Blockbuster needs to be rescued from its main characters. It has the potential to be a great sitcom, but in every single episode of its first season, which premieres November 3 on Netflix, its weirdest impulses are shoved aside for yet another chapter in the limp romance between Timmy (Randall Park), the manager of the world’s last Blockbuster Video, and Eliza (Melissa Fumero), his high school crush whose various failures have forced her to work with him in the store. While those two enact their wan office romance, they steal time from gonzo subplots about tie-in merchandise that eats human fingers and in-store events that end with horrible fires. Those are the places — the B-plots and throwaway gags — where we can see a memorable comedy struggling to emerge.
The show’s very existence is provocative, of course. Netflix’s business model helped kill Blockbuster, so it’s darkly fitting that the streamer is now the home of a show about people trying to salvage what’s left of the once-mighty company. And, as a character remarks in the pilot, it’s worth remembering that when Blockbuster itself was a corporate behemoth, it was responsible for snuffing out mom-and-pop video stores across the country. Our nostalgia for the chain – which really does have one remaining location – has always been perverse.
That nostalgia is still real, however, and the best parts of Blockbuster consider why. To that end, the series is set in a fictional Michigan city where everything is going down the tubes. “This town's not exactly the land of milk and honey,” says one video clerk. “Especially since they shut down the dairy and the apiary.” Meanwhile, it’s assumed that all the nice restaurants are destined to become Jiffy Lubes and that the nearest store with good chocolate is several hours away. So what does the last Blockbuster mean in a place like this?
For most of the characters, it’s a defiant middle finger to the idea that there’s nothing to do. In this store, Carlos Herrera (Tyler Alvarez), the bisexual child of immigrants, can talk to customers about movies while he dreams of becoming a filmmaker himself. Spacey home school student Hannah Hadman (Madeleine Arthur) can finally learn how the rest of the world lives, and feisty senior citizen Connie Serrano (Olga Merediz) can put her knack for solving puzzles and dispensing gossip to good use. Would they prefer to do this in a swankier place, or at least in a store that isn’t in a half-deserted strip mall? Sure. But they’re not going to give up on themselves.
Their pluckiness is crucial, because some kind of chaos erupts in every episode. Most of it involves attempts to bring customers into the store, and it’s easy to see this as a metaphor for the hell of American capitalism. But when the Blockbuster gang refuses to let money problems (or the aforementioned fire) get them down, it’s like the show is saying it believes in the little guy. If certified goofballs like Carlos and Hannah can survive with their idiosyncrasies intact while they work inside a symbol of post-capitalist collapse, then there might be hope for us all.
It’s easy to embrace this interpretation because the supporting actors are all so delightful. Alvarez (who rose to fame in American Vandal) is particularly charming, since he makes Carlos seem so earnest in his desire to heal people with the power of cinema. When he realizes Hannah is too cheap to do anything nice for herself, he passionately declares, “I’m gonna reverse Blind Side you. I'm gonna be the person of color who teaches the pretty white woman she can do more with her life.” Because Alvarez plays it so seriously, that joke works as both sly commentary and genuine character development.
Carlos is even more engaging because his story arc takes some unexpected turns. The same goes for Connie, who makes a friend near the end of the season that unlocks a new side of her personality. Their growth only proves that Blockbuster could be a show about workaday people thriving in hard times, and since series creator Vanessa Ramos worked on both Superstore and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, she certainly has the chops to pull that off.
It’s perplexing, then, that so much energy is wasted on Timmy and Eliza. Unlike the supporting characters, their journeys are predictable from the opening scenes. They both threaten to leave the store on multiple occasions, but we know they won’t, because they’re clearly being pushed together. They both have other romantic interests, but we know those won’t last. And because their destiny is so clear, it’s exhausting to watch them go through the motions. Why treat us to the unexpected delights of the B-plots, then force us to watch Timmy almost confess his feelings at the exact moment Eliza’s estranged husband calls? Or watch Eliza almost confess her feelings at the exact moment Timmy’s new girlfriend walks over to nuzzle his shoulder?
Those are not theoretical scenes. They actually happen on the show. So do multiple moments where Timmy whines to a friend about his unrequited love and Eliza concocts a silly excuse to ask Timmy a question. It reduces both roles to ineffectual plot devices that seem created to fulfill a corporate demand for romance, and it certainly makes the characters with the most screen time the least interesting part of the series. Even Park and Fumero – who were so good on Veep and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, respectively – can’t salvage this material. Since they both play passive, self-deprecating sad-sacks who mostly react instead of taking action, they never seem as alive as their co-stars.
But all is not lost. Shows like Parks and Recreation and Schitt’s Creek were also weak in their first seasons, and they evolved into some of the best comedies in recent memory. If Blockbuster gets renewed, then it could follow the same path. The bones of a great series are certainly there, waiting to be pulled from the quicksand of a bad romance.
Blockbuster premieres November 3 on Netflix.
Mark Blankenship is Primetimer's Reviews Editor. Tweet him at @IAmBlankenship.