In real life, the last Blockbuster Video store, the only one to survive in the age of streaming, is in Bend, Oregon.
But in sitcom land, that retro technology honor goes to Michigan.
“Blockbuster,” which arrives Thursday on Netflix, is a new half-hour comedy starring Randall Park (ABC’s “Fresh off the Boat”) as stressed-to-the-max Timmy, who finds out the Blockbuster franchise that he runs is about to become the last one anywhere.
This leaves Timmy desperate to figure out how to keep the store financially afloat without the corporation to help cover expenses.
Timmy’s eclectic staff is played by Melissa Fumero (NBC’s “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”) as his longtime crush Eliza, Olga Merediz (“In the Heights” on Broadway and in the film version) as the maternal Connie, Tyler Alvarez as aspiring filmmaker Carlos , Madeleine Arthur as gentle and naive Hannah and Kamaia Fairburn as Kayla, the daughter of Timmy’s best friend.
JB Smoove (HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm”) portrays Kayla’s dad, Percy, who owns the strip mall that’s home to the Blockbuster and also runs the nearby party-supply store.
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Netflix isn’t hyping the fact that the setting for this fictional look at a retail dinosaur — renting VHS tapes and DVDs in the age of, well, Netflix? — is either set in a Michigan suburb or a Michigan small town. (It has been described both ways by recent press reports).
But the first two episodes are sprinkled with a handful of references that make it clear the action takes place somewhere in Michigan — about 30 miles from Detroit, from the sound of it.
That’s an educated guess. Creator and showrunner Vanessa Ramos (“Superstore,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”) was not available for interviews to elaborate on why she sought a pleasant peninsula, according to Netflix.
“Blockbuster” joins a long list of comedies, dramas and reality series that have used Michigan as a setting (and sometimes an actual physical location for shooting). The list includes small-screen favorites like “Home Improvement” and “Martin,” crime sagas like “Low Winter Sun” and “Detroit 1-8-7” and cult hits made in Detroit by Detroiters like “Detroiters,” the late, great, hilarious Comedy Central series that was gone too soon.
Current shows set in Michigan include the popular CBS comedy “Bob Hearts Abishola,” Jeremy Renner’s Paramount+ prison-town drama “The Mayor of Kingstown,” Starz’s gritty drama “BMF” (which is inspired by the real-life tale of two southwest Detroit brothers who became drug kingpins) and NBC’s “American Auto,” an ensemble workplace comedy set in the corporate offices of a struggling Detroit automaker.
Like “American Auto,” “Blockbuster” balances the quirkiness of its characters with sharp dialogue, occasional genuine warmth and frequently hilarious pop-culture references.
In one scene, Timmy describes Carlos as a movie genius because “he got someone to rent ‘Garden State’ after 2004,” a mild dig at the Zach Braff film from the same year. In another, Timmy describes the middle-aged Connie’s strength as her relatability to older customers, noting: “Who else is going to know Hank Ackerman means Hugh Jackman?”
If there is a main message to “Blockbuster,” it is that brick-and-mortar stores should be valued for providing human interaction, as opposed to the often solitary nature of shopping, working and renting movies online in a digital-dominated world.
So how does Michigan sneak its way into the story line? Well, here and there. In the first episode, Park’s character surveys the stores adjacent to his that have been hit by the economic downturn. “That used to be the most popular pill mill in Michigan,” he says of one.
Later, as Park’s Timmy and Smoove’s Percy brainstorm over-the-top ways to attract potential customers with a block party, Fumero’s Eliza complains that her high school wasn’t allowed to have graduation parties because of the “two students at Franklin” (aka Timmy and Percy) who drove a Zamboni through a living room. “Still the only ZUI in the history of Michigan,” brags Timmy.
Hmm, that could be a nod to Livonia’s Franklin High School.
And there is a subtle mention of southeast Michigan’s biggest campus town in episode two. When Timmy faces the possibility of having to fire an employee in order to save money, he chooses the unlucky person and then insists he can’t deliver the bad news until the next day because he wants to buy a gift to help soften the blow.
“It’s not my fault that the nearest Edible Arrangements is in Ann Arbor,” he says.
Blockbuster Video was a staple of the 1990s, back when wandering the aisles of the stores was almost as entertaining as the actual content that followed. It offered a seemingly endless list of titles on its shelves and the thrill of the hunt for a copy of the newest releases, which flew out of stores faster than you could say: “Be kind. Rewind.”
Once consisting of a mighty 9,000 shops across America, Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy in 2010 and faded into oblivion. Yet it continues to fuel a lingering nostalgia that “Blockbuster” mines as a symbol of what’s missing from 2022.
It’s a feeling mostly lost on the show’s younger characters like Kayla, who cracks wise about her job to Timmy: “Walking into a dusty time capsule every day and having some gross dude in a ‘Gremlins’ T-shirt mutter ‘You probably weren’t t even born when this movie came out’ is honestly every 16-year-old’s dream.”
Still, there’s something about the place that keeps Timmy, who has worked there since seventh grade, fighting the good fight — like when he rallies his staff by standing on top of the checkout counter and reciting lines from Bill Pullman’s rousing speech as president in ” Independence Day.”
Timmy is on the side of one person making a difference, and he believes there is still a market for humans helping other humans, at least in terms of finding something good to watch on Saturday night.
“Blockbuster” is for such believers. As one satisfied customer says after Timmy recommends he watch “Under the Tuscan Sun” to soothe his heartache: “Algorithms can suck it. Long live Blockbuster!”
Contact Detroit Free Press pop culture critic Julie Hinds at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ten-episode first season arrives Thursday