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Love in the time of late capitalism: how Superstore revived will-they/won’t-they romance

The NBC series handles thwarted romance and workplace drudgery better than any sitcom on TV.

Jonah (Ben Feldman) and Amy (America Ferrera) would never admit it, but they’re in love.
Eddy Chen/NBC
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every week, 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 March 11 through 18 is “Amnesty,” the 15th episode of the third season of NBC’s Superstore.

It’s so difficult to do a good will-they/won’t-they story on TV in the year 2018. For starters, the medium’s history is littered with great would-be romantic relationships that, for one reason or another, are never quite consummated. From Sam and Diane on Cheers (who never quite made it work) to Jim and Pam on The Office (who did) to Issa and Lawrence on Insecure (who ... we’ll see!), it’s not hard to find a great pairing who speak to whatever it is you love about TV romance.

But because there are so many great will-they/won’t-theys, there’s very little space in which shows can do anything new. To be sure, some of the fun of a great will-they/won’t-they is seeing how it handles the trope’s expected plot points — the almost-kisses, the near-misses, and the hopeless pining — in its own way. But there’s also very little room for error when you’re being compared to so many greats who went before you.

Now add to that the fact that some of these ideas, particularly the hopeless pining, have increasingly been revealed as just a little creepy when seen from the point of view of a person being pined for who doesn’t particularly relish the pining, and you have so much more room to screw things up. Ross and Rachel on Friends was considered an all-time great pairing when the show aired, but the further we get from it, the more his muted, dorky passion plays as completely oblivious to how Rachel might actually feel about it.

So if you want to see the will-they/won’t-they done right — and done right multiple times at that — look to NBC’s Superstore.

Superstore offers multiple potential pairings, then scrambles them up with great delight

Trying to prove they don’t like each other, Jonah and Amy accidentally kiss. Just go with it.
Adam Rose/NBC

Superstore is probably my favorite traditional sitcom on the air right now, and it’s one of the few shows I try to watch regularly within a couple of days of its airing. Its blend of unique setting (a big-box department store named Cloud 9), interesting characters, and surprisingly caustic humor places it firmly in the tradition of something like The Office without feeling like a direct clone.

I’ve written before about how the series is one of the few on television to be interested in the reality of having to go to work, every day, at a job you don’t particularly like. Superstore is interested in what it means to try to be a human being in the midst of the capitalist machine, to try to preserve what’s essential and human about your core self while still working for the man. And Superstore has also proved surprisingly willing to tackle any number of social issues, so long as they naturally intersect with the show’s core characters (more about them in a moment).

What really makes the show work, however, is the way all of the above dovetails with so many of the other things the series is doing. Its romantic connections, for instance, are often driven as much by the need to escape the drudgery of work as anything else. Would, for instance, the show’s central not-quite couple of Amy (America Ferrera) and Jonah (Ben Feldman) be as interested in each other if they randomly connected on Tinder? Maybe, but there’s something about the fluorescent blandness of the place they both work that makes their spark feel all the more worth nourishing.

What impresses me is that the impediments Superstore keeps throwing in the way of Amy and Jonah’s would-be relationship feel largely organic to both the show and who they are as characters. Amy was married for the show’s first two seasons, to a guy she liked okay but maybe wasn’t in love with but whom she’d had a kid with very young. Now, Amy’s in the midst of a divorce, but Jonah has a new, serious girlfriend in Kelly (Kelly Stables), who was introduced as a generic blonde romantic obstacle but has gone on to become a well-developed character in her own right.

Now, obviously, Amy and Jonah are going to end up together at some point because that’s how TV sitcoms work. We don’t want to see two people almost get together but never quite work it out. The various beats of their relationship seem almost deliberately copied from Jim and Pam on The Office, and if that holds true, then they’ll probably go on their first date at the end of this season.

And yet “Amnesty” — which revolves around the rest of the Cloud 9 staff discovering via security camera footage the pair’s kiss as a tornado threatened their lives in the season two finale (hey, Jim and Pam kissed in The Office’s season two finale too!) — offers the suggestion that there are some could-be relationships in all of our lives that ultimately fail because the timing just isn’t right. Amy and Jonah only learn, belatedly, that they both had a crush on each other at one point or another, but those crushes simply didn’t overlap at the right time for anything to happen. A retail job can seem to stretch on into a bland, formless eternity, but love is still all in the timing.

