Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
May 10, 2021

NBC’s Superstore gives retail workers their flowers

By PAIGE MAULTSBY | April 19, 2021

image

RON COGSWELL/CC BY 2.0

The workplace sitcom Superstore comes to a memorable end after six seasons.

Yet another workplace sitcom has come and gone: After a sixth season that insinuated candid conversation about the past year, NBC’s Superstore closed up shop on March 25 with an hour-long, two-part finale. The episode brought back its dynamic star, America Ferrera, as the hardworking pragmatist Amy, who departed from the show after season five.

Superstore centers around a group of retail employees at the Ozark Highlands location of the fictional big-box store “Cloud 9,” where menial labor and worker exploitation provide a basis for comedy. The show tackles employee health care, automation, hackneyed training videos, maternity leave, union-busting, Black Friday and more. 

Even with heavier topics, Superstore isn’t afraid of getting serious — its depiction of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid is appropriately grim — as its ensemble confronts absurdity on the shop floor. The show leaves behind a unique legacy; while it never exploded in popularity like NBC’s past workplace comedies, it boasted consistent ratings throughout its runtime. 

The show treads familiar ground with its blend of humor and light character drama, making it a safe choice for those who suffer from The Office and Parks and Recreation rewatch burnout. Early in my own viewing, however, Superstore revealed itself to be more than a solid rehash of a tried-and-true formula. By the finale of season one, the characters deliberate about forming a union.

Ferrera stars as Amy Sosa, veteran employee and floor supervisor, alongside Ben Feldman as Jonah Simms, the podcast-listening, male-feminist business school dropout who starts at Cloud 9 in the pilot episode. Their class difference becomes an immediate point of tension; Amy, worn down by her retail job, ridicules Jonah’s optimism and love of all things artisanal. Jonah, while progressive and eager to please, often betrays his latent elitism as a child of wealthy parents. This tension never goes away, even as the two develop a romantically-charged bond that drives the show forward.

Ferrera shines in her multidimensional portrayal of Amy, conveying world-weariness in her dry, assertive delivery. Feldman, meanwhile, plays Jonah with undeniable likability, toeing the line between sincere and annoying with commendable deftness. They unite in their anger over Cloud 9’s working conditions and spearhead unionization efforts together, but as Jonah pushes for more, Amy tempers her expectations.

I could recognize versions of myself in both of these characters. Anyone who’s ever looked at the world and found it dissatisfying will understand that cynicism and idealism aren’t necessarily incompatible. Jonah might be painfully starry-eyed, but his idealism rouses Amy from her state of inertia. At the same time, Amy grounds Jonah’s big ideas, forcing him to strategize concretely. 

One of Superstore’s strengths is that it never affirms one worldview over the other, and each season sees the main duo play off of each other in new compelling ways. In the final season, Amy leaves the Ozark Highlands store for greener pastures and doesn’t return until the finale. Following her departure, the show undergoes a noticeable shift, lacking the steady focus of the previous seasons. 

Even so, Superstore justifies its prolonged existence in a way that many long-running shows, like The Office, cannot in their final seasons. This is partly because Superstore’s final season takes place in the stretch of time between March 2020 and now.

Since the pandemic began, I’ve noticed general contempt for any reference to COVID-19 in the realm of arts and entertainment. A close friend was particularly enraged by the unfortunate early-pandemic Twenty One Pilots lyric, “Would you be my little quarantine?” 

I sympathize with that impulse; I too, find it really annoying when reality interrupts my escapism. Superstore never lets us escape very far, not even in its first season, as it addresses the systemic undervaluation of retail workers. However, Superstore is also joyful. Its progressivism rarely comes off as preachy — cynical, maybe, but not despairing. We’re meant to laugh at the show, after all.

I would attribute this balancing act to impressionistic character writing; the show constantly reminds us that its characters have lives outside their jobs but never gives full access to those lives. We’re given impressions of minor characters in the same way that we might have impressions of coworkers. This choice feels appropriate for a workplace sitcom, reminding us that these characters can find fulfillment elsewhere.

Superstore, therefore, could not ignore COVID-19. The first episode of season six speeds through the initial months of the pandemic — the panic buying, the makeshift masks, the “you guys are the real heroes” memos from corporate — but the lasting effects of the pandemic are felt throughout the season and seen through the presence of face masks. 

The COVID-19 season works because it understands why it’s documenting the pandemic, beyond the fact that it’s timely. We see the pandemic filtered through the workers’ experiences, and we see the humor in their grim circumstances: They’re heroes, but they’ll get paid the same. When corporate sends safety supplies, it’s anti-looting equipment.

Even with the pandemic as a backdrop, however, the final season wouldn’t have legs to stand on if Superstore didn’t spend the past five seasons building a solid ensemble of supporting characters. Rather than replace the chopped-off head that was America Ferrera, the show does not recenter its focus and instead zooms out, allowing its ensemble cast to shine.

Zealous assistant manager Dina (Lauren Ash) and chronically apathetic customer service rep Garrett (Colton Dunn) get their due as romantic leads. Bubbly Gen Z mother Cheyenne (Nichole Sakura) comes into her own as a floor supervisor. My personal favorite storyline involves Kaliko Kauahi as Sandra, the resident doormat whose rare fits of passion suggest uncharted depths. In the final season, a coworker convinces Sandra to adopt her former foster son. I found myself teary-eyed at the unexpected development of this mother-son relationship.

Beyond the main cast, the show has always highlighted its recurring actors, but what impressed me most is how from season to season, it allocates more narrative space to the standouts. By the finale, the ensemble is convincing and lovable enough to stand on its own. When Ferrera at long last returns, the moment feels not only earned but liberating. 

Since season one, Superstore has prioritized the collective over the individual, and Amy’s reunion with the Ozark Highlands store restores the fragmented whole. The show makes it a point to resist the fantasy of coworkers as family, but in this final episode, neither the characters nor the audience can deny that the workplace has become a venue of genuine connection. Family they are not. They have gained something more rare and harder-won: solidarity.

Comments powered by Disqus

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The News-Letter.

News-Letter Special Editions