We’re all familiar with the workplace comedy. In the mid 2000s, we saw a shift in the type of humor we saw on TV—as we increasingly spent more and more time at work than at home, sitcoms drew less on domestic mishaps and more on relationships made on the clock. The Office codified the genre while centering on Steve Carrell’s hapless regional manager Michael Scott, a character Amy Poehler would later iterate on in Parks and Recreation with her equally naive yet more immediately likeable Leslie Knope.
Going back and watching these shows in 2020 feels a little off, largely because they suggest a work environment that doesn’t adequately mirror the offices of today. Nick Offerman’s staunchly libertarian Ron Swanson barely ruffles the feathers of his more liberal coworkers. Michael unfairly outs a gay office worker and consistently tiptoes around offending nearly every minority, getting off the hook because his intentions “come from a good place.” But stranger still is how relatively few problems each character in these shows face in their work life. Parks Department employees don’t freely discuss their wages, but nor do they struggle to make ends meet despite being relatively low-level bureaucrats assumedly making modest to less-than-desired salaries.
But in 2015, NBC picked up the America Ferrera-led Superstore. The show easily could have fallen into the same trappings of The Office and Parks and Recreation, especially given its creator, Justin Spitzer, worked as a co-executive producer and writer on The Office. But the show instead decided to go for something different. Ditching the mockumentary style perhaps to more closely resemble the then hyper-popular Brooklyn 99, Superstore is filmed like a glossy, well-lit Target ad. And yet, this network sitcom is better equipped to speak to this modern moment more than any other current series.
My first observation on watching the pilot was just how open the set really is—the characters working at Cloud 9 get nary a moment of privacy other than brief, languorous interludes in the breakroom. At any given moment, Amy (America Ferrera) could be interrupted by a helpless customer eager to know the difference between toothbrush brands—or perhaps, more curiously, looking for shovels, tarps, and bleach. Their high public visibility is, at times, oppressive, lampooned hilariously with interstitials of chaos going on around the store: women shopping with hunting rifles strapped to their backs, children throwing ceramic plates against the floor, men trying on swim trunks in the middle of the store.
The show had a rocky start despite boasting an immediately likable cast. Early plotlines were formulaic and predictable: Glenn (Mark McKinney), the affable Christian store manager, sought out Mateo (Nico Santos), a gay floor employee, for help designing a same sex wedding display. Hilarity was then guaranteed to ensue as Glenn dances around offending Mateo as well as gay customers. But then things started to change. The show’s first season ends dramatically as Cheyenne (Nichole Sakura), a pregnant teen, goes into labor while on the clock. The finale ends with a visit from a union buster as the employees attempt to find some kind of financial relief for Cheyenne.
This is where the show found its stride—the absolute absurdity of working in a corrupt, hyper-corporate big box store. In the second season, the focus quickly shifted from benign, strained personal relationships to the shared struggle all the workers face while employees at Cloud 9. Each has particularly low morale, seeing their jobs as dead end or temporary, except for Glenn, his militant assistant manager Dina (Lauren Ash), and college dropout Jonah (Ben Feldman). Jonah often acts as a foil to the rest of the employees, being more clued in to leftist labor principles and a strong sense of justice, but is perceived as “slumming it” given his sometimes snobbish attitude, well-off background, and his love of NPR.
Amy and Jonah often butt heads, not just because Amy is a working class woman who feels like she has no choice but to be exploited by an uncaring corporation, but also because (of course) they are attracted to each other. This comes to a head in Season 4, which mostly focused on Amy’s budding relationship with Jonah upon their suspension from the store, following a video of the two kissing that was broadcast to all the Cloud 9 locations during a live town hall. But Season 4 also used that to really buckle down on its portrayal of the working class: Amy is ousted from a hospital after learning her employer-provided health insurance is inadequate, then learns her maternity leave was voided upon her suspension. Amy then has to return to work just two days after giving birth.
This isn’t the only bold move the series makes in Season 4, including pushing forward with a storyline related to Mateo’s discovery (from an earlier season) that he is an undocumented immigrant. Elsewhere, Glenn steps down from his store manager position after realizing he is missing so much of his newborn’s life because he’s at the store over 12 hours a day. Amy is then promoted and takes over his job. Meanwhile, Sandra (Kaliko Kauahi), a gloomy and unpopular floor worker, finds herself at the epicenter of a union battle against corporate after being scapegoated for some viral tweets showing the store’s messiness.
These storylines all come to a boil when corporate sends ICE to the store to hopefully quash any dissent and scare the employees into submission. After a concerted effort to get Mateo out of the store, he is subdued and taken to a holding facility to be deported. Amy, who expressed ambivalence about unionizing because of her new cushy job, decides it’s time to fight for fair treatment. Season 5 then followed the crew as they learned the harsh realities of negotiating with higher-ups who see them as inherently replaceable, and Amy toils with the complicated nature of labor and authority she’s found herself in as she’s asked to sell out and accept a higher position. This is an NBC sitcom!
But right when America Ferrera was set to leave the show in a two-part Season 5 finale, COVID reared its ugly head and changed the face of retail potentially forever. Unable to film the second part in time for the show’s airing, Part 2 rolled over to Season 6 and was enjambed by a season premiere all about the pandemic. Deftly fitting in months of COVID culture in a slim 20 minutes (“Yeah, sorry, [Tiger King] was, like, early pandemic.”), Superstore proves without a shadow of a doubt it’s the only show fit to tackle current issues, because it’s the only show showing people truly affected by them—the people we write off as “heroes” when all they’re trying to do is survive like anyone else.
Superstore continues to show that the lives of normal people are just as interesting, if more absurd, as cops, executives, and hospital staff. In highlighting these well-known but less televised stories, the show manages to feel fresh and real. It’s a marvel more people aren’t talking about Superstore—but maybe the grim humor between low-income employees can only be enjoyed by the people who have lived it themselves.
New episodes of Superstore air Thursday nights on NBC; previous episodes and seasons can be found on Hulu.
Austin Jones is a writer with eclectic media interests. You can chat with him about horror games, electronic music, Joanna Newsom and ‘80s-‘90s anime on Twitter @belfryfire
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