Chances are you don't need yet another television show to add to your slate, but if you can find it in your heart to make some room for a new crew of lovable weirdos, NBC's new sitcom Superstore is worth the squeeze.
The comedy — which stars America Ferrera and Ben Feldman as dissatisfied employees of a big-box retail store — has been quietly turning out one charming episode after another since it premiered in January. (NBC also released a sneak preview in November with Eva Longoria's Telenovela.) The show mines all its material from within the aisles of Walmart-esque chain store "Cloud 9," following the exploits of its employees and their complicated relationship with the customers.
The conceit is fun enough — every episode is a bottle episode! — but Superstore smartly avoids the trap of becoming too enamored of its own premise. Instead, it leaned on its talented cast to become a solid ensemble half-hour comedy. "All-Nighter," Superstore's ninth and best episode, aired February 8, and it proves to be a stellar showcase for the entire cast, all the actors contributing their own particular brand of zany energy to keep the show zipping confidently along.
The cast of Superstore looks a lot like what we talk about when we talk about "more diversity"
Maybe the most notable thing Superstore does well is use a large cast to the best of every actor's ability.
Ferrera leads the cast as Amy, one of Cloud 9's more efficient — and dissatisfied — managers. Feldman, meanwhile, plays the clueless Jonah, whose privileged upbringing tends to stick out like a sore thumb in Cloud 9's bargain aisles. Lauren Ash and Mark McKinney (Kids in the Hall) preside as Superstore's resident bickering opposites. Ash plays the ruthless Dina, who tries in vain to make McKinney's earnest Glenn lay down the law for his unruly employees.
But as with any good ensemble comedy, the supporting players often threaten to steal the spotlight. Nichole Bloom (Shameless) plays pregnant teen Cheyenne with far more depth than the descriptor of "pregnant teen" usually allows.
And as press learned at the winter Television Critics Association press tour in January, Nico Santos was so good in his audition that the creators changed a part as written ("a Latino tough guy") to better suit him. (For the record, Amy wasn't written as Latina until producers cast Ferrera.) Comedian Colton Dunn (Key & Peele, Parks and Recreation) is so funny as Garrett, Cloud 9's customer service representative, that I could easily watch an entire episode of him riffing on the almighty storewide paging system.
And, yes, most of these actors and their characters aren't 20-something white men.
Superstore reaps the benefits of including characters of different races, sexualities, and abilities with stories that are simply more interesting for drawing upon a wider variety of experiences.
Once, Glenn not so subtly tries to get his Latina employees to push Cloud 9's latest salsa brand, which outrages Amy; the only other Latina employee, however, leaps at the opportunity. When a writer from Cloud 9's corporate magazine shows up to write a profile of the store, Garrett spends the entire episode hiding from the photographer, who can't wait to get a shot of a black man in a wheelchair for the cover.
Even more encouraging, Superstore doesn't congratulate itself for being more inclusive; it just knows that its cast resembles reality more than one that might better resemble a displaced frat house. The Cloud 9 employees come from all walks of life, and are at very different stages of those lives. This gives the writers so much more to work with than a more homogeneous set of characters would.
As Dunn said to a room full of journalists asking a steady stream of questions about the show's commitment to diversity: "The anomaly isn’t diversity. The anomaly is no diversity. I’m looking out right now, and it’s looking really diverse. Was that a plan?"
"All-Nighter" hits a new peak by cashing in on eight episodes of character development
At first, it seems like Superstore might have trouble sustaining a premise that keeps its characters in a single place over an entire season of television. But the series is getting more confident and inventive with every episode, and "All-Nighter" is the most promising example yet.
When Corporate accidentally locks the store from the outside, trapping the employees inside all night, things quickly go haywire. "All-Nighter" brings all the characters to their brink.
Amy, for example, already feels stuck at Cloud 9 even when she's not physically locked in it, thanks to an early marriage and pregnancy that kept her from finishing school. So it's a treat to watch her throw caution to the wind and let herself have fun with her employees (and, not coincidentally, a bottle of whatever liquor's handy). Then there's Glenn, who's always followed Cloud 9 policy to the letter. But in "All-Nighter," he reveals that he only works at the store because the corporation stole all the business from his family's hardware shop down the street.
If "All-Nighter" had come earlier in the show's first season, it wouldn't have been nearly as much fun. But after nine episodes, viewers have grown to know the characters and can appreciate just how far they stray from their everyday personas in the unusual circumstances that drive this episode.
Even aside from the fun character beats, "All-Nighter" proves how smart Superstore is about the physical space it inhabits. No matter how large the setting — and Cloud 9 is supposed to be huge — confining a show to any single place is always a challenge.
But so far, Superstore's managed to create rich new spaces in almost every episode, from the stockroom to individual aisles selling whatever products are on sale that week.
For its transitional shots — shots that carry viewers from one scene to the next — Superstore routinely cuts to random customers wreaking havoc in the store: a man sitting on a display toilet, or tiny girls in Disney princess gear trashing the makeup aisle. These extra jokes on top of everything else make Superstore that much more fun to actively watch.
These tiny moments also mean that by the time the Superstore employees hit "All-Nighter," we've seen them deal with a truly astonishing number of indignities at the hands of presumptive customers. In this episode, though, they get to trash their own store, and they go to it with gusto. Having hung in there with Amy through eight episodes of trials and wacky tribulations, there's something quietly satisfying about watching her drunkenly stroll along the conveyer belt at the checkout line like she owns the place.
Yeah, the Cloud 9 employees are a little more co-dependent than you might expect from people who are just counting down the seconds until they can punch the clock. And it remains to be seen if Superstore can sustain itself over the course of more episodes.
But so far, it's so much fun to watch the characters ping-pong off each other and into whatever ridiculous situation arises that week that it's just a joy to be on the ride.
Superstore airs Mondays at 8 pm on NBC. Previous episodes are currently available on Hulu.