Remember video stores? Netflix’s Blockbusters is kind of hoping you don’t. The series, created by Vanessa Ramos, is set at the last Blockbuster Video in America, tucked away in a nondescript strip mall in suburban Michigan. The moment, as the first episode’s references to Midsummer and TikTok make clear, is the present day, a time when the takeover of local business by national conglomerates feels like it’s close to complete, but the show feels oddly stuck between eras. It’s a network-style sitcom, made by Universal and released on a streaming platform, built around extolling the kind of business—not just video stores, but anything that involves people sharing a common experience, rather than one specifically tailored to them—that Netflix helped to kill.
Perhaps some of those businesses deserved to die, at least by the rules of winner-take-all capitalism. And it’s naïve to think that a significant swath of consumers might voluntarily choose a suboptimal experience—higher prices, smaller selection, less-than-infinite returns—simply to shop at a store whose owner lives in the same zip code. But the result is a national terrain where you can drive for hours and see the same logos flash by again and again, like the world is stuck on loop, and there’s less and less reason to inhabit those transitory spaces for any longer than you have to . Surveying the local landscape of Spirit Halloweens and Jiffy Lubes, the last Blockbuster’s owner, Timmy Yoon (Randall Park), muses, “I don’t miss the places. I miss the people.”
It’s hard to laugh at Blockbusters‘s self-awareness when every moment you watch redounds to Netflix’s benefits.
Of course, you can’t have one without the other. Without places to gather, people will stay within their circles, or reach out for virtual communities that offer psychic sustenance but starve the places that our bodies, like it or not, inhabit. But that slippery distinction is a nifty way for Blockbusters to sidestep the backwards-looking aspect of a show set in a video store whose products many people now lack the technological means to play, let alone the desire to rent. Although the Blockbuster’s employees include the obligatory movie nerd, Carlos (Tyler Alvarez), who has his heart set on being the next Tarantino, it’s just a place to work for most of them, a last turnoff on the road to failure. Eliza (Melissa Fumero) is a middle-aged mom whose biggest achievement is getting into Harvard and leaving after one semester; Hannah (Madeleine Arthur) is a homeschooled weirdo trying to get up the nerve to apply for community college; Tyler is studying for an accounting degree because he can’t bear to tell his immigrant parents that he wants to make movies; Connie (Olga Merdiz) doesn’t even really need the job, but she’s so bored and lonely she’ll take any reason to get out of the house. They speak the language of movies fluently—at one point, there’s an intense three-way discussion about the plot of Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead—but they’re what industry analysts used to call platform agnostic, before not caring where you watch what you watch became an article of faith. And it’s not really clear why any of their customers are renting DVDs of movies they could easily stream—the show isn’t even set in one of the rural areas where discs are still popular because of inadequate broadband service. Maybe the customers are just lonely, too.
Blockbusters is slick enough to foreground the obvious ironies of its existence early on. In the first scene, a customer apologizes that he hasn’t been in for three years: “I’ve been doing Netflix,” he admits, “like everybody.” At the end of the first episode, Timmy gives a rousing speech (cribbed from Independence Day) about the community taking back control from “all the big corporations ruining this country,” and Melissa points out that Blockbuster itself was once the behemoth squashing local stores, proudly named for movies that cater to the lowest common denominator. But it’s hard to laugh at this self-conscious lampshading when every moment you watch redounds to Netflix’s benefit. It’s not enough that they drove video stores out of business, then abandoned the culture they’d destroyed to curate a buffet of algorithmic mediocrity. Now they want to own your longing for that era, too.
Timmy’s office is decorated with posters for Tremors and The Thing, both box-office flops that became canonical classics thanks to their recirculation on videotape. There was a time, hard to remember now, when Netflix seemed like it might amplify that process, rather than creating a world where older or lesser-known titles might as well not exist. In the era when Netflix’s business was shipping discs in red envelopes, they were like a nationwide video store that had a copy of everything, even the obscure stuff your local art-house store couldn’t get hold of. It might take months for that battered disc of Peter Brook’s The Mahabharata to make its way to your mailbox, but it would get there eventually. But the more of those envelopes made their way through the mail, the more we got used to everything coming to us, and the idea of making a special trip just to be able to watch a movie—two trips, in fact, one to pick up a disc or tape and one to return it—slowly came to feel not just inconvenient but intolerable. Plus, the stores were full of people, holding up the line, arguing over late fees or grabbing the last copy of a movie just when you were heading for the shelf. And Blockbuster clerks weren’t usually the ones you wanted to engage in lengthy conversations about which Fellini movie to watch next. The only time I ever rented from Blockbuster was when I needed to watch a recent studio release of the kind they’d stock 30 copies of, crowding out space for the smaller or more challenging movies they might only carry the censored version of anyway.
Towards the end of the season, Timmy, struggling with Blockbuster’s failing fortunes, tries to zero in on its core remaining appeal. “Maybe the store isn’t just renting movies,” he thinks. “People gather here. We offer an experience that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. It’s special. We gotta share that.” It seems like he’s zeroing in on a boutique model, one where the shell of a dead pastime is propped up as a simulacrum of itself. (The real “last” store that inspired Blockbusters rented itself out as an Airbnb during the pandemic.) But real Blockbusters weren’t gathering places, and they deliberately obliterated the places that were, so thoroughly that even in nostalgia we can only remember the depersonalized chain stores that replaced them. Netflix might have pulled the trigger that killed video stores, but Blockbuster loaded the gun.