A comeback that’s long overdue: Thoughts on Blockbuster

(courtesy IMDb (c) Netflix)

Workplace comedies are a tale as old as time.

Well, as old as TV anyway which embraced the idea of humour derived from banal everyday work environments – the “sit” to the “com” – pretty much from the get-go, realising that in all that wage-earning ordinariness was an hilarity-inducing mix of quirky personalities and strange situations that would be guaranteed to get a laugh … and often from the very people that spent their workaday lives in those places.

The list of sitcoms occupying this once-rich but somewhat-diminished genre is long but has included shows like The Flintstones, Good Times, Laverne & Shirley, Frasier and Superstore, all of them, to one degree or another following the pattern of sitcom success to uproariously funny effect.

The latest sitcom, and this one is not on broadcast TV (surprise surprise!), the traditional homes of cosy and often clever, 9-to-5 laughs, to join their illustriously comedic ranks is Blockbuster, a show which takes quite possibly one of the most uniquely 21-century settings going.

In a world of online everything, even more so following the lockdowns of COVID and the comfort people now have in ordering their lives online, the last Blockbuster in the United States, nay the world, is in Iron Creek, Michigan – it’s actually based on the real last ever store of the once-mighty, society-bestriding franchise in Bend, Oregon which is still trading, all hail the LP and printed book gods – where owner, Timmy Yoon (Randall Park) is grappling in “The Pilot” with the stark reality that he is now entirely on his own, business-wise (and yes, romantically but that’s a whole other load of URST).

Blockbuster corporate is gone, baby gone, killed by streaming services which bring the movies to consumers without all that annoying tramping to a store, and in the face of the removal of the advertising and rent support, and sense of identity that came from being part of a powerful, rich company – well, clearly no more with the last call to Timmy confirming his head office backers were not well and truly gone – Timmy is braving the harsh winds of small business ownership.

It’s hard enough running a store of any kind in a world more likely to “Click Frenzy” and “Black Friday” their way to a satisfying purchase, but when you’re also part of a dying industry, one all but consigned to the shiny disc of history, then the odds are really stacked against you.

Fear not though because in his corner, Timmy, who is goofy, funny and in need of some growing up which he does quite nicely over the ten-episodes of series one, has his staff behind him – Eliza Walker (Melissa Fumero), a Harvard dropout who won’t admit her marriage is over or that she’s stuck in a workplace she last worked at in her teens, Connie (Olga Merediz), the requisite zany older lady with some very intensely odd pasttimes, bisexual filmmaker aspirant Carlos Herrera (Tyler Alvarez) who’s studying accountancy and is caught between the dreams of his immigrant parents and his own, and sweetly frugal Hannah Hadman (Madeleine Arthur) who simply wants to get into community college.

Throw in Timmy’s annoyingly overdone bestie Percy (J. B. Smoove), the owner of a nearby mega party store and Timmy’s landlord – he owns the entire mall in which the Blockbuster story sits – and you have the full, quirky cast of Blockbuster, a show which goes all in to its workplace setting and its oddball characters for laughs.

Expect, of course, when it doesn’t.

Blockbuster is, for the most part, perfectly charming and quite lovely, and it does a great job of introducing its characters and establishing why these people would want to stay working in a place that is clearly on life support, requiring big, and disastrously wrought community days and appearances of has-been childhood stars to stay afloat.

You grow to love each and every one of the eclectically offbeat group, who are not thankfully rendered purely as punchlines for jokes or for their set-ups but as people with hopes and dreams who haven’t quite made it yet (though it’s implied more than once than in modern inequitable America they might never make it, echoing a theme from shows like Superstore) and who, while they are in Timmy’s earnestly awkward employ, want to help make a go of their dinosaur of a retail outlet.

They mostly do, but while the oneliners fly thick and fast, the left-of-centre observations abound and the quirk is thick on the ground, Blockbuster doesn’t really rise to great heights.

Well, not yet anyway.

The thing is, the ten episodes of the first season brim with the very real possibility of greatness in the offing largely because the characters are realised with such care and empathy – sitcoms only work if the people in them feel real enough not to be cardboard cutout comedy props – the weirdness of the world in which they live and work is plain, and the situation is thoroughly and comprehensively unique.

The one thing Blockbuster really needs to do, besides being overly reliant on the URST between Timmy and Eliza and the usual sitcom tropes and cliches, some of which it uses interestingly, others with bog standard ticking of the boxes, is exploit its positioning on the cusp of real societal change.

You could argue the cusp has well and truly gone, but the last surviving Blockbuster store, like printed books, compact discs, LPs and brick-and-mortar stores generally, is part of an fascinating societal trend where tangible analogue items are not always being swept aside by the omnipresent digital tsunami.

Common wisdom of yore held that all the physical trappings of old would go the way of the dodo and dinosaurs but they haven’t, held aloft and in existence by the fact that we are a sentimental, sociable, touch-and-feel species and we need to see people, hold things and display them to remain ourselves of our identity and humanity.

If Blockbuster really embraces its place in this unexpected modern reality where the digital is not completely supreme and the analogue is still valued and wanted then it could really go places as a sitcome.

It has the quirk and the characters locked up – so engagingly, in fact, by the end, that you can tell the writers are really leaning into their craft and having fun with the people and premise – and it’s competently mining the strangeness of people trapped in a workplace together by their need for purpose and money, but it’s real sense of identity will come when it goes hard on what being the last of anything means, especially in an age when everything is changing so fast and we need the mainstays of our once-lives, yes, even old Blockbuster stores to stick around so we can feel some sense of grounding in the fast-moving in the maelstrom of the digital age.

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