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Superstore, NBC’s comedy about big-box store employees, translates offscreen chemistry into onscreen magic

The earnest show spotlights people who don’t usually get to be funny — or even seen — on TV.

Amy (America Ferrera) and Jonah (Ben Feldman) lead an employee strike in Superstore's season two premiere.

The first thing the cast members of NBC’s sophomore comedy Superstore want you to know is that they’re not spinning some PR line when they tell you they’re friends.

Sitting in the cafe section of "Cloud 9" — the fake big-box store in which the show takes place — the cast told me again and again about how much they really, truly enjoy one another’s company.

The mutual affection manifests itself in everything from America Ferrera taking the cast to the Santa Anita racetrack to learn how to bet to Ben Feldman organizing cast dinners and earning the nickname "Mayor Fun" to just being comfortable enough to improvise the hell out of their scenes — or, even more impressively, be willing to help each other move.

"I carried Nico [Santos]’s rug into his house for him," said Lauren Ash, a bawdy comedian who plays the militaristic Dina on Superstore. She then launched into a story about how, to thank co-star Nichole Bloom for cat-sitting, she took Bloom to see Drake, complete with Cheesecake Factory T-shirts to honor the rapper’s favorite restaurant. "You can’t fake that," she said, pairing a shrug with a wide smile.

"I just don’t have anything to go home and complain to my wife about," said Feldman, laughing, "which puts me in unfamiliar territory."

As it turns out, the Superstore cast is just as much — if not more — of a work family as their retail worker characters within the show, and it makes their onscreen chemistry that much better.

"There’s the workplace comedy and there’s the family comedy," Ash said. "Superstore is both."

The Superstore cast’s chemistry launched the show past the usual growing pains into something immediately special

Garrett (Colton Dunn) and Jonah (Feldman) waste some time.

When Justin Spitzer’s Superstore premiered in November 2015, it was a charming show about a group of well-meaning misfits who spend their days working various counters and aisles at the St. Louis big-box store that signs their paychecks.

Though Ferrera and Feldman were the initial selling points, the show almost immediately became an ensemble in the truest sense of the word, with every person contributing their own particular comedy style and perspective with palpable enthusiasm. Steadily climbing ratings followed, inspiring NBC to give the comedy a prime spot to air a new episode toward the end of the Rio Olympics — a huge vote of confidence and a significant investment in the show’s future.

By the end of its first season, Superstore had already taken on several Big Issues within the context of the workers’ lives, including teen pregnancy, racial stereotypes, and, in the finale, unions. When the Cloud 9 corporate overlords fired beloved boss Glenn (The Kids in the Hall’s Mark McKinney), his employees (led by Ferrera’s reluctant supervisor Amy) staged a walkout — and that’s where the season ended.

Season two will pick up immediately where the first left off, as assistant manager Dina (Ash) informs everyone that "Cloud 9 will be fine" without them. But the conflict will rage on for at least a couple of episodes, digging into the inequity between the scrappy Cloud 9 employees trying to make incremental change and the calculating corporate bosses trying to squash the protest before it goes any further.

"That feeling of unity you felt at the end of season one really comes from the unity in the cast," said Colton Dunn, who plays sardonic customer service rep Garrett. "If they fired Mark—"

"Why, what have you heard?" McKinney cut in, his voice rife with faux-alarm. It only took a second for him and Dunn — McKinney’s video game partner of choice — to erupt in laughter, so ridiculous was the thought.

It’s like Ash said: It’s the kind of chemistry you just can’t fake, and Superstore is overflowing with it. It’s what keeps viewers invested and coming back for more, along with the fact that this show — which focuses on a wide cross-section of people who need to punch the Cloud 9 clock to scrape by — is more suited than most to present a diverse slate of perspectives.

"We’re not on a soapbox saying who’s right and who’s wrong," insists Ferrera. "It’s more about people you’ve come to know, with these things being a reality in their lives."

Superstore is better equipped to take on controversial issues because it actually makes room for different points of view

Mateo (Nico Santos) is now grappling with the startling discovery that he’s actually undocumented.

One of the aspects of Superstore that immediately caught people’s attention in the first season is the fact that the show doesn’t just acknowledge contentious issues like teen pregnancy and racial stereotypes — it fully embraces them.

Season two will keep reflecting the national conversation, addressing issues like the employee strike, open carry laws, the upcoming presidential election, and, for Nico Santos’s Mateo, the experience of being an undocumented immigrant.

"I’m so glad they put that in the show," Santos said of his storyline, which has Mateo scrambling after discovering, much to his horror, that his family never actually started the process of making him a citizen.

"Every Filipino family knows somebody in their own or others who is undocumented," Santos continued. "My mom, my stepdad, my younger brother—"

"All undocumented," joked Bloom, sitting next to him in a homemade Pikachu costume for the upcoming Halloween episode.

"They were undocumented!" Santos replied, leading Bloom to cover her mouth in horror at her mistake. But Santos took his friend’s slip in stride because, as he earnestly continued, "it’s part of our journey."

"We’re not trying to cram opinions and ideas down anybody’s throats," said Feldman, who plays privileged pretty boy Jonah, treading water in a sea of people he’s likely never had to relate to before. "But these are the things we’re talking about in real life, so why not talk about them here?"

The trick, as many cast members emphasized to me on set that day, is less about getting "preachy" than allowing their characters to express their own points of view.

"The ‘issues,’" McKinney said, putting air quotes around the word the cast has clearly heard a thousand times before in interviews, "happen accidentally, intelligently, comedically."

Crucially, all the characters in the Superstore cast — which is, after all, supposed to reflect the varied demographic makeup of actual retail employees — come from entirely different backgrounds and circumstances. That’s a true rarity on TV, even today among countless discussions about diversity in media.

"What was so compelling to me about this show and the opportunity it gave," said Ferrera, who imbues just about every word she says with a fierce sincerity, "was giving a voice to people who don’t usually have a voice on primetime television. Working-class people, of all kinds of backgrounds."

What Superstore does so well is take vastly disparate points of view — like Glenn objecting to the morning-after pill on religious grounds, or Jonah refusing to sell guns to anyone he deems suspicious — and weave them into the fabric of the show.

"Even if it’s just a throwaway joke," Ferrera insisted, "to take something like Planned Parenthood and put it in the context of these characters you’ve come to know and love is what makes it fun and provocative and exciting."

Feldman emphatically agreed, saying that he only signed on to be a part of Superstore once Spitzer assured him the show wouldn’t focus on the chemistry between his character and Ferrera’s, or on Jonah’s self-discovery in a blue-collar environment, but rather on the lives of the entire cast.

"If you want a show about filthy rich privileged people, there’s a billion of those," Feldman said. "If you want a show about aliens that have taken over Earth, there are a million of those, too. … I like being connected to what’s going on in the real world."

The second season of Superstore premieres Thursday, September 22, at 8 pm on NBC.