“Not only does Superstore showcase diversity in age, body type, gender, race, and sexual orientation, its critique of class is especially incisive.”
Episodes Reviewed: Seasons 1-3
Creator: Justin Spitzer 👨🏼🇺🇸
Directors: 15 ♂ and 8 ♀ (including 5 POC)
Writers: Justin Spitzer 👨🏼🇺🇸 (38 eps), Bridget Kyle 👩🏼🇺🇸 (22 eps), Vicky Luu 👩🏻🇺🇸 (22 eps), Vanessa Ramos 👩🏽🇺🇸 (21 eps) and various (11 ♂ and 6 ♀, including 1 WOC)
Reviewed by Mimi 👩🏻🇺🇸
My first thought after binge-watching the first season of Superstore was “Why did no one tell me to watch Superstore??” On the surface, the premise of the NBC workplace comedy is reminiscent of other familiar forerunners such as The Office, for which Superstore creator Justin Spitzer previously wrote and produced. In fact, the series borrows many of the same well-established tropes: the goofy manager who just wants to be liked, the power-hungry assistant (to the) manager, an ensemble of wacky yet lovable characters, and of course a will-they-or-won’t-they office romance. The “office” in this case is Cloud 9, a retail “hypermarket” that’s easily a stand-in for chains like Walmart or Target.
Almost the entirety of each episode takes place inside the store itself, which makes for a self-contained though often surreal setting, accentuated by interstitial scenes of customers behaving badly or employees relegated to Sisyphean tasks. It’s a grim, unglamorous, minimum-wage world. In that respect, it probably more closely resembles the clock-in and clock-out jobs of most Americans than, say, the high-stakes occupations portrayed in Silicon Valley or Veep. As a reviewer on VICE points out, unlike Brooklyn Nine Nine or Parks and Recreation, where even if the characters aren’t wealthy, “their jobs are still treated as noble, important, and capable of changing lives,” Superstore does away with any pretense that the work is meaningful at all. Thus, the banality serves as the perfect petri dish for fostering gossip about coworkers and hijinks committed out of boredom.
The cast of characters taps into a variety of clichés drawn from Middle America. Store manager Glenn (Mark McKinney) is a conservative Christian, whose penchant for proselytizing is often undermined by Assistant Manager Dina (Lauren Ash), a stickler for following company rules. Cheyenne (Nichole Bloom) is a pregnant teen, knocked up by her wannabe-MC boyfriend Bo (Johnny Pemberton). And aging associates like Myrtle (Linda Porter) and Brett (Jon Miyahara) reveal the grim reality of what it’s like to be a senior who can’t afford retirement. The fish out of water, Jonah (Ben Feldman) is a business school dropout, relentlessly teased for the urban elitism he represents. The clash between Jonah’s upper-middle-class mentality and the working-class existence of the Cloud 9 employees provides plenty of entertaining fodder while simultaneously poking fun at the ongoing culture wars currently taking place in America.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
America Ferrera anchors the series as Amy, a long-time employee who has been with Cloud 9 since she found herself dealing with her own unplanned, teenage pregnancy. Like Cheyenne, she ended up marrying her high school sweetheart, and now finds herself wondering what life would have been like if she hadn’t given up college in order to support her family. Her story is not an uncommon one for many women, and part of Amy’s journey to self-actualization includes enrolling in college courses, as well as confronting her troubled marriage. Amy is capable and tough, but not without flaws; in other words, she’s a fully realized character.
Within the 30-minute sitcom format, the series deftly tackles many everyday issues, including gender dynamics in the workplace. In the pilot episode, Jonah immediately gets off on the on the wrong foot with Amy, who as the floor manager turns out to be his superior. The difference in their educational and socioeconomic background, with Jonah being overtly more privileged, initially drives an antagonistic wedge between them. Coming to a head in Season 1, Episode 6, Amy becomes frustrated when Jonah undermines her by going to her male boss, Glenn, behind her back to complain. The situation mirrors the type of sexism working women experience on a regular basis.