I love the Amy and Jonah pairing, and I love how “Amnesty” turns into a meta-commentary on the show itself, as the other employees of the store divide into “Team Amy” and “Team Kelly.” But if it were the only romantic pairing on the show, I’m not sure the series would be as successful as it is as reviving the will-they/won’t-they trope.

Everybody in Cloud 9 seems to be in love with everybody else

The thwarted romance of Mateo (Nico Santos, pictured) and Jeff has driven a surprisingly complex plot.
Evans Vestal Ward/NBC

Another of Superstore’s similarities to The Office is in how it started with a small core ensemble, then quickly started developing many of the other Cloud 9 staff members so that its cast now boasts one of TV’s deepest benches. If an episode wants to do a series of jokes or even a full plot about the increasingly dark rivalry between Sandra (Kaliko Kauahi) and Carol (Irene White), two faces in the crowd who’ve increasingly come into their own as characters, it can, and that’s to say nothing of the show’s original, very strong core ensemble. This alone takes some of the heat off the Amy and Jonah pairing.

But the series has also used its other characters to do a bunch of different kinds of will-they/won’t-they relationships. Sandra, for instance, has had one play out mostly offscreen with a guy she met in season two, who later fell into a coma during that season-ending tornado. It’s like a grand, tragic romance that’s happened almost entirely in the show’s margins.

And the reason Sandra couldn’t be with that guy was because she was attempting to keep up the pretense of being in a relationship with district manager Jeff (Michael Bunin), who was gay and closeted, despite having a romantic interest in Cloud 9 employee (and original core cast member) Mateo, played by Nico Santos. And it’s the Jeff and Mateo pairing that gives Superstore its other particularly strong romance.

First of all, the two have obvious hurdles to overcome in Jeff’s reluctance to discuss his sexuality, to say nothing of how an employee at Mateo’s level (he’s just a Cloud 9 “team member”) probably shouldn’t be in a relationship with someone who outranks him as much as Jeff does — indeed, when their relationship becomes public, Mateo has to transfer out of Jeff’s district to another store.

But the even bigger cloud hanging over this relationship (and the one that seems to give “Amnesty” its title) is that Mateo is an undocumented Filipino immigrant, which prevents him from moving to a different store and compels him to break up with Jeff rather than reveal the truth of why he can’t transfer. And that forced breakup with Jeff only strengthened the status of their relationship as a will-they/won’t-they pairing.

This is a potent story for these times that Superstore mostly stumbled into. I doubt that when the series debuted in late 2015 it knew just how politically fraught issues of immigration would become. But it also gives Mateo a secret he has to keep from a man who is ultimately his boss (who would have to report him if he found out the truth), but also one he would ostensibly share with someone he loved.

Those layers of real, genuine tension add something to the relationship that gives it a very different feel from the one between Amy and Jonah — and they also mark one of the show’s successful divergences from The Office, where every relationship felt like a riff on Jim and Pam in one way or another.

When “Safety Training,” the episode preceding “Amnesty,” comes to a close, Mateo finally tells Jeff the truth. The two are broken up, and he knows confessing the truth could lead not just to his firing but even worse.

And “Amnesty” — in which the store’s managers grant forgiveness to anybody who confesses to breaking a rule for one day only — plays around with the tension of whether Jeff told Mateo’s immediate supervisors. (It turns out they were just conducting an experiment about whether humanity is essentially good or evil, like you do.) But in the end, Jeff leaves his job for Mateo, and it’s surprising how hard-won it feels for something that mostly played out in the show’s B-plots.

This is the secret to making a will-they/won’t-they work, after all. You have to have believable obstacles to the couple getting together, whether that’s a different relationship, a coma, or an immigration status. Superstore has rolled out so many different forms of the will-they/won’t-they at this point (and I haven’t even touched on the one introduced in season two as a semi-parody of the Amy and Jonah connection) that it’s surprising how it makes each one feel distinct and new. But maybe that’s because the biggest obstacle of them all is there in the title. When you have to work every day somewhere you tolerate at best, you take what joy you can, and it feels all the more precious for it.

Superstore airs Thursdays at 8 pm Eastern on NBC. Previous episodes are available on Hulu.

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