Earlier this year, Insider reported that Netflix was looking for a "new New Girl." The streamer isn't trying to make a revival of the Zooey Deschanel comedy — though I'm sure it wouldn't say no if that were a possibility — but rather its own version of a show in New Girl's subgenre of accessible single-camera broadcast sitcoms that thrived in the late 2000s and early-to-mid 2010s. These are comedies with sunny dispositions, an ensemble of lovably eccentric characters, and content that that isn't necessarily family friendly but doesn't have F-words or explicit sex and violence. These kinds of comedies, if done properly, become comfort shows that people watch over and over again.
These shows are extremely valuable to 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 those shows leave Netflix as studios claw 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 outside 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 to make this type of show is Blockbuster, 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 he was in high school, and who you might not be surprised to learn has trouble letting go of the past. His high school crush, Eliza Walker (Melissa Fumero), recently started working there because she needs money after splitting from her husband. Timmy still believes in the video store's role as an important community hub, and he does whatever 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.)
Blockbuster is made by the people who made the broadcast sitcoms it's meant to remind viewers of. Park starred in ABC's Fresh Off the Boat, Fumero starred in NBC's Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and creator Vanessa Ramos wrote for Brooklyn Nine-Nine and NBC's Superstore, the two shows Blockbuster is most like. David Caspe, creator of ABC's Happy Endings, is an executive producer. Universal Television, the studio most closely associated with high-quality single-camera sitcoms, is behind the series. Blockbuster has a will they/won't they relationship, kooky coworkers, and pop culture reference-laden jokes that will feel familiar to fans of any number 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 in this show — which is convenient, because Netflix's advertising era is here.
Netflix's business strategy is changing from prioritizing exponential subscriber growth to long-term subscriber retention, which means it's making different kinds of shows than it used to. Netflix needs more shows that create the kind of warm, reliable intimacy of old-school network TV with a Netflix sheen — "elevated broadcast," it's called. Previous shows like Emily in Paris and Never Have I Ever are sort of in this vein, but are a little too expensive and tonally specific — too Netflix, in other words.
Conversely, Netflix has made a number of shows in the style of a different type of broadcast comedy — the laugh-tracked multi-camera sitcom — but a lot of them are also too Netflix in their own way. Shows like The Ranch and One Day at a Time took a traditional form and modernized its content. They didn't offer comforting, easy nostalgia for the very recent past, especially not to Netflix's millennial median viewer. They felt like Netflix shows inspired by broadcast shows rather than actual broadcast shows. The comedies Netflix has already made that feel the most like broadcast sitcoms of the past are Family Reunion and The Upshaws, which successfully hearken back to Black family sitcoms of the '90s and early '00s. They are comforting, familiar shows that are a precursor to Netflix's broadcast-style vibe shift. But they aren't a new New Girl.
Blockbuster is Netflix's first comedy specifically made to tap into the love millennial 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 Blockbuster into a broadcast-style 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 the version of Netflix that made weird, expensive comedies is deader than a zombie from Santa Clarita Diet. The comfort era is upon us.
Will Blockbuster become Netflix's first new New Girl and keep people subscribed because they want to watch it over and over again? It's 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 TV writing is such a trial-and-error process, "if money and time were no objects, every comedy show would write, shoot, and edit like eight to 10 episodes, study them, and then throw them all away." Blockbuster Season 1 has 10 episodes.) But it doesn't have to be a hit right out of the gate, or be Netflix's only old-but-new comedy. Netflix will keep making shows like Blockbuster until its strategy changes again. It's just the first of many. Blockbuster is most notable as a sign of what the future of Netflix looks like. It looks a lot like TV's past.
Blockbuster Season 1 is now streaming on Netflix.