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.”
It’s funny too when Cheyenne goes into labor at the store. While Jonah googles Braxton Hicks, Mateo searches for the comfiest towels, and Garrett’s films the NSFW footage on Cloud 9’s television system, the rest of us watch as Cheyenne suffers through labor pains to get paid, Glenn puts out a donation tub for the soon-to-be mother and Amy and Jonah lead a revolt against the store after discovering the company doesn’t offer paid maternity leave. Things quickly spiral into union talks, scaring the corporate bosses and prompting them to send, as Glenn says, a big swinging wiener to give them a slap on the wrist. Workers’ rights and women’s healthcare should’ve been the two biggest issues of the presidential election. If you predicted that a workplace comedy would be able to address both in a way that mocked the issues but didn’t alienate people watching, and did more to get them air-time than most electoral candidates, congratulations, you’re more clairvoyant than the rest of us.
Sometimes, Superstore is forced to do what it can in the limited time it has. Thirty minutes isn’t enough to cover the conflicting sides of America’s contentious gun debate, but when Jonah’s compelled to work behind the gun counter despite his moral objections, the show makes a valiant attempt at poking fun at a serious issue. It goes against Jonah’s beliefs to sell guns — just like some claim serving certain customers wedding cakes goes against their religious values — but if you’re a Midwestern, pistol-toting citizen with the constitution framed next to a picture of Jesus in your living room, what side do you take? Maybe that’s getting too deep. Jonah often plays the jellyfish who stands on his pedestal of a college education without sporting any real-life experience so the whole gun fiasco quickly blows up in his face anyway. But it’s an interesting question the show cleverly hides behind the most ridiculous of settings for a pro-gun protest — a department store parking lot.
Sometimes, however, the show is gifted an entire season to flesh out an important debate. After it was revealed during the Olympics episode that Mateo is an undocumented immigrant — his grandmother never told him about those fake green cards she purchased when the family got here — the rest of season two explored what that means for a man who’s both proud of his heritage and committed to achieving the American dream. Mateo is, in many ways, the perfect character to hook this proverbial wagon to. He wholeheartedly believes in the promise of America and works harder than any minimum wage retail associate should in order to advance his station. He’s keeping his relationship with Jeff, a higher-up in the company, secret but that relationship and his job are put in jeopardy thanks to his newly discovered status in the show’s election episode.
The show tackled this sensitive topic just a few days before the actual presidential election when wild accusations of voter fraud were flying and voter suppression had become a serious concern. The store served as a local poll station and Mateo, worried his secret would be discovered and he’d be fired if he wasn’t sporting an “I Voted” sticker, spends the entire episode trying to get his hands on one. Meanwhile, Dina and Glenn try to cover up an accident they caused that ruined dozens of ballots and might send them to jail. There are no one-sided stories, at least not in television, and this one built on the show’s greatest strengths: humor and heart. We sympathize with Mateo because we’re invested in his story. When he ultimately breaks up with Jeff to protect his status, we feel his heartbreak. When Dina and Glenn try to air dry the ballots, the show treats their incompetence as laughable until revealing those votes could sway the election.
“We recognize that network TV still reaches a lot of people, and we have a responsibility not to be irresponsible with that reach,” Spitzer says. “When we decide an episode is going to deal with something topical, like immigration, we’ll research the issue as it relates to our characters and our world. But we don’t feel like we need to cover the full complexity that is the state of immigration in America; we just need to figure out that piece that Mateo would have to contend with, or that piece that gives us the most fodder for comedy.”
Most of the best TV comedies are rooted in the mundaneness of everyday life. They’re glimpses of the workplace that become windows into the inner-workings of Middle America or family satires that serve as commentary on the American dream. NBC’s had decades of success with that style of comedy. Cheers knocked back drinks in a bar in Boston, The Office sold paper in Pennsylvania, and Parks and Recreation tried to paint a rosier picture of government through a rag-tag bunch of coworkers in Indiana. These shows could reach big by focusing small, dive into sensitive issues through silly jokes and outrageous characters. It’s clear then why the network has bet on Superstore, a show that seems to have figured out the tightrope walk between politics and comedy. But, if they ever wobble too much on one side, Spitzer has a quick fix.
“The moment we start feeling that anything we’re writing is ‘important’ is the moment we need to back off and tell a fart joke.”