Earlier this year, Insider reported that Netflix was looking for a “new New girl.” The streamer isn’t trying to revive the Zooey Deschanel comedy — though I’m sure it wouldn’t say no if there was an opportunity — but rather its own version of a show in New girlits subgenre of accessible single-camera broadcast series that flourished in the late 2000s and early to mid-2010s. These are comedies with sunny dispositions, an ensemble of lovably eccentric characters, and content that isn’t necessarily family-friendly, but doesn’t have F-words or explicit sex and violence. Such comedies, if done right, become comfort shows that people watch over and over again.
These apps are extremely valuable for streaming services – New girl was the 13th most streamed show of 2020, according to Nielsen. And no streaming service needs them more right now than Netflix. For years, Netflix attracted and retained customers by being the streaming home of back catalogs of broadcast shows. But now every month these shows are leaving Netflix as the studios bring them back for their own streaming services. Even Schitt’s Creek is gone now; New girl is one of the only ones left. Netflix can’t rely on external shows anymore. It has to make its own New girls (or Parks and Recreations or Brooklyn Nine-Nines or insert your own favorite quirky sitcom millennials love here).
Netflix’s first attempt at creating this type of show is Blockbusters, which is streaming now. It’s a single-camera workplace sitcom set at the last Blockbuster Video store in America (though not the actual last Blockbuster, which is in Bend, Ore., and was the subject of a 2020 documentary called The last blockbuster). Randall Park stars as owner Timmy Yoon, who has worked at the store since high school and who, you might not be surprised to hear, has trouble letting go of his past. His high school crush, Eliza Walker (Melissa Fumero), recently started working there because she needs money after divorcing her husband. Timmy still believes in the video store’s role as an important community hub, and he does everything he can to keep the business alive and relevant. (The fact that Netflix put Blockbuster out of business hangs over every moment of the show like an ironic cloud.)
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Blockbusters is made by the people who made the broadcast sitcoms, it’s meant to remind viewers. Park starred in ABC’s Fresh off the boat, Fumero starred in NBC’s Brooklyn Nine-Nineand creator Vanessa Ramos wrote for Brooklyn Nine-Nine and NBCs Super largeshows the two Blockbusters is most similar. David Caspe, creator of ABC’s Happy endings, is an executive producer. Universal Television, the studio most associated with high-quality single-camera sitcoms, is behind the series. Blockbusters has a will they/will they not relationship, wacky colleagues and pop culture reference-laden jokes that will feel familiar to fans of a variety of sitcoms. It has the production design and visual sensibility of a budget-conscious broadcast comedy. If not for the jokes about TikTok, you’d think it aired on NBC in 2013. Commercial breaks wouldn’t feel out of place on this show — which is handy, because Netflix’s commercial era is here.
Netflix’s business strategy is changing from prioritizing exponential subscriber growth to long-term subscriber retention, which means they’re making different kinds of shows than before. Netflix needs more shows that create the kind of warm, reliable intimacy of old-school network TV with Netflix sheen — “elevated broadcast,” it says. Previous programs such as Emily in Paris and Never have I ever are in a way in this spirit, but are a bit too expensive and tone-specific – for Netflix, in other words.
Conversely, Netflix has created a number of shows in the style of another type of broadcast comedy — the laugh-tracked multi-camera sitcom — but many of them are also for Netflix in their own way. Showing as The Ranch and One day at a time took a traditional form and modernized the content. They didn’t offer comforting, easy nostalgia for the very recent past, especially to Netflix’s millennial median viewer. They felt like Netflix shows inspired by broadcast programs rather than actual broadcast programs. The comedies Netflix has already made that feel most like the broadcast sitcoms of the past are Family reunion and Upshaw’s, which successfully hearkens back to Black family sitcoms of the ’90s and early ’00s. They’re comforting, familiar shows that are a precursor to Netflix’s shift in broadcast style mood. But they are not new New girl.
Blockbusters is Netflix’s first comedy specifically created to take part in the millennial reign of love and Gen Z viewers have for shows from the era of The office. Netflix didn’t have to make these shows before, because it still had The office. And its strategy for making Blockbusters into a TV show is to do away with the edge and experimentation that in an earlier era would have marked it as a Netflix show, in favor of content that makes it indistinguishable from an NBC show. In case it wasn’t already official, it signals that Netflix is completely done with making weird, expensive comedies like Santa Clarita Diet. The age of comfort is upon us.
Want Blockbusters become Netflix’s first new New girl and keep people subscribed because they want to see it over and over again? It is too early to say. Through the four episodes I’ve seen, it doesn’t feel like it’s there yet, but shows like this almost always take time to find their footing. (Michael Schur—a man who knows how to make NBC comedies—once said that because television writing is such a trial-and-error process, “if money and time were no object, every comedy show would write, shoot and edit like eight to ten episodes, study them, and throw them all away.” Blockbusters (Season 1 has 10 episodes.) But it doesn’t have to be a hit out of the gate, or be Netflix’s only old-but-new comedy. Netflix will continue to make shows like Blockbusters until the strategy changes again. It’s just the first of many. Blockbusters is best known as a sign of what the future of Netflix looks like. It’s a lot like TV’s past.
Blockbusters Season 1 is now streaming on Netflix.