, small business owners!) Then, there’s the tension-free “will they won’t they” between Timmy and his high school crush, Eliza (Melissa Fumero), which feels so overly calculated, it undermines each character’s basic emotional intelligence. All those longing looks and flirty banter, but neither knows the other is into them? Come on! It’s 2022! We know the rom-com formula, just let us believe it.

So “Blockbuster” isn’t about video rental stores, it’s not about shopping local, and it’s romantic subplot is an inevitable, infuriating waiting game. What is it about? Your guess is as good as mine. What’s the point of an office comedy about the last surviving video rental store that never acknowledges the intrinsic value of its workplace?

It’s as awkward a marriage of studio and subject matter as audiences likely imagined going in, and even its charming veteran comedians — Park, Fumero, and J.B. Smoove — can’t summon enough magic to make “Blockbuster” worth sitting through. Soon, it will become yet another piece of content on a service known for churning out cheap, forgettable “entertainment.” Or in other words, it will become the very thing a real Blockbuster wouldn’t bother keeping in stock.

Grade: D

“Blockbuster” Season 1 premieres all 10 episodes Thursday, November 3 on Netflix.

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