Television, especially sitcoms, more and more provides a respite from the nonstop political chatter that accompanies a looming Election Day. But try as we might, we can't get away from "politics" -- it's part of everything we do. So it's comforting that one of the quietly most-improved shows in primetime deals with almost every issue we're trying to avoid... And has fun doing it.
"Superstore" clanked awkwardly onto NBC’s lineup in November last year, to lukewarm reception from critics and viewers alike. There were bright details: The show had a keen eye for the kind of background moments any retail worker, past or present, would recognize, and its bumpers play out a silent, hilarious series of tableaux: A shopper casually jogs on a treadmill like she’s in the gym and not a big box retailer, a nameless employee naps on the furniture, a baby chills out in a display playpen with no parents in sight, an elderly couple slow-dances in the aisles at closing time. It's a stylistic choice that adds to the show's crystalline world-building, as Cloud 9 and its larger universe assemble themselves before our eyes.
Unfortunately, the characters in the foreground weren’t nearly as well-articulated: Particularly the more grounded, ostensible leads Amy (America Ferrera) and Jonah (Ben Feldman). They didn't start particularly likeable -- which is fine on its own -- but the show didn't seem to understand that.
Privileged, Condescending Tourist (Jonah) and Cranky, Better-Than-This Working Mom (Amy) are types we can surely love, identifying with their higher selves -- but those were just not on display in the pilot. Cartoonish secondary and tertiary players -- frustratingly enough, played across the board by admirable, gifted character actors -- underlined the feeling that Amy and Jonah wouldn't be doing much else besides complaining and queasily confronting their own superiority over their coworkers: Not a blast, to say the least.
But -- like Jonah and Amy’s working relationship -- the show pulled out of a rocky start and was firing on all cylinders near the end of the first season, when the internet had forgotten about it altogether. And even better, that momentum has carried through into Season 2. Clearly the show has discovered the power of Jonah and Amy’s chemistry -- a thawing respect, blossoming into friendship (and possibly love, unrequited from the married Amy) -- and has used that focus to settle into itself. The phenomenal cast has begun to make sense of their characters, Jonah and Amy have proven they’re fundamentally flawed in very different ways, and the tentative tenderness among them all is showing real depths and widening perspective as the ensemble continues to change and develop a history.
But the ambition was there all along: Right out of the gate, Season 1 of "Superstore" explored racial and cultural appropriation (in the grim-as-hell Amy episode "Shots & Salsa," below -- possibly the season's standout and certainly the first one to really shake the ground), tokenism and intersectionality, the real labor and precarity of supporting a family on a less-than-living wage, immigration, marriage equality... It isn't that a dorky workplace comedy wouldn't approach these things with such vigor -- what's astonishing is the sharpness, the deft wisdom, of the way these topics are addressed.
In another early episode from Season 1, the corporate offices of this clear Walmart stand-in sends a writer and photographer to write a puff piece on store manager Glenn (Mark McKinney) for an in-house employee propaganda magazine. Store announcer Garrett (Colton Dunn) is in a wheelchair, and he spends much of the episode hiding out from the photographer because, as he explains to Jonah, corporate loves nothing more than highlighting disabled employees to show how inclusive they are.
The subtext is that this pointed effort towards inclusivity is othering, and also pretty freaking annoying -- but also reaches toward cultural places and sensitivities that we're still often confused about, a lot of the time. Neither a Very Special Episode with a guy in a wheelchair, nor the crude ableist jokes you may have imagined: Garrett's agency drives the storyline -- but what drives the episode, and is a better indicator of the true heart of the show, is Garrett's expertise in code-switching, using white fragility for his own purposes, and his exhaustedly hilarious explanations about when he needs (or has to be) the store's African-American employee, vs. when it's better to "just" be the disabled one.
The other characters get a chance to shine too, whether they’re interacting with members of the ensemble, or with Jonah or Amy specifically: Cheyenne, the soon-to-be teen mom, is broadly written, and it would be easy to write her off as brainless -- for her youth, her gender, her class, or some mixture of all three -- but when we learn that the impeccably driven and intelligent Amy was a teen mom who married young, and out of obligation, and has been scraping by ever since, it lends depth to both characters.
You see behind Amy's mask of confidence and competence that she sometimes feels trapped in her marriage and dead-end job, and that underneath her pragmatic surface she is seething with resentment, and it's a conundrum. She doesn’t want Cheyenne to make the same mistakes she did, but she can’t say that outright because it invalidates her own existence -- while simply projecting her own insecurities and weirdness onto Cheyenne would erase the girl even more profoundly. And on the other hand you have Cheyenne, who makes objectively, operatically terrible decisions and will doubtlessly continue to do so, but in even the grimmest of circumstances remains joyful, optimistic, and movingly resilient.
Jonah is also clarified and made more likeable through his interactions with Garrett, and -- more recently -- also with Cheyenne. A road-trippin' schoolboy and voluntourist, it's clear we don't know the whole story of how he ended up at this St. Louis big-box. But he's insufferable and entitled enough for three guys his age: The other characters keep a running tally of how frequently and absurdly he inserts his stint with Habitat for Humanity into the conversation. The poster boy for that subset of privileged, white, educated males who consider themselves woke, dominate every conversation online and in person with their wisdom, and yet simply cannot have a conversation with a woman or person of color without completely humiliating himself.
Obviously a decent person at heart, but with a leftist worldview made of equal parts enlightenment and entitlement; false modesty barely covering his humblebrags and guilty superiority, and all the rest: Garrett becomes his perfect foil -- he is so deadpan that Jonah’s earnestness can't compensate, and Garrett’s constant teasing only helps us -- and Jonah -- see how far the gap lies between the way he sees himself and the way he appears to others.
You can trace the lean development of the show, then, through these two characters and their interactions with each other -- not the arc of their friendship, but the actual way they are used as devices: Two entrypoint characters into a world many of us live in, and many of us who have opinions about such things have very little experience of, fighting it out, having those sometimes ugly conversations so that we don't have to.
In one notable Season 1 episode, "Color Wars," a manic in-store competition builds to the point that Amy is pushing a reluctant Jonah to hard-sell customers on things they don’t need, so their team can generate enough sales to earn a small bonus. When Jonah finally gets on board, he persuades a suggestible customer into spending thousands of dollars on unnecessary electronics and grilling equipment and upgrades... Only to find out that it’s Amy’s husband who has bought into his sales pitch.
The show's ambitions, the relationships and political status quo of the series came to a climax in the season finale, morally aligning Jonah and Amy completely for the first time all season in the cleverly titled "Labor." Pregnant teen Cheyenne goes into labor at a register, but refuses to go home -- because Cloud 9 doesn’t offer paid maternity leave.
Jonah and Amy are so outraged they decide to call corporate themselves, and soon even the pragmatic Amy is swept up by Jonah’s passion -- spurred on by corporate’s blandly evil response -- and utters the fateful word "strike." Soon, a corporate lackey named Steve has swooped in to soothe ruffled feathers and tell all the employees why unions are absolutely terrible... Without actually doing anything to help Cheyenne, who ultimately gives birth to her baby in the store. When she leaves on a stretcher -- promising desperately to be in for her shift the next day! -- manager Glenn finds he can't abide his company's inaction, and puts Cheyenne on a six-week paid suspension for causing a commotion and making a mess of the store while giving birth.
It’s a great, uplifting moment for employees and viewer: But "Superstore" is all about the real-world consequences of lofty ideals, and corporate swiftly and summarily, perhaps inevitably, fires Glenn.
While Jonah and Amy were basically blustering through their earlier phone call with corporate, this injustice pushes them over the edge, and they stage a walkout with most of their fellow employees. Amy at the beginning of the season would never have taken such a forceful action: Instead, she probably would have accepted Glenn's promotion and continued on in what she considers a dead-end career.
Jonah, on the other hand, would have happily joined or started a walkout for any reason at all, when we met him. But for all his talk of worthy causes and social awareness, this is the first time he has been emotionally engaged with a protest, which transforms his casual disobedience into a powerful, even moving, gesture of rebellion.
In just eleven episodes, these two went from dislike at first sight to true friendship, and partnership. The fact that they’re scared and in way over their heads makes it all the more satisfying of an evolution, because they’re drawing their strength from one another. When the strike is resolved, fairly quickly, at the beginning of Season 2, there is no real, lasting positive change for the employees -- but now that these two have had a taste of anarchy, and the show is beginning to widen its scope to other stores in the franchise, hints are being dropped about exciting new avenues the show can still.
"Superstore" may not have started off great, but its strong characters, incisive sense of compassionate satire, and its unpredictability -- most recently, a run of jokes over several episodes call back to the Season 1 scandal that saw the Cloud 9 mascot (Nate Torrence, from "Studio 60" and others) convicted of actual cannibalism -- make it a must-see revisit.
"Superstore" airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.