Over time, we witness an evolution in Amy and Jonah’s connection. In “Super Hot Store” (Season 2, Episode 15), when yet another male coworker, Marcus, dismisses Amy’s authority, Jonah initially attempts to mediate the conflict. But after Marcus blurts out a string of sexist remarks (including generalizing women as being too sensitive, and calling Jonah “a bigger bitch than Amy”), Jonah sides with Amy for firing Marcus. By the time we get to the Season 2 finale, it’s clear that Jonah’s feelings for Amy stem from a place of deep respect, which only makes the romantic spark between them all that more satisfying.
With four out of the eight top-billed actors being women, not only does the show exhibit gender equality in its casting, their equal screen time directly translates to parity in the writing. Female characters like Dina, Cheyenne, and Sandra (Kaliko Kauahi) are just as funny on their own or when paired with a partner. While Amy has shared one-on-one scenes with all three, the storylines have a tendency to break up the characters into male-female pairings. So I would be interested in seeing the series further developing Amy’s relationships with her female colleagues.
The series receives full marks when it comes to racial representation, with seven out of ten recurring characters being people of color. It may very well be the only network television show to feature four Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) characters who are not related to each other. Cheyenne and Brett are both Japanese American, while Mateo (Nico Santos) is Filipino American and Sandra is Hawaiian. As quoted in Buzzfeed, Spitzer said he deliberately wanted a diverse group of people: “I don’t mean necessarily racially, although that’s cool if that’s a part of it. But [we just wanted] diverse perspectives on things.” That range of actors allows them to get away with jokes about identity politics other comedy shows (I’m looking at you, Saturday Night Live) only wish they could effectively execute. In “Shots and Salsa” (Season 1, Episode 3), Amy refuses to peddle a racist stereotype in order to sell salsa, while another Latina coworker sees no problem with faking a Mexican accent it if it helps to improve sales. In only gets worse when later Mateo, who’s ambitious and eager to prove himself as the best Cloud 9 employee, takes up the role. But the gag works because it centers Amy’s point of view.
In other episodes, Mateo’s storyline revolves around keeping his undocumented status a secret—though it’s far from being the only narrative he’s allowed to inhabit. Similarly, Garrett (Colton Dunn) tries to escape from being viewed as just a black man in a wheelchair—literally trying to roll out of sight—when a photographer comes to the store to take pictures for the corporate magazine (Season 1, Episode 2). Even as the show uses humor to comment on race, what it does really well is ensure that the audience is in on the joke, too. It’s the truest form of inclusivity.
When a gay couple comes into the store on “Wedding Day Sale” (Season 1, Episode 8), Glenn realizes the store’s failure to cater to gay weddings. The moment provides an opportunity for Mateo to step in and help, while also allowing him to come out to his boss, who turns out to be incredibly supportive. It’s a sweet moment that could probably only happen on TV, but nonetheless the series consistently validates Mateo’s character and his sexuality by treating it as a non-issue. There’s even an entire relationship arc built around his relationship with Cloud 9’s district manager, Jeff (Michael Bunin). It’s a welcome side story to a series that otherwise prioritizes a heteronormative gaze.
Bonus for Disability: +0.5
The inclusion of Garrett’s role in the show can be viewed as a small but positive step toward normalizing the perception of differently abled characters. It should be noted, however, that the actor who plays him does not share the character’s disability, which has elicited criticism that film, TV, and theater continue to exclude actors with disabilities. There’s an episode in which Jonah attempts to find out how Garrett ended up in a wheelchair, but the information is ultimately withheld from us, making the point that people don’t have to be defined by their differences. What’s more, Garrett is shown to have a regular sex life, albeit a somewhat emotionally dysfunctional one, in his on-again, off-again fling with Dina.
Mediaversity Grade: A 4.88/5
Superstore demonstrates just how successful comedy can be when it comprehends intersectionality. Not only does the series showcase diversity in age, body type, gender, race, and sexual orientation, I would argue its critique of class is especially incisive. As a microcosm of America’s labor force, Cloud 9 exposes many of the absurdities of late capitalism, where employees can work nearly full-time hours without earning benefits or overtime pay. Outcry over the lack of maternity leave in the finale of Season 1 ultimately leads to a strike that’s quickly squashed. Though Jonah remains optimistic about change, it’s a seemingly hopeless situation that feels more relevant than ever.