Superstore- Bigger, better, and more real than The Office
Superstore- NBC/Hulu 2015-2021
I've been a huge fan of television comedies since the days of Get Smart and Gilligan's Island, and have despaired at how unfunny most of them are today. Last year I made it a point to watch all of the Emmy-nominated tv comedies, hoping to find something to watch now that Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory are no more. The only show that produced a laugh out loud moment for me was Curb Your Enthusiasm, but it was an awkward laugh. The Good Place was brilliant but not that funny and now it's gone too. Schitt's Creek won all the awards, but the characters are unlikable and it doesn't make me laugh. What We Do in the Shadows is just plain odd. The others, Mrs. Maisel, Insecure, Dead to Me, and the Kominsky Method are dramas that barely pretend to be comedic.
The best television comedy for the past few years turns out to be a little noticed gem on NBC called Superstore, that has never once gotten an Emmy nomination, but has built up a large cadre of Super Fans. Superstore is set in my home town of St. Louis, but it could be set anywhere, with its diverse cast of characters representative of a wide spectrum of Americans.
The show, which ran for six wonderful seasons on NBC, featured a rainbow cast that included funny, interesting people much like those you'd encounter in the real world. A gay Filipino? Check. A black guy in a wheelchair? Check. A Latina floor manager? Sure. And a clueless white male evangelical running the place? Of course. The cast of Superstore was carefully chosen to be fatter, older, humbler, and less Hollywood-like than most other shows on television today. It was that vulnerability and humility that made those characters as lovable as they are.
What sets Superstore above all other sitcoms of today is that it wasn't afraid to tackle thorny, difficult issues and milk them for laughs. Almost alone among 2020 tv shows, the cast routinely was shown wearing face masks after the Covid-19 epidemic hit, and the pandemic was mentioned regularly in the final season. Racism, abortion, gun violence, and economic uncertainty were dealt with in a way that neither belittled the topics nor dragged the show down into seriousness. The characters dealt with real world problems like corporate takeovers, layoffs, childcare, maternity leave, and potential deportation, and yet found ways to work their way through them without becoming depressing or mean. The employees of Cloud Nine tried to unionize just as retail workers have tried in the past, and they went out of business as victims of online shopping, just as retail workers face today.
The cast was dependent on its two main leads- America Ferrara and Ben Feldman, who played the sensible central core to the weird and crazy band of employees and customers of Cloud Nine. Comparisons to The Office are in abundance. (Show creator Justin Spitzer also worked on the Office for many years.) Amy and Jonah, as their characters were known, were much the same as Jim and Pam, and their on again, off again romance was great, as was their genuine affection for the people that they worked with. Dina, the assistant manager, was a brash and sexually charged person who took on the Dwight role as the foil and bad guy in many episodes, but she was much more versatile and multi-layered. And the store manager, Glenn, was a hapless version of Michael Scott, not too bright but with a good heart underneath his naïve religiosity. This show works better than The Office in many ways because it doesn't rely on the crutch of talking head interviews as a pretense of being in a documentary. All the drama and comedy unfolds as we see it.
In addition to the great cast and great writing, Superstore treats the audience to surprise vignettes with random customers that show just how absurd life in retail can be. There's the couple falling in love while holding the same box of Preparation H, the insanely long receipt for one item's purchase, the people exercising and doing their laundry with store merchandise, the lady fondling a mannequin, or the shopper testing out a bowling ball by knocking over a stack of boxes. You never know when these scenes will show up, but they definitely add flavor to this already bizarre workplace. (For some of the funniest ones, click here.)
The world of retail is one that's familiar to all of us and remarkably important to those who live in it. Few people plan on a retail career, and fewer study it in college. They just fall into it, as a workplace of last resort for those who can't figure out life. I was one of those people, and my years in retail gave me a home to build my confidence until I could take on a true career. The world of retail, as portrayed in Superstore's Cloud Nine, is a low-paying, low-status job that the employees nevertheless appreciate, if only because of the family and relationships that make it all worthwhile. As online shopping takes much of that away, I worry about what the next generation of lost souls will gravitate into.
Jonah states in his secretly recorded interview, "When you think about it, a store like this is actually pretty incredible, you know? You help people do their homework, and find their styles, and feed their grandchildren. You know,there's magic in that. People always talk about going out and finding something special, but you know, maybe we don't have to look that hard. Maybe everything is special. "
The final episode of Superstore was one of the best finales I've ever watched. The store downsizes as a fulfillment center, and all the employees go through stages of dread, hope, and acceptance with grace and humor. The Amy and Jonah romance is resolved beautifully, and all the main characters are shown in their new lives after the show ended. Series-long cynic Garrett has the last word in a beautiful monologue over the loudspeaker that sums up a lot of what the show was about. I wish more writers could provide closure like this.
Justin Spitzer, the show's creator, has been retained by NBC to develop more comedies, and I eagerly await his next adventure. Until then, I'll have six great seasons of Superstore to enjoy- Emmy's be damned.
For more on the best television comedies of all time, click HERE.