‘Blockbuster’ Review: Netflix’s Mediocre Sitcom Can’t Shake Its Manufactured Attempt at Feel-Good Comedy

When “The Last Blockbuster,” a documentary celebrating the Blockbuster Video store in Oregon that became the final surviving vestige of the once-mighty video rental chain, found its audience on Netflix, the irony was so neat it barely qualified as such. After all, where else could a contemporary documentary reach so many people but the very streamer that helped kill off Blockbuster?

It’s a bit more perverse, however, that Netflix has apparently made Blockbuster nostalgia part of their brand, picking up “Blockbuster,” a workplace sitcom once intended for NBC. The show is loosely based on the same final Blockbuster outpost depicted in the doc — though the location has shifted to a midwestern strip mall — and follows the store’s transition from part of a waning corporation to a de facto mom-and-pop operation. Timmy (Randall Park), an earnest go-getter who hasn’t actually gone anywhere in his decades with the store (he’s worked there since high school), attempts to rise to the challenge, largely to protect his employees, including Eliza (Melissa Fumero), his old high school classmate returning to her old job after a divorce; Carlos (Tyler Alvarez), an aspiring filmmaker; Hannah (Madeleine Arthur), a loopy young woman; and Connie (Olga Merediz), an older member of the staff.

NBC was a logical destination for this show, given its combination of elements (including, in Fumero, one major cast member) from “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “Superstar,” both comedies on the impressive CV of creator and showrunner Vanessa Ramos. More broadly, “Blockbuster” shares with NBC’s post-“The Office” comedy output a desire to turn its quirkier and more potentially spiky characters into small-town dreamers with big hearts. (Call it the “Parks and Recreation” directive, a rebuke to the “Newsradio” doctrine.) The weirdest thing about “Blockbuster” is the way it extends that generosity of surrogate-family spirit to a recognizable brand name and accompanying logo.

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Indeed, the show trades on nostalgia for a former corporate behemoth whose outsized influence on viewing habits has been replaced by another corporate behemoth with an outsized influence on viewing habits — one that happens to broadcast this show in the first place. “Blockbuster” thinks it’s cheekily acknowledging some of this incongruity when Eliza adds an asterisk to a team-bonding moment in the first episode, pointing out that their underdog status derives from a former mega-franchise. Really, though, this moment is there to hand-wave away any objection to Blockbuster Nostalgia as joy-muffling pedantry. The potentially interesting business of remaking a soulless strip-mall fixture as a hyper-local institution is mostly superficial, so as not to interfere with the Blockbuster-branded signage everywhere. (After all, there are still licensing fees to justify.)

Accordingly, the show observes the tension between love and commerce (as well as the tension between endless streaming scroll and physical-location tactility) only glancingly, and possibly by accident: On one hand, these video-store workers are realistically adhering to the sketchy ethos of the real Blockbuster by rarely recommending or even mentioning movies released prior to the chain’s ’90s heyday; on the other, the show doesn’t seem to notice that the video-store lifer at its center isn’t exactly bringing a cinephile’s expertise to his job. (Maybe that’s for the best; there’s something cringe-y about the “am I right?” tone of sitcom writers angling for righteous movie takes, alternating fish-in-a-barrel targets with smugly unexplained potshots. Take that, “La La Land”!)

This would all be easier to ignore if “Blockbuster” were funnier. Instead, it’s fitfully amusing, prone to the bad habits of subpar sitcoms made by smart people: underlining its jokes, shortcutting its plotting, and expending screentime on its automatic-pilot will-they-or-won’t-they relationship, in this case between Timmy and Eliza. Park and Furman are both capable, likable comic actors, but the show is so insistent about their characters’ essential niceness that they can’t generate many romantic sparks. Instead, they politely chuckle at each other’s cute banter.

Over the course of the 10-episode season, parts of the show do settle into a pleasant comic rhythm, as is customary for freshman-year sitcoms. This is especially true in the supporting ranks: Arthur is endearing (and, crucially, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny) as the oddball Hannah, Merediz’s Connie has some subplots address foibles of a woman without a vast support system in late middle age, and recurring guest star JB Smoove, as Timmy’s landlord and longtime bestie, has some good moments late in the season opposite Kamaia Fairburn, playing his Gen-Z daughter (and another part-time Blockbuster employee).

Much of the show, however, feels oddly prefab; even its occasional small-town grubbiness, supplying weirdo customers and strip-mall business owners, seems like a plastic model of the Springfield of “The Simpsons” or the Pawnee of “Parks and Rec,” rather than its own richly imagined cartoon town.

“Blockbuster”’s status as a passable comfort watch winds up reconciling two seemingly opposed brand names: Whether renting tapes or streaming content, Blockbuster and Netflix are both adept at offering up mediocre familiarity with a friendly smile.

“Blockbuster” is streaming on Netflix now.

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