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​'Superstore' Succeeds by Shedding a Light on Service Workers

NBC's Superstore stands out from the typical workplace comedies by focusing on the real struggles of the retail worker.

by Vincent Crincoli
Nov 17 2016, 2:36pm

When NBC's Superstore premiered last fall, it did so to little fanfare. Most critics wrote it off as a generic workplace comedy. Considering it featured character archetypes such as "lovable slacker," "hardass boss," and "obvious will they/won't they," it was hard to disagree with the critical consensus. And yet, despite a so-so pilot and a seemingly unoriginal premise, there was something about Superstore that charmed me from the start.

Superstore, created by Office writers room veteran Justin Spitzer, had solid joke writing and a fairly impressive cast, ranging from TV veterans like America Ferrera and Mark McKinney to promising up-and-comers like Lauren Ash and Colton Dunn. However, what really kept me interested in the show was that it was the first sitcom in ages that actually showed people working a job that didn't feel like a far-fetched fantasy to me, someone who was working as a grocery-store cashier with little indication of a way out.

The characters of 30 Rock may have worked for a comically bad sketch show, but they were still network television employees who could afford to live in fancy Manhattan apartments. Maybe the characters of Brooklyn Nine-Nine or Parks and Recreation aren't particularly wealthy, but their jobs are still treated as noble, important, and capable of changing lives. Superstore's Cloud 9, on the other hand, felt more like the kind of place that both myself—and much of the population—are more accustomed to working at. It's the kind of place where you clock in and out every day, more concerned about on holding on and keeping your head above water than the actual tasks of the job.

When it comes to depicting Cloud 9 as a workplace, Superstore holds no punches—from its bumpers that showcase shoppers' horrifying behaviors to the way it makes it clear how little corporate thinks of in-store employees, it's obvious that this is not a place you'd want to work at. But it is the kind of place that many people have to work at.

Superstore gradually grew more comfortable discussing its characters' class and personal struggles over the course of its first season, and it all came to a head in the season finale. After pushover store manager Glenn is fired for giving new mother Cheyenne two weeks of maternity leave (a benefit not offered to Cloud 9 employees), the employees rise up and organize a walk-out in protest, despite the store's relentless anti-union propaganda. It was a genuinely uplifting scene that served as a surprising defense of workers' rights, showcasing the kind of neglect that Cloud 9's employees are expected to deal with while also seeing them triumphantly refuse to put up with it any longer.

Unfortunately, it was also a scene that was almost immediately overturned when the show returned for a second season. After all, in both real-life retail work and the world of Superstore, positive change isn't built to last. The strike ends almost before it begins, when corporate receives word of the walk-out, completely belittles strike leaders Amy and Jonah ("You're in way over your heads," their regional manager says with a smirk during a negotiation), and easily manipulates the store's employees into returning to work. Unlike, say Leslie Knope or the detectives of the 99th precinct, passion and dedication don't get the Cloud 9 employees very far. But before giving up the strike and returning to work, Jonah says to Amy, "You know, just because we go back inside doesn't mean it's over. The fight will go on. This was just the first punch."

And by and large, the second season of Superstore has delivered on this promise. The show has doubled down on its mission to showcase working-class struggles that don't always have a place on television. In "Halloween Theft," Amy struggles to get out of work in time to go trick-or-treating with her daughter; in "Election Day," she teams up with Jonah to convince Cloud 9 employees not to vote for the anti-workers' rights candidate that corporate is pushing for. In that same episode, in one of the show's most powerful character revelations, employee Mateo reveals he's an undocumented immigrant and struggles to keep the secret from the Cloud 9 higher-ups.

Even with this increased focus on its characters' struggles, though, Superstore hasn't lost sight of its quirky workplace sitcom roots. There are still plenty of fun and entertaining hijinks to be had, whether it's the employees struggling to keep corporate from finding an employee's severed finger, or Mateo searching the store for an "I Voted" sticker, or Jonah and Garrett placing bets on which of the seasonal employees will quit first. But underneath those hijinks is an understanding that these situations, while humorous, have real consequences for the characters. If corporate does find the severed finger, Amy will lose her job and be unable to provide for her family; if Mateo doesn't find an "I Voted" sticker, he could face questions about his citizenship status from management; and the bet on seasonal employees' jobs is undercut when Jonah and Garrett find out that most of them are recovering addicts trying to get their lives back on track.

These stories may not be as glamorous or inspiring as the ones from shows centered on political figures or high-powered lawyers, but they are the kind of stories that most of us are living. So kudos to Superstore, the first show on television in quite some time that's interested in telling our stories.

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