Essays · TV

‘Superstore’ is the Show We Needed But Didn’t Deserve

This is not the kind of show that should be canceled. It’s the kind of show that should be replicated.
Superstore Depositions
Trae Patton/NBC
By  · Published on March 13th, 2021

Workplace comedies have been a treasured genre of television nearly as long as television has been around. We’ve entered the day-to-day lives of cops (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Reno 911), lawyers (Night Court, Ally McBeal), doctors and nurses (Scrubs, Dr. Ken), government workers (Parks and Recreation, Veep), and journalists (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, News Radio, Murphy Brown).

At times there’s an ebb and flow in interest, but, like crime procedurals, workplace comedies are the workhorses of American television and have only gained momentum since the American remake of The Office made them cool again in the mid-2000s. But, despite all the varieties of office settings and characters, there’s never been a show like NBC’s Superstore, which is ending its six-season run this month.

For fans who know what the show is capable of, it is ending far too soon.

Superstore, which was created by The Office-alum Justin Spitzer, is set in St. Louis, Missouri, at a fictional Walmart-like big-box store called Cloud 9. The show debuted in 2015 with America Ferrera as its lead and big-name celebrity draw, assisted by an unusually diverse ensemble of lesser-known comedic actors.

The focus on diverse working-class characters (Black, Asian, Latinx, disabled, elderly, queer) made Superstore immediately stand apart from the usual workplace comedy. On top of that, its retail-set plots stealthily use storylines to comment on prickly topics such as immigration, healthcare and insurance, racial discrimination, and labor rights while somehow maintaining the joke-on-top-of-a-joke pace of beloved sitcoms like 30 Rock. 

Interstitials — cutaways unrelated to the plot of the episode — of customers behaving disgustingly and/or disturbingly with store merchandise (using deodorant and putting it back on the shelf, sniffing and biting candles, using cookware as a back scratcher and returning it) occur often. They last less than a minute, but they are compact comedy bites that could be compiled into one long episode as a Dadaist artist statement for Superstore.

It’s a show about ordinary people and their ordinary struggles that renders them meaningful by focusing on them. On Superstore, the people re-stocking groceries and electronics in the aisle aren’t set dressing for a better-off white lead to traipse through. They are the main characters.

Over six seasons, Superstore has managed to portray the plight of minimum-wage workers with an all-star comedic ensemble, imbue it with the charmingly nihilistic chaos of Party Down, and still have room to make a substantial statement about the horrors of life under capitalism.

It currently has a ninety-one-percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has been widely praised by critics. Vulture called it “one of network television’s most consistently and quietly revolutionary sitcoms.” Vox dubbed it both “TV’s best workplace comedy” and “one of TV’s most sadly overlooked shows.” Six seasons in, it still feels like a secret you’re pleading your friends to discover: “Drop what you’re doing and watch because you won’t regret it!”

As we get ready to say goodbye to Superstore, let’s look back at six key episodes that certify it as one of the sharpest and funniest shows on television:

Season 1, Episode 11: “Labor”

Superstore Labor

In the Season 1 finale, teen employee Cheyenne (Nichole Sakura) seemingly goes into active labor while working her shift at the store, and the employees all rally — each in their own way — to help deliver the baby. Amy (Ferrera), the mother of the group, steps in to comfort Cheyenne while fielding inane questions from the growing crowd around them, including a customer asking her to explain the difference between sunblock and sunscreen while Cheyenne shrieks in pain.

Store manager Glenn (Mark McKinney) steps in because no real doctors are present and he “played the abortion doctor in a Hell House once.” Sandra (Kaliko Kauahi), the quiet one, whispers she’s a trained midwife to no one in particular. And Garrett (Colton Dunn) films the whole thing for Cheyenne’s absent partner but mistakenly broadcasts it on the store’s for-sale television screens. This plotline is full of sitcom hijinks that in any other show could easily be the meat of the episode. But for Superstore, that’s just the pre-title sequence.

The next day, still-pregnant Cheyenne is struggling again but says she can’t leave work because she needs the money/hours to help raise her newborn daughter. Her coworkers try to come up with ways to help her. While on a call with Amy to corporate, pushy idealist Jonah (Ben Feldman) suggests that paid maternity leave — a policy Cloud 9 corporate refuses to back — is a feature at other box stores that have unions, and the use of the word “union” immediately sets off alarm bells and triggers an uber-capitalist response: the home office sends in a “labor relations consultant,” a.k.a. a union buster, to speak to the store.

Cheyenne eventually does give birth in the store and immediately tells Glenn that she may be a little late to work the next day, which is the breaking point for him. The union buster overhears Glenn mock-sternly telling a beaming Cheyenne that she essentially gets paid maternity leave: “Cheyenne, this is unacceptable. You’ve left your insides all over the floor, and now you’ve brought your child to work. You’re suspended. For four weeks. With pay.”

The other employees stage a walkout after hearing Glenn has been unjustly fired for his good deed. It’s a gutsy topic for any show let alone a first season sitcom. It’s also a sharp turn tonally that announces what Superstore is all about moving forward — unionization storylines bubble over into future seasons. The image of a dejected Glenn by his car, looking up and seeing a sea of his employees walking out in solidarity with him (to the tune of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley”) is so triumphant you’ll want to do a Bender-style fist pump while watching it play out.

Season 2, Episode 10: “Black Friday”

Black Friday

Holiday-themed episodes are standard sitcom fare. Brooklyn Nine-Nine has turned its Halloween episodes into an event and Bob’s Burgers consistently nails Thanksgiving. But on Superstore, the equivalent isn’t a feel-good episode about the spirit of any holiday; it’s a real look at the cost of supporting that fantasy.

Season 2’s “Black Friday” flips the script so that we experience holiday chaos from the perspective of retail workers. This perspective shift allows us to see why the biggest shopping day of the year is also the worst day of the year for retail workers. It opens with eerie horror movie violin music and a shot of Amy and Garrett looking at a growing line of Black Friday shoppers. A title appears on the screen that simply reads “3:00 am.”

Everyone is feeling glum but battle-ready, and the store is frenzied. Five minutes in, aisle twelve is covered in blood, and a worker is down. Amid the melee, Amy is dealing with a pregnancy scare, and other employees are just trying not to be injured while doing their jobs.

Elsewhere, to avoid register duty, Garrett comically prolongs his PA announcement and Jonah attempts to document the night via video camera (“This is the dark night of our souls; a portrait of hopelessness”), but a frustrated Brett (Jon Miyahara) throws it away mid-recording. Mateo and Cheyenne run a side hustle encouraging customers to bribe them to get in-demand items. While interacting with the lunacy of deal-seeking customers, the employees learn that they are all sick from the community potluck they had before the shift started.

At around 11 pm, they learn that corporate is unavailable to field their calls for help because they consider Black Friday a holiday and are therefore closed (ha!). At the darkest hour, Garrett, the group slacker, becomes an unlikely motivator and gets everyone to commit to finishing the shift by doing the bare minimum (“I’mma get out there, and I’mma finish my shift. And yeah I’mma cut corners, and I’mma phone it in, but it’ll never be said that Garrett McNeill did not do just enough to not get fired”) — and they do.

This episode is the kind of bittersweet take on the “holiday” that forces us as viewers to reflect on our behavior and engenders compassion for laborers whose labor is largely unheralded.

Next Page

Pages: 1 2

Related Topics: , , ,

Naomi Elias is a contributor at Film School Rejects. Her work has also appeared on IGN, Pajiba, Nylon, and Syfy Wire. You can follow her on Twitter here: @naomi_elias (she/her)