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How Superstore, NBC's comedy about bored employees at a big-box store, became The Office's rightful heir

The show’s Olympics episode shows off its bright, funny, and empathetic comedy. 

The employees of Cloud 9 look on in horror as their opening ceremony (literally) goes up in flames.
NBC

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for August 14 through 20 is "Olympics," a special episode of NBC’s Superstore made for the Rio Olympics.

It’s awesome to see that NBC is betting on Superstore.

The half-hour sitcom about a group of employees working at a Walmart-esque big-box store was one of the best surprises to come out of the last TV season. While comedies usually require some time to figure themselves out — something that tends to happen as cast members and writers’ rooms get more comfortable and settle on a show’s tone — Superstore knew what it was almost immediately.

With a sharp cast anchored by star and producer America Ferrera, Superstore quickly slid into an easy rhythm that energized even the simplest stories, including those we’ve seen a hundred times before in other workplace comedies.

So it was something of a relief when NBC renewed Superstore for a second season in February. (The network’s had so much trouble getting comedies off the ground in recent years that The Carmichael Show is currently its eldest sitcom, having aired two whole seasons with a third on the way.) And when NBC announced it would be giving Superstore a primetime slot for a special episode during the Rio Olympics — and that the episode would feature real live Olympians — it was a pleasant surprise.

That’s not to say Superstore doesn’t deserve the attention; it earned surprisingly good ratings in its first season without much promotional help, and isn’t so complicated that newcomers would be lost if they just happened to leave the TV on after watching Usain Bolt jet across the finish line. But NBC’s apparent faith in Superstore is a promising sign for a promising comedy.

Superstore takes cues from The Office to make mundane work entertaining

Amy (Ferrera) meets her Olympics idol (Cecily Strong).
NBC

Superstore didn’t go too big for "Olympics," even though it had the advantage of airing in a special time slot at the end of a primetime broadcast of the Rio Olympics that featured the popular 4x100 track and field relay. (The Olympic lead-in boosted the show’s ratings far higher than they’ve ever been in the past.)

Instead, the episode uses Olympic fever to showcase its characters and style, from Ferrera’s Amy getting heart eyes for a former Olympic gymnast (played by Saturday Night Live’s Cecily Strong) who’s signing books at the store to the store’s well-meaning manager Glenn (Mark McKinney) trying to explain why America is No. 1 forever and always to Filipino-American employee Mateo (Nico Santos) realizing he’s an undocumented immigrant.

Also, just about every one of the store’s attempts to celebrate the Olympics ends in hilariously horrifying chaos, which feels about right.

After watching "Olympics," it’s hard to believe I ever wondered whether Superstore could sustain itself, given its fairly simple premise. At first, the idea of a series where every episode took place within the walls of a big-box store seemed limiting.

But Superstore creator Justin Spitzer used to be a producer on The Office, which managed to wring 10 seasons’ worth of jokes and emotional beats out of a single Pennsylvanian paper company branch. That show, more than almost any other, knew how to find humor in boredom, a skill that comes in particularly handy on Superstore. Plus, Superstore has the added benefit of having a revolving door of bizarre customers and aisles upon aisles of merchandise to play with, any fraction of which could’ve kept Jim Halpert occupied for years.

There’s also more freedom to experiment. Some of my favorite Superstore jokes are blink-and-you’ll-miss-them interstitial moments between scenes, which show tiny vignettes from around the store, like a customer taking a nap on a display sofa or quietly wreaking havoc in the makeup aisle.

In "Olympics," those interstitial moments include speed-skating champion Apolo Anton Ohno trying to get around an older woman who’s swerving her cart, and figure skating gold medalist Tara Lipinski righting herself after almost wiping out on a wet floor.

True, the interstitials don’t typically feature high-profile former Olympians. But there’s hardly a better example than those unabashedly silly moments of how Superstore can find fun in just about anything.

Superstore views every difference of opinion as an opportunity

Here is a picture of Tara Lipinski not falling.
NBC

With "Olympics," Superstore also shows how bringing together so many different kinds of people can bring about rich, layered conflicts — not to mention great jokes.

Like the Dunder Mifflin employees on The Office, almost everyone on Superstore is bound by their desire to just earn a paycheck and/or get through the day already. But there’s more of a sweetness to Superstore, because its characters have come to trust and depend on each other much more quickly than the characters on The Office, whose relationships developed over several seasons.

Mateo finding out about his immigration status is a great example of what I’m talking about. At first, the storyline is about how Glenn, who’s enthusiastic to a fault, keeps saying that America is the best country in the world as Mateo tries to celebrate his Filipino heritage — and when everyone challenges Glenn to back up that claim, he realizes he can’t. But it’s the Olympics! What better time to tell every other country to, as Glenn puts it with his pleasant version of trash talk, "eat beans"?

Then the story takes a turn, with Mateo realizing he doesn’t have the green card he thought he did, right as Glenn tries to make up for being a jingoistic jerk, however well-meaning. And according to Spitzer, "Olympics" is far from the end of Mateo’s story, which will be an ongoing thread of season two.

I try not to overuse the word "refreshing," since that would negate the point of calling anything refreshing in the first place. But that’s exactly what it feels like to watch Superstore. Any comedy that both embraces its many different viewpoints and celebrates the Olympics by accidentally setting a pyramid of toilet paper on fire is one that deserves room to keep flourishing, in all its plucky glory.

Superstore returns to NBC for a second season on September 22. You can catch up on season one — plus the Olympics special — on Hulu.

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