Entertainment

'Superstore' Was the Last Great Workplace Comedy

The long running NBC sitcom ends tonight. It had endless jokes, a huge heart, and more biting politics than any of its predecessors.
JT
Chicago, US
March 25, 2021, 7:33pm
Kaliko Kauahi, Colton Dunn, Nico Santos 'Superstore'
Pictured: (l-r) Kaliko Kauahi, Colton Dunn, Nico Santos in 'Superstore' -- (Photo by: Jordin Althaus/NBC)

NBC's Superstore, which takes place in a branch of a fictional Walmart-like big box retailer chain called Cloud 9, ends its six-season, 113-episode run Thursday as the best sitcom on network TV. Too often workplace comedies substitute conflict and address unfairness for breezy, kumbaya hangouts. By the end of Parks and Recreation, there was no tension in Pawnee and even Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) and Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) ended the series best friends despite the characters being written to be perfect antagonists to each other. In The Office, even Carrell's Michael Scott received a fond farewell from his staff who endured his often-nightmarish managerial reign with Jim Halpert (John Krasinski) tearfully saying, "You turned out to be the best boss I ever had." But Superstore stood out from the rest because it refused to sanitize the realities of work.

Superstore dealt deftly with the realities of working-class life and tackled hot button issues like immigration, health care, racism, pyramid schemes, gun control, and conspiracies with such good jokes they're eviscerating of systemic problems never felt preachy. The characters all come from different backgrounds, but Cloud 9 employees are constantly reminded of their precarious economic situations: they deal with bills, low wages, unsafe working conditions, unruly customers, ghoulish corporate overlords, product scanners that don't work, and in the latest season, the COVID-19 pandemic. If you've never seen Superstore before, imagine if The Office ditched the documentary conceit and Dunder Mifflin employees spent more time staging walkouts and union organizing than pranking their weird colleagues.

Superstore admittedly owed a lot to The Office. After all, original showrunner and creator Justin Spitzer penned several episodes of the iconic Steve Carrell-led series. The surface-level parallels are immediately recognizable: there's the oafish but ultimately well-meaning manager Glenn (Mark McKinney) and an intense, rule-following Dwight Schrute-like assistant manager in Dina (Lauren Ash). There's even a series-long up-and-down office romance between leads Amy (America Ferrera), who's been working at Cloud 9 for over a decade, and Jonah (Ben Feldman), the New Yorker-reading business school dropout from Chicago. But unlike The Office, the emotional stakes in Superstore always felt higher due to the fact that these characters live paycheck to paycheck. No one at Dunder Mifflin had to take the bus to work every day. 

When Cloud 9's Mateo (Nico Santos), a gay Filipino-American finds out he's undocumented in season two, his coworkers rally around him to keep him out of ICE's attention. The show pulled no punches in Mateo's arc, which included an ICE raid on Cloud 9 in season 4 and his arrest and likely deportation. Eventually, despite brainstorms from his coworkers on how to break him out of jail, Mateo is released only because Cloud 9's had illegally called ICE to stop a union drive. This is unusually biting material for comedy that aired on a major network. Cloud 9's employees banding together for better working conditions is the heart of the entire series. In season one a teenaged employee Cheyenne (Nichole Sakura) gives birth in the store and Cloud 9 refuses to give her maternity leave so her boss Glenn gives her a six-week suspension with pay and promptly gets fired for it. Later, Jonah tries to organize union drives and health care funds for his co-workers. 

Superstore was a workplace comedy where its horrible setting and its corporate overlords are the villains. In season one, a company-made magazine features articles entitled  "Minimum wage is maximum fun!" and "Work it Off: A Guide to Injuries on the Job." Over the latest season, last summer's racial unrest prompts Cloud 9 to give its employees of color a measly pizza party at which some of the white employees feel left out and insert themselves into the luncheon, further diluting the already meaningless corporate gesture. With the pandemic in full force, Cloud 9's employees lobby for masks and protective gear from corporate where they're forced to whip up makeshift face coverings like the bandanas from teddy bears in the toy section. Superstore is one of the few television shows equipped to handle the pandemic, with characters wearing masks and grappling with what it means to be an "essential worker" and a "frontline hero" at a dead-end job. 

Beyond its dead-on handling of American work and capitalism, Superstore was just extremely funny. Just take its Black Friday and Halloween episodes or the hundreds of interstitial visual gags in every episode. The crude warehouse bro Marcus (Jon Barinholtz), the wise-ass sneakerhead customer rep Garrett (Colton Dunn), the drama-loving Syrian immigrant Sayid (Amir M. Korangy), and the odd and under-appreciated Sandra (Kaliko Kauahi), are a small selection of a vast ensemble cast that makes every episode great. For its finale Thursday night, Cloud 9 employees fight for their survival with Zephyr attempting to close 95 percent of their brick and mortar stores. Plus, series lead Amy finally returns to the cast and hoping ends the series-long will-they-or-won't-they questions about her relationship with Jonah. 

From Taxi's Sunshine Cab Company and WKRP In Cincinnati's eponymous rock radio station to The Office's Dunder Mifflin, and the local bureaucracy of Pawnee, Indiana in Parks and Recreation, soul-sucking jobs have always been a staple setting for television comedy. Superstore was unique in that it never forgot its characters were workers. It was a show about regular people being resilient and finding solidarity against the realities of American capitalism and the whims of Cloud 9's corporate parent company Zephyr. It had laughs as big as its heart.