Blockbuster Episode 1 Review: “Pilot” Is A Disappointing Debut

Blockbuster Pilot

The premise of Netflix’s new sitcom Blockbuster, about a group of retail workers trying to keep the last video store chain in America alive, couldn’t be positioned better for success. In the wake of series like Superstore and Community, the comedic blueprints for a series about movie nerds and the death of in-person shopping (and filmgoing) are abundant. And for moments, it certainly feels like “Pilot” wants to say something about 21st century life through its characters and suburban Michigan setting – unfortunately, Blockbuster‘s first episode is held back by a unexpectedly weak script, some truly terrible editing, and a sense that this series went into production without a coherent grasp on its comedic, or dramatic, identity.

Like too many pilots of recent years, Blockbuster biggest problem is its inconsistency and desperation; its dialogue is interminably bed, an awkward, laughably predictable checklist of terms and punchlines that manage to be both modern and ancient. The second line of dialogue in the show is a customer discussing their emotional triggers, which kicks off a cascade of deafeningly lame references, as characters randomly mention stuff like preferred pronouns, Yeezys, cucks, and TikTok, like a Mad Libs of disappointing premises, executed with no sense of humor or any kind of unique or insightful take. But this is not a show objectively trying to form an identity around anything it is feigning to be in conversation with; at best, Blockbuster‘s personality is an all-too-familiar brand of detached irony that plays very poorly alongside its more earnest attempts to build characters like Park’s Timmy, or Melissa Fumero’s Eliza (who returns to an old job after catching her husband cheating on her… which blew up her life in unexpected ways, presumably?).

Blockbuster Pilot

In “Pilot”, Blockbuster‘s characters simply are never engaged in their surroundings; like the worst of modern comedy, everything is observational and detached, with no real craft or coherent idea driving it – or in the case of whenever JB Smoove or Olga Merediz is on screen, a delivery vehicles for short bursts of inorganic, unhinged wackiness. Though these dashes of comedic vibrato are at least something, it feels completely dissonant alongside the pilot’s pitiful attempts to establish its characters, or its lifeless series of punchlines and pop culture references (Under the Tuscan Sun? That’s the best you’ve got?). Like its Bingo card dialogue, the characters of “Pilot” and how they interact with the main crux of the story (trying to throw a block party to save the store) is oddly paced and frustratingly disengaged with the vast amounts of potential offered by series creator Vanessa Ramos’s ingenious premise.

Where Blockbuster really feels miscalculated, and most surprisingly, is its casting. Though Fumero is clearly no stranger to Ramos’ style of dialogue and scene construction (having previously been a writer on Brooklyn Nine-Nine), Randall Park seems decidedly miscast as misanthropic man-child Timmy – which, as a longtime fan of Park’s work, is a difficult thing to say. Park’s portrayal of Timmy as this goofy, enthusiastic and doe-eyed store owner is thoroughly incongruent with his place in the series (he lives with a roommate, and is portrayed very much as the douchebag archetype of “cool kid with divorced parents who never left his hometown after high school”, both by the episode and Park’s somewhat two-dimensional performance.

There’s plenty of time to rectify this, both through writing and performance, but the acerbic immaturity Blockbuster pokes at with Timmy is only seen on paper, and in “Pilot”, isn’t channeled into anything with any dimension, leaving Park to deliver the same earnest, goofy performance he did on Fresh Off the Boat – which is not the tone this series clearly wants to have, at least through most of the episode.

Blockbuster Pilot

There’s really no explaining away how rough “Pilot” feels at every level of its conception; from its forced suggestions of romantic subplots, to its absolute absence of embracing its suburban wasteland setting, Blockbuster feels like it needed more time in the lab for Ramos and executive producers (which include John Davis and David Caspe) to refine its characters and pathos a bit further. There’s a morsel of something really interesting and endearing here – a group of film nerds bring their community together through their underdog efforts to save their store, providing cogent reflections of modern life and media consumption along the way – but boy does “Pilot” go out of its way to ignore that, rushing itself into a cascade of unearned emotional and narrative leaps, none of which offer any sort of surprising or intriguing elements (also, having characters yell things about cucks and spoilers and “trauma patches”… this dialogue is A Lot, and almost never in a good way!).

But hey – plenty of great comedies have gotten off to rough starts: the premise of Blockbuster is simple and versatile enough, and there’s certainly plenty of talent on both sides of the camera to recalibrate the young sitcom on the fly. Will it be able to do so with only another nine episodes (roughly four hours) in its first season? That’s the big, unanswered question, of course – and a limitation that, after the recent experience of Reboot‘s promising, over-before-it-started first season, has me worried Blockbuster may not figure itself out until it’s too late.

Grade: D

Other thoughts/observations:

  • Welcome to Blockbuster reviews! Reviews of all ten episodes will publish here at Processed Media over the next few days.
  • Something to think about these next few episodes: is Blockbuster the sitcom we need, but on a network that will never give it a chance to embrace its own voice? “Pilot” does offer some toothless criticism of the algorithm-driven streaming business, but it feels particularly tame next to say, what Reboot did with a Hulu executive in its own pilot episode.
  • JB Smoove features as the landlord of the strip mall next to Blockbuster; as a fan of NBC’s short-lived Bent, I think most comedies could benefit from more Smoove.
  • Can we stop having characters who went to Harvard constantly mention they went to Harvard? This joke was getting old when 30 Rock introduced Toofer.
  • The reveal of Kayla as Percy’s son is one the show should’ve revealed earlier on!
  • I don’t know what “Pilot” thought it was doing with the character of wannabe-director Carlos (Tyler Alvarez), but boy it does not work in this episode. He’s just kind of there, given prominence for reasons the script never tries to explain (except that he can add really shitty effects to a TikTok video? I guess?)
  • Where is this show’s score???? Of the many things this show is lacking, a distinct musical identity is very, very high on the list.
  • I mentioned it before, but my god, the editing in “Pilot” is aggressively atrocious. The cutting rhythm is really out of sync with the timing of most scenes – and frankly, it just suffers from having too many cuts in general, overcutting in ways that sap the comedic energy out of every scene. As a fan of Payman Benz’s directorial work on other shows, I was hoping Blockbuster would give him, and the cast, a little more breathing room, but this episode establishes a really disappointing, spastic cadence early on, and weirdly sticks to it for the entire episode.

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