Premise: What if you set The Office at a Walmart?
Details: Eleven episodes. Superstore is NBC’s new workplace comedy, created by Justin Spitzer. The show is set entirely within the walls of Cloud 9, a fictional megastore. The cast is a veritable who’s who of “that guy” faces and names. Front and center are America Ferrera (Ugly Betty) as Amy, the worn out shift superviser, and Ben Feldman (Mad Men) as Jonah, the laid back new guy. Upper management consists of Glenn (Mark McKinney, Kids in the Hall) – relentlessly cheerful, religious, socially awkward – and Dina (Lauren Ash, Another Period), a rigid and regimented assistant manager in the vein of Dwight Schrute. Colton Dunn (Key & Peele) plays Garrett, a paraplegic wise-cracking PA operator. Nichole Bloom (Shameless) is Cheyenne – seventeen, pregnant, and engaged. And relative newcomer Nico Santos is Mateo, an eager-to-please ladder-climber.
Discussion: First off, let’s address the most striking difference between this show and most other workplace sitcoms; these people are struggling to make ends meet. That’s never really brought into the foreground of Superstore but the show also never pretends its characters are getting paid much more than minimum wage. Mateo has a second job, Amy is struggling to come up with enough money to go to night school, and Cheyenne and her fiancé are woefully ignorant of what it’s going to cost to raise their child. While The Office made hay out of the monotony and dead-endedness of a career in the paper industry, Superstore is immediately more sympathetic to the plight of its employees.
One of the show’s strengths so far is that every episode has been set entirely in the store. This is a true workplace sitcom where characters home lives and backstories are largely left unexplored. We don’t know why Garrett is in a wheelchair, we don’t know what Cheyenne’s parents are like or how she is at high school, we don’t know why Dina’s working at Cloud 9 – and all of that is fine. Over the course of the season we learn a little more about the main characters – a surprising last name, an unsurprising sexual orientation, a few glimpses at how some of these people ended up at a superstore – but there’s still plenty left to explore down the road. It’s a good balance. At the end of one season, I know enough about these characters to care about them and enjoy their interactions, but the well for potential story arcs runs very deep.
The cast deserves plenty of praise. The writing is a little hit-or-miss, particularly early on – you can practically see the script being written by a committee during the pilot – but the actors here are making the most out of what they’re given. It’s impressive how quickly Jonah goes from being the main character and the standard audience surrogate (twenty-something white guy working retail after business school didn’t work out) to being an over-idealistic millennial stereotype, a borderline social justice warrior who coworkers of color roll their eyes at. Ferrera’s got the most thankless role here, playing the straight man with too much shit on her plate and too little patience for hijinks, but she manages to make Amy sympathetic more often than not. The thinnest characters are Mateo, who starts out as an antagonist of Jonah’s before the show abandoned that somewhere in the second episode, and Garrett. Garrett’s got all the best lines and nothing seems to phase him, but at times he feels like less of a personality and more of an unflustered sidekick.
Superstore has some problems that go beyond standard first season speedbumps. For one, the show’s at its best in the employee breakroom, when all of the characters are together bouncing lines off one another. But these very scenes strain disbelief; if everyone’s back in the breakroom at the same time, who’s running the store? There’s also a nagging feeling here that the show wants to confront some topical issues without really saying anything about them. During a storewide wedding sale, the very Christian Glenn stumbles terribly when a gay couple comes in – not out of hate or anger, but out of sheer ignorance – and it’s all witnessed by Mateo, who’s also gay. But we never spend any time seeing any conflict developing or resolving along those lines. There’s also a late-season movement toward unionizing, which finally puts the reality of working at a (fictional) Walmart front and center, but will the second season continue to ride that arc, or will we start things back up with that bit of messiness resolved somewhere offscreen during the summer?
(SPOILERS END HERE!)
Verdict: I can’t objectively call Superstore a great show at this point in time. But it’s at least as good as The Office and Parks and Recreation were after one season. Ensemble comedies – and broadcast network comedies in particular – don’t often come out of the gate with all cylinders firing. It takes time to figure out what works and what doesn’t. This show has a lot of potential going forward, and even if it plateaus where it is I’d be content enough to ride it out for at least another season.
Outlook: Despite garnering paltry ratings as a midseason replacement last winter, Superstore is coming back for at least a second season. It’ll air on Thursdays at 8:00 as a lead-in for The Good Place. NBC is also airing an Olympics-themed episode this Friday, so consider setting your DVR for a quick look of your own.
Streaming: You can catch up on Superstore on Hulu or straight from NBC’s website.