Even if we’ve never worked in one, most of us have spent enough time at the local Wal-Mart to know shopping there isn’t fun and working there is almost certainly worse. The allure of watching underpaid retail workers contend with corporate machinations and ungrateful customers seems weak at best. But Superstore, a half-hour comedy that follows a group of employees trudging away at a big box department store in the Midwest, has been able to make its depiction of retail life strikingly relevant — in a funny, relatable kind of way.
Amid a TV landscape saturated with escapism — spy thrillers, medieval fantasy shows, and apocalyptic dramas — Superstore, which returns Thursday night for a third season, focuses on the here and the now. In the two seasons it’s been on the air the series has filled a need often discussed during the recent election cycle by landing in red state territory, not flying over it, and addressing hot-button issues (with an often light touch) that have divided the country, all without straying too far from the comfortably lived-in form of a workplace sitcom.
What’s the magic formula then? How does a show about a bunch of minimum-wage employees stocking shelves and going nowhere tap into feelings that have been festering for so long?
Much of the credit belongs to the cast. The show boasts a talented crew full of chemistry and a ready supply of witty banter. While most ensembles take time to gel, Superstore’s seemed to have a sense of camaraderie from the beginning.
America Ferrara plays Amy, a supervisor who married her high school sweetheart after discovering she was pregnant. When we meet her in season one, she’s experiencing trouble in her marriage, preparing to go back to school to get a degree, and engaging in a work flirt with rookie hire Jonah (Ben Feldman), a woke white guy who tries hard not to appear elitist even when making comments about how strange it is that someone like him works at a place like this. In some respects, Jonah doubles as the audience’s entry point, a newcomer experiencing life under the big box for the first time. But the show never lets us feel too chummy with him — after all, jokes about how sensitive and highbrow he seems double as small jabs at anyone who hasn’t had to punch their time card in a job like this.
The crew is rounded out by Lauren Ash as no-nonsense assistant store manager Dina; Colton Dunn as Garrett, an apathetic disabled black man; Nicos Santos as Mateo, an ambitious gay Filipino man; Nichole Bloom as the sweet-natured, ditzy teen mom Cheyenne; and Mark McKinney, a soft, conservative Christian named Glenn who runs the store. They all play into stereotypes until, suddenly, they don’t.
“It helps that there are very few outright immoral characters on the show,” creator and executive producer Justin Spitzer, previously a writer or another beloved workplace comedy, The Office, tells Uproxx. “Our setting lends itself to a group of very different people, with diverse priorities and values, having to work together; all of them are flawed, but none of them are evil. And that makes it a lot easier to play out conflicts.”
Glenn might be the best example of this. A middle-aged milksop and father to nearly a dozen foster children, he’s clueless, sometimes insultingly so. He pushes his religious beliefs on others, even when warned not to, but his optimism and friendly demeanor make moments when he buys out all of the Plan-B pills at the store to prevent home abortions play more like aww-shucks comedy instead of the grossly inappropriate actions they are. But Superstore doesn’t want us just to laugh at Glenn.
When he’s campaigning to adopt Cheyenne’s unborn child by comparing his foster kids to used vehicles or educating Mateo on the greatness of America during the show’s Olympics episode, he’s the sort of old-school conservative who’s easy to laugh at, one whose skewed view of America’s legacy is shinier than reality and who lives in the good ol’ days that were only good for a select few.
When he learns about the injustices faced by his employees with different ethnicities, values, and backgrounds from his own, his ignorance remains funny, but it’s also poignant and more than a little real. Suddenly, issues that would’ve never touched his life — like Cheyenne’s health care worries after the birth of her child or Mateo’s immigration status — affect him in a major way and through his countless “woke” moments, the show offers viewers a chance to approach these timely conversations from a different perspective. That Superstore is able to use Glenn to talk about abortion, birth control, Islam — he considers converting after a tornado ravages the store at the end of season two — and other matters is a triumph in and of itself. It could easily come at those issues from Amy’s point of view — that of a woman and a minority — or Jonah’s — a lofty white guy trying to distance himself from his peers — but instead, the show tackles them through the man who may have the most to learn and maybe the audience can learn with him.
But moralizing is not what Superstore does.
“People don’t come home from a long day of work and turn on the TV to be preached to,” Spitzer says. “We never structure an episode to teach a lesson and even though it’s inevitable that our own values will occasionally peek through, I think that’s different than using our platform to push an agenda, or explain why what we think is right and everyone else is wrong.”
Influencing elections or altering moral values isn’t the endgame. Superstore wants to make people laugh by showing the realest of real life. Sure, watching Glenn select Amy to be the spokesperson for a new dip called Señor Cloud salsa during the show’s third episode is a sly commentary on the casual racism that still exists in the workplace. Watching her don that sombrero and regale condescending white customers with stories of her “village” is too. But we’re meant to laugh when Amy mocks Mateo’s ancestry to make a point and the employees are forced to take racial sensitivity training from a white woman who thinks “colorblind is color kind.”