No broadcast TV comedy speaks more to the America we live in than Superstore.
It’s an America filled with baffling corporate mandates and barely paid retail workers. It’s a diverse America, yes, but also one where everybody’s trapped in the same boat of having to deal with long, drudging days that can seem pointless. And yet it’s also an America where those drudging days become a kind of blank canvas, where having a shitty job is an excuse to fuck around, just a little bit.
It’s become common, especially since the 2016 election, to lament that TV doesn’t spend a lot of time dipping into the world of red state America, or of low-paid blue-collar workers. Yet Superstore does both, with humor and elegantly written scripts, as well as a real sense of visual style.
But because it takes place in a big box retail store — instead of a rock quarry or something, I guess — or perhaps because it doesn’t highlight what it’s doing in bright yellow, Superstore rarely gets its due props for telling the kinds of stories it tells. It’s one of TV’s most sadly overlooked shows.
It’s also one of its best.
Superstore is so much more than its romance — but it’s a good romance
If you’ve heard anything about this show, it probably stems from the quiet, frustrated flirtation of Jonah (Ben Feldman) and Amy (America Ferrera), two workers at Cloud 9, a Walmart-style department store. The two were instantly drawn together and have become fast friends, but it’s also clear there would be an opening for more, if not for the fact that Amy is married with a kid.
Amy’s marriage has been a recurring focus throughout the series’ first two seasons, and the second season’s penultimate episode, in particular, dug into how the only connection between the two is their daughter. They got married young, mostly because they were about to have a kid, and though Superstore doesn’t make much of it, Amy has felt just a little stuck ever since.
Enter Jonah, who proves both a friend and foil for Amy. The second season finale features — as it must! — a kiss between the two, seemingly prompted by the fact that they’re both huddling in a corner of the store, waiting for a tornado to demolish it. So she kisses him. Like you do.
Now, obviously, the Jonah and Amy romance is there in part because it’s an easy thing for people like me to write about. (Only in part, though — Feldman and Ferrera have terrific chemistry.) When the two kiss and flirt and almost hook up, but then back away at episode’s end, it gets the show headlines, as will-they/won’t-they relationships almost always do for sitcoms.
What’s impressive about Superstore’s take on this romance is how grounded it is in the show’s vision of low-salary retail work as something that tends to take over your life. Are Jonah and Amy falling for each other because they’re each the other’s only port in a storm? Is the connection genuine? Would Amy even be here if not for the other circumstances in her life?
Sitcom relationships like this always have an air of destiny to them. Sam Malone was always waiting for Diane Chambers to walk into Cheers, even if he didn’t know it, and Ross pined for Rachel for years and years and years. The same goes for Jim and Pam on The Office, the most obvious predecessor to Jonah and Amy’s relationship. But as with Jim and Pam, there’s something desperate and sad about what Jonah and Amy have. It’s genuine, on some level; it also only exists because they’re stuck in a job neither of them particularly enjoys, which treats its workers like shit, and which sees them as utterly disposable.
Indeed, much of the rest of “Tornado” centers on the idea that Cloud 9 manager Glenn (Mark McKinney) must fire six people before the day is up. Perhaps because we know the episode title, we’re waiting for the storm to hit before he has to fire anyone, but it doesn’t work like that. He fires them, and then, a few moments later, the storm hits, and they’re all stuck together at work like always, with nowhere else to go.
I’m making Superstore sound kinda depressing, I realize, but it’s not. It really is one of TV’s funniest shows. In particular, I love how it will occasionally cut away to a shot of a customer in a store aisle, doing something silly or odd or disgusting with the products. (In the finale, it uses these same cutaway shots to show the tornado ravaging the store — a brilliant, completely wordless gag.)
But even in the midst of jokes, Superstore captures some of the same workplace anomie that animated both Cheers and The Office. This space might have brought Jonah and Amy together, but they also kinda can’t wait to escape it.
Two shots in “Tornado” sum up what the show does so well. In the first, Cloud 9 worker Brett looks up from his job, where he’s corralling shopping carts in the parking lot, only to see the tornado bearing down on him. (He’s later the only Cloud 9 employee unaccounted for.)
In the second, the characters, finally safe after the storm passes, stand up from where they’ve been huddling to look up into the blue sky. The storm has ripped the roof off the store and reminded them there’s daylight outside. They stand, for a moment, in awe, even though their place of work is trashed all around them. And then they get back to their lives.
Hoping the storm that’s coming won’t kill us, so we can catch a glimpse of that blue sky, or steal a moment with someone we love, but knowing it will probably destroy us anyway? There might be no better show that captures living in America today